For anyone wanting to pursue artisan dreams of sugar and spice, expect equal parts blood, sweat and tears to go into your recipe. We’re not saying that it can’t be done, only that there’s no easy way to do it.
The women behind Maui Cookie Lady, Sweet Paradise Chocolates, Donut Dynamite, Paradise Tropical Ice and Maui Macaroons have all managed to build companies that sell great locally made sweets. But none of them started in the food industry. As they told us, they’ve endured hard knocks in trial and error, but continue to forge ahead anyway. Now when you ask these five Maui wahine about their hard work, they’re quick to sugar coat it, saying it all pales before the happiness they get from seeing people smiling after taking a bite.
Here, in their own words, are the tales of how these five women became Maui’s Sugar Mamas.
Maui Cookie Lady, http://themauicookielady.com/
Costco, Mailboxes Etc, Grand Wailea
I was given a cookie on the first day of my freshman year of high school by my English teacher, Mrs. Merrick. I thought that was really good. I asked her for the recipe and then just kept baking them and giving them out to friends and teachers from there on out. I was a misfit in high school and very shy. It was also a way for me to connect with people. When I saw the happy reaction they had when they ate them, I just kept baking.
I never thought I would be turning this into a business. I’m a school teacher and working with the youth has always been my passion. I baked as a hobby. My dad passed away in 2012. He was one of my best friends. I talked to him everyday and he lived in the house next door. His death was sudden and for me to celebrate his life and try to cope with the loss, I decided to raise money for the nurses that helped him the week he was in the ICU at Maui Memorial Medical Center (MMMC). I learned that week that our nurses pay for their own uniforms, training textbooks and even jackets to keep them warm working the ward. I know first-hand as a teacher working for the state that monies come with a lot of paperwork and protocols that can be cumbersome, to say the least. I wanted to be able to hand over a check with no strings attached. I originally worked with their fundraising department but got discouraged.
I set up a booth at Wailuku First Friday, really without the hospital’s permission or approval, and put up a hand-made sign that said all proceeds go to the MMMC ICU nurses and put a few cookies on plate. It was pretty low key. I had a few dozen cookies of two varieties, not even wrapped, just sitting out there on a plate. I committed to four months of the Wailuku Town Parties. In those four nights I raised about $600. I bypassed the hospital admin and fundraising department, walked up to the ICU nurses stations unannounced and said here is $600 with no strings attached. Spend it however you want. I dont care how you do it. I don’t need a report and I don’t need any receipt. Just spend it. I cried the whole way out the door because those were the same doors I walked out when I said goodbye to my father. I had not been back since. It was closure for my grieving and healing and it felt good to do something in his honor. One of the nurses said she remembered my dad and gave me a hug. I remember vividly who she was and the impact that hug had on me.
I just like making people happy with food. I joke that I must have been Italian in a former life. The moments I live for are when someone bites into the cookie and has a genuine reaction of satisfaction. When we started doing Costco, I sampled the cookies along with our cookie crew. Many of the tourists that come through did not know I was the owner and thought I was a demo worker sampling food. I got to see first-hand the reaction of first-time cookie customers when they sample the food. Seeing that positive reaction are the moments that are most validating. The feedback is sincere, honest and in the moment. I have not taken any baking classes. I am self-taught so to get people who know food and love food to like the cookies I have hand-rolled from love is the moment that’s most rewarding. I just love cookies and making people happy. I am able to do that through their tummys.
My favorite thing to do is come up with new flavors. I don’t get as much enjoyment making the same cookies. The challenge with that is that I can only fit 32 varieties in our cookie cases. We’re constantly rotating out to make room for new flavors. People try a new cookie and then they will ask for it for months later after it has been rotated out. I keep trying to scale back the flavors, but it’s just hard to do.
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I’m a former gemologist and jewelry designer of 29 years. I never imagined making chocolate, but always loved cooking and baking. I now farm cacao as well. Our farm is in Haiku, on the oceanside. We do two two-and-a-half hour tours a week. It’s only by reservation–the farm is not open for walk-ins. People learn about cacao tree culture, harvest, fermentation of the beans and how they’re roasted and made into chocolate. We do hands-on grinding of beans to chocolate. We then taste seven chocolates–four internationally acclaimed and three grown in Hawaii. It’s structured like a wine tasting.
Our orchard will bear its first fruit next year. Typically it takes three to four years from seed to fruit. I have 200 cacao trees plus the various fruits and spices we use in production of chocolate. My goal is 1,200 trees.
We currently use chocolate made from fine flavor beans from Latin American countries as opposed to child slave labor beans sourced from Africa. Eighty percent of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa. We use fair or direct trade-sourced chocolate that is ethical.
Our own farm grown production will go into specialty bars, not confections. We also have an adopt-a-tree program that helps to support the Heirloom Cacao Initiative of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. Our first bar production will go to our adopt sponsors.
I specialize in tropical truffles made with chocolate cream, and/or coconut milk, butter, fresh fruit purees and spices. Fresh, quality ingredients are a must. I draw inspiration from cocktail mixology. It starts with good flavors. Then you must find the right chocolate to compliment those flavors. Lots of tasting… oh, darn!
When I was a diamond buyer for a large jewelry manufacturer, I got hooked on fine chocolate while working in Belgium. I have a bed and breakfast in Volcano on the Big Island–I wanted a room amenity and my Belgian chocolate experience came back to me.
My biggest challenges are the Maui county permits. I unexpectedly lost my commercial kitchen recently and can’t find a place to work that satisfies the upgraded code for wastewater and has the A/C and power needed for my specialized equipment. I’ve been working on a building permit for my own building for two years now. This state is small-business unfriendly–they don’t care about the obstacles that small business have or how our unique business make this island special.
I love that I get to use my creativity and make people happy with my chocolates. You can find us at our gourmet chocolate shop Sweet Paradise Chocolate at 34 Wailea Gateway Place or online at Sweetparadisechocolate.com.
Image by Sean Hower
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Donut Mobile, Grand Wailea, Memphis Belle, Kula Fields Cafe
I mostly worked at high-end, fine dining establishments. It was great striving for perfection, and I enjoyed the “push” of fellow ambitious chefs. And then I realized that while I enjoy fine dining, many people I know were intimidated by such establishments. To me, food is the center of most gatherings–of life, love and pleasure. I didn’t want non-foodie people to be alienated from great food. I wanted to simplify my approach and move away from an elitist food environment. Enter donuts! Most everyone loves them and has some sort of sweet childish nostalgia attached to them. Donuts don’t need an introduction and they make people smile almost instantaneously.
I’m very dough-oriented versus topping-focused. When I develop a donut, I think from the ground up. I don’t make a generic dough and just change the topping and call it a whole new donut. My Bacon Maple Donut already has bacon and apples in the dough so I can’t cheat and just put Vanilla Glaze on it and call it a Vanilla Donut. My Maui Vanilla Bean Donut is rich with locally grown vanilla beans in the dough and glaze. I even grind my own vanilla powder to dust on top. The Brown Butter Donut has browned butter in the dough and in the crumble topping. I think the dough must reflect the donut flavor. After all, the ratio of dough to topping is greater than vice versa.
Most of our Donut Dynamite! donuts are made with brioche dough. I love brioche. It tastes superior than most yeast donut doughs and stays fresh longer. We also make cake style donuts, like our Fry-to-Order MiNi Donuts. I focus on brioche, hardly anyone out there is doing it. It’s a more challenging, time-consuming and expensive dough. But I don’t care–I love the end product. I also make what I call the “Black Market” KroNut, as the name Cronut is trademarked. Funny, because I’ve been frying croissants for years before the croissant donuts were trendy. Croissants are my other favorite dough, so it’s fun to make it into a donut.
I don’t consider my donuts to be junk food. There’s soooo much love, tears and sleepless nights attached to them. They are handcrafted. Each one is unique. My donuts take a lot of work to make. Long hours. Every component is handmade. I even make my own sprinkles. I suppose I can make it easier by buying cookies and crushing them on top instead of baking them from scratch. But I can’t make myself do it. I guess in a way I make my own life difficult. But I think it’s worth it. It’s challenging, but I tend to enjoy a challenge. They’re made with yeast which could be temperamental so I feel I have to respect my relationship with my donuts. I start by making them with good intentions and much joy. And I think my customers taste the love. I fill them with so much of it!
I actually got my degree in kinesiology with a focus on exercise science and human movement. Plus, I was a competitive Olympic style weightlifter many years ago, so I think that helped give me a good physically healthy base. I’m a big believer in balance. I dislike the strictness of some so-called “healthy lifestyles.” I love life! I take my pleasure seriously! I allow myself to indulge but I pay for it by making sure I exercise. Since I’m too busy to spend any time at the gym lately, I always incorporate movement into my everyday life. I take the stairs before the elevator. I plank while reading my Facebook Newsfeed. I can’t focus? I get down and do a few push-ups. Movement is key. Oh, and I count rolling and kneading dough as exercise. I earn my donuts, for sure!
We can be found at the Maui Swap Meet every Saturday from 7am to 1pm and Kihei Fourth Fridays from 6-9pm. We also post up our Donut Mobile at the Kahului Harbor by the Boat Landing on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings 7-10am. Plus, Kula Cafe at the Grand Wailea Resort carries our gourmet donuts every day. Also they sell them a few days a week at the newly opened Kupu Cafe of Kula Fields and in Kihei at Memphis Belle.
Image by Sean Hower
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Market Street, Wailuku
Many years ago, I found a coconut macaroon recipe. I made it, tweaked and retweaked until it because the little morsel of perfection it is today. As a Jewish child in a suburban Chicago area, we celebrated Passover, a holiday where we were not permitted to eat any foods with leavening. Coconut macaroons became the cookie of Passover. The store-bought canned variety left much to be desired.
My macaroons are chewy, sweet coconut mixed with a blend of sugar, milk and vanilla for a tasty base. I add a variety of local fruits, chocolate, or nuts to come up with almost 100 different twists on the classic coconut macaroon. They are naturally gluten-free.
I love watching people develop their addiction to my Maui Macaroons. People who know my stuff but not my name call me the “Macaroon Girl.” I convert the self-professed non-coconut lovers to macaroon addicts all the time. When I get to see the reaction on people’s faces when they try one for the first time, it’s worth it.
I’m growing my business by word of mouth, but there are challenges. The cost and expense of finding a commercial kitchen is one of them. Lokahi Pacific has a great program with a shared certified kitchen, which helps small business. The hours still add up and space and time there is limited. Just the physicality of the job worries me, too. How long will I be able to lift heavy pans of batter, standing on my feet baking for 10 hours at a time? Shipping costs of packaging is also a factor.
Customers always asked me about opening a shop, but I knew when I did it that I would need help with rent. So I decided to combine efforts to come up with a space that could be as unique as having our own store, but diversified enough to house many local made products.
I never thought I would be making a living selling macaroons! I moved to Maui seven years ago and decided to work for myself. My dentist and my auto service advisor told me I should sell my macaroons. I tried it and Maui is still buying. Thank you Maui!
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Island Grocery Depot, Costco, Pukalani Superette, Wailuku Town Party
Tropical Ice is my own creation. It’s a dairy-free, gluten-free Italian ice and sorbet I make with real fruit. It’s a twist to the Italian ice I grew up eating in the summertime because it’s from paradise! It’s sorbet the island way!
We first had the idea of manufacturing on Maui in 1996 when we came here on our honeymoon. We were introduced to shave ice and found it very similar to Italian ice. Yet, it was missing something. That something, to us, was real fruit. We wanted to introduce it back then, but weren’t in the position to do so. We were only two years into a new fire equipment business back in the mainland. The timing just wasn’t right. So we built our business over the next 12 years and sold it with the intention to live our dream on Maui. We packed up our family and headed west in a rented Winnebago, stopped at Disneyland and relocated on Maui.
One of my favorite things about being in the sweets business is the positive reactions we get from people who taste Tropical Ice for the first time. Especially our Li Hing Mui Pineapple! That’s the one that’s going to make me famous! It’s unlike anything else and really appeals to the many Li Hing Mui lovers out there. To give you an idea, I sell three times as much Li Hing Pineapple than most any other flavor. Except strawberry–that’s number two.
One of my biggest challenges, if not the biggest, would be shipping. We sell approximately 1,200 quarts at a roadshow at Costco. We also ship about 100 gallons of Tropical Ice, from which we give samples. Both to and from Maui. Most of my sales are at various Costco locations on Oahu. Frozen cargo through Young Brothers isn’t cheap. Distribution to the outer islands is another huge challenge when manufacturing on Maui. In order to ship my product to the outer islands, it must first go thru Oahu. It’s frustrating and expensive.
Nevertheless, we’re blessed to have the opportunity to work with Costco and look forward to an expansion of our manufacturing over on Oahu. Once this happens, we’ll be working with a distributor to service the various Safeway, Times, Foodland etc. on each of the islands. Packaging is the most difficult and by far one of the most expensive parts of our business. Shipping from the Mainland is expensive and takes quite a while.
Right now, you can purchase our Tropical Ice at Island Grocery, Pukalani Superette, Kula Marketplace by Kula Lodge, Zack’s in the Five Palms Resort and, of course, Costco. Also, look for us at major events such as Ag Fest, Maui Fair, Whale Day and First Friday in Wailuku. Costco only carries our product during our four-day roadshows each month. We demo and sell our Tropical Ice at a different location each week. Anywhere from two to three each month, and primarily on Oahu.
We manufacture in a commercial kitchen in Wailuku and our ingredients are from everywhere. We locally source when feasible. However, with the large volume we produce, quality control is important. Seasonal local fruits are difficult to come by all year round.