Valley Isle Chocolates, a small family business on Maui, is beginning the New Year with a new kitchen space, new equipment, new packaging and new ideas for the future. Now, they are very busy making chocolates, developing recipes and selling their wares at many farmers markets and local brick-and-mortar stores. At the end of last year, Susan Schwartzkopf “and sons” moved production from their certified home kitchen to a commercial kitchen space in Kahului.
“It’s really taken off very quickly,” says Susan, “and we’ve grown very quickly, as well.”
Susan’s son, Samual, had been coming to Maui regularly, farming with friends here. He wanted to live here permanently, so he bought almost eight acres in Ha¯na that he and his best friend, Sam Phillips, have planted with turmeric, citrus, bananas, lilikoi and pineapple. They are now preparing the land for a cacao orchard, clearing it and planting a panax windbreak. Samual and Sam, who are now in their mid-30s, have known each other since high school.
“Sam is like my second son,” says Susan. “I call them ‘my Sams.’” Susan moved to Ki¯hei almost two years ago to join them in their new venture. Her mother had just passed away from a long chronic illness, giving Susan the freedom to pursue new interests and adventures. Because her decision to move to Maui coincided with the height of the pandemic, she rented an apartment sight unseen. “I had never been here before. It was quite a leap.”
Samual is also an experienced chef and restaurant manager. He also took over a catering business and had opened a restaurant in Vermont, unfortunately, just before the peak of the pandemic, ending that endeavor but leading him to another. These serendipitous events sparked his permanent move to Maui. “We came up with the idea of cacao because we wanted to be good stewards of the land on Maui, and contribute to the economy and culture,” says Susan. “So we started studying and learning everything we could about cacao and chocolate. As we learned more, our ideas began to grow.”
In 2021 they produced their first chocolate products, giving them away to friends and family — their built-in taste testers and unofficial quality controllers. Next, they bought their own roaster, a key to making perfect chocolate. They went on to tweak and perfect their recipes until they were market-ready just a few months later, starting in Kīhei.
Until their orchard produces cacao beans, they have been getting their ethically sourced, raw cacao beans from small farms around the world, including from the Kona area. Currently, there are growers in Hāna and Lahaina, as well, but Susan and the Sams are looking forward to using their own home-grown Maui beans in the future. For now, they are producing organic, small batch, single-origin chocolates from beans they import from small farms in Madagascar, Trinidad, Ecuador,
Panama, Tanzania and Indonesia.
The three chocolatiers began by experimenting with recipes, but basically, all of their products use three ingredients — roasted cacao, coco butter (also from the bean) and organic cane sugar. Variations include recipes with Hawai‘i sea salt or Maui macadamia nuts.
The co-owners and roommates “all do everything.” They use their new malanger, which grinds the cocoa bean nibs, and a tempering machine. They use their own recipes to make their special chocolates, temper it themselves, pour it into molds and then package everything — products and samples — by hand. Preprinted labels have made the process a bit quicker. Previously, Susan would hand-write the type of chocolate on the labels. Their 100 percent hands-on efforts — with the Sams doing the heavy lifting at the farm and chocolate production, and Susan taking care of finance, business and marketing end — are propelling this enterprise forward. As well as a wide range of chocolate products, they have also begun selling a few new products — cacao shell tea, roasted whole beans and cacao nibs; simply, broken up cocoa beans. They’re basically chocolate in it’s purest form.
Dark chocolate increases “good” HDL cholesterol, which can help lower the risk of heart attack and stroke. Cacao contains healthy fats and other compounds that have been attributed with increasing the levels of the hormones serotonin and dopamine in your brain, which impacts your mood. A chef in Lahaina has even requested the roasted nibs as a palette cleanser or amuse-bouche for her restaurant clientele. “Of course, they are not sweet,” says Susan. “It is a taste that people really either like or aren’t so crazy about.”
As for the future — it looks sweet. Although the three chocolatiers “can’t make their products fast enough,” they are developing plans for expansion, continuing to experiment and are looking into other products, such as specialized holiday chocolates, including for Valentine’ Day. They have a part-time employee as well, but foresee the need for more help in the near future.
“It is a beautiful plant and product, and a beautiful thing to do — growing on Maui and producing something that so many people love,” says Susan. “There is no such thing as too much chocolate. The more chocolate the better!”