Life Is Sweet
The journey is far from complete for Big Island Candies, which has been a tasty fixture in the Hilo community for more than four decades.
When Hilo native Allan Ikawa started Big Island Candies in 1977, the enterprising entrepreneur found his sweet spot in his own hometown and never looked back.
Since those early days of struggle and incremental success, Ikawa, who was born and raised in Hilo, has taken his company from a seed of an idea to becoming an internationally recognized purveyor of gourmet confections that entices mail-order customers from all over the globe. Located in the 40,000-square-foot factory on Hīnano Street, the beautiful showroom is a star attraction for visitors to Hilo. It’s also one of the only places you can purchase the products in person — the other being a recently opened boutique store at Ala Moana Center in Honolulu.
“It’s a lovely experience,” says Ikawa, who currently serves as chairman and CEO of the company. “A lot of local people will bring their visitors here just to show them that there is a place in Hilo that can compete with Tokyo, New York City or San Francisco. Just because we are in Hilo doesn’t mean that we can’t have a world-class showroom. Our guys travel a lot and see what’s out there in the global market.”
Situated on almost 5 acres, the Big Island Candies facility includes the giant factory and outlet, plus an additional 20,000-square-foot fulfillment building. Among the specialists on-site include two food scientists, a microbiologist and a certified factory manager, all of whom ensure that the operations adhere to the highest standards.
Ikawa says the Hilo staff has always been the perfect fit for the company.
“The workforce here is very stable,” he says. “It’s a family-oriented place to be. Some of our longtime employees have been with us for decades. It’s time for some to retire, but they don’t want to leave. Our turnover rate is nil. It’s like an ‘ohana here. Everybody looks after each other. When we hire somebody, it’s somebody we love as a neighbor. We don’t just hire anybody; we hire the right fit.”
With the holidays just around the corner, Big Island Candies is about to gear up for its busiest time of year. The number of full-time employees will increase from 100 to 300, while two shifts will keep the factory humming full speed ahead throughout the holidays.
In addition to unveiling elegantly designed packaging and an equally festive showroom for the holidays, the company also creates custom private-label packaging and products for a host of business clients throughout the year.
The most identifiable product from Big Island Candies is certainly its signature shortbread cookies. The artistic look of the cookie comes from the diagonal coating of hand-dipped chocolate that is as mouthwatering as it is iconic and elegant.
“The girls have been hand-dipping the cookies for years,” says Ikawa. “They can do it blindfolded. We got into the baking business when we started roasting mac nuts for the chocolate. When you bake cookies, however, it gives off a lot of moisture, which isn’t good for chocolate making, so we built a proprietary facility that accommodates that.”
Now that Ikawa is semi-retired, his daughter, Sherrie Holi, serves as chief operating officer of the family-owned company. Holi remembers working in the factory packing chocolates during her summers off from high school.
“I was going to college in California, on track to become a special-ed teacher when I decided I didn’t want to teach,” she says. “I ended up moving home, and then later completed my business degree at Hawai‘i Pacific University while working for Big Island Candies. As time went on and my job progressed, I knew it was the best decision ever. I love being here.”
According to Holi, Big Island Candies produces more than 80 different products, including Kona coffee, and now, frozen apple pies. Admired by pastry chefs and famous restaurant owners, the apple pies are the only item that’s available for purchase outside of Big Island Candies, and can be found at KTA grocery stores. It took five years to develop the recipe.
Both Ikawa and Holi emphasize the loyalty they feel to the Hilo community. The company is renowned for its philanthropy, assisting countless nonprofits, sports teams, hospice, hospitals, schools and more through the years.
“If it weren’t for the local community who supports us, we wouldn’t still be here today,” says Holi. “The local business for us, by far, consists of the customers who keep coming back.”
Ikawa, who has served on many boards, including Hilo High School Foundation, says the spirit of giving is inherent in the company culture right down to the products and packaging.
“I truly believe that in Hawai‘i, more than any other place, people are so attuned to giving because of our different cultures. That’s what makes our store successful. Our packaging is beautiful because it’s presented as a gift. The packaging is all about presentation, which is so important, but the product must be of equal quality and status.”
For more information, visit bigislandcandies.com.