How Sweet It Is

A Day In The Life Of Big Island Candies

August, 2002

Each shift begins with calisthenics, which lessens the impact of the repetitive nature of the work. President Allan Ikawa, right, often does spot checks for quality.

Sensible is not a word that readily comes to mind when biting into a cookie from Big Island Candies. Scrumptious, yes. Sinful, of course. But sensible?

Believe it or not, the famed chocolate-dipped macadamia nut shortbread confection was originally designed as a perfectly practical cookie — easily packaged and boxed, durable and delicious. The year was 1983 and Big Island Candies’ President and Owner Allan Ikawa was looking for a way to diversify his chocolate macadamia nut business. His 16-employee company was turning a tidy profit manufacturing candies for the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corp. But the young executive knew that to survive in the ultra-competitive candy business, he needed another product.

The showroom overlooks part of the assembly line. Upstairs, managers oversee all aspects of the company. But it all comes down to product quality, which depends on individual workers ensuring consistent standards.

Ikawa flew to Maui and met with several hoteliers who were looking for a cookie to include in their in-room mini-bars. The snack food had to fit nicely in a box. It had to be crumble-proof. It had to be tasty. The Maui Marriott’s food and beverage manager also had a suggestion: How about a diagonal dip of chocolate so that the cookie could be inserted into a scoop of ice cream? Ikawa returned to Hilo and went to work baking and dipping. A short two weeks later, he created the cookie that would transform Hawaii’s retail world.
Sensible never was so indulgent.

Today, Big Island Candies sells approximately 16 million cookies a year from a product line of more than 80 different confections. (The original shortbread cookie continues to be the most popular seller, accounting for nearly half of all sales.) Thanks to the Internet and a thriving catalogue division, the company ships its sweets across the United States, and, at last count, 32 countries around the world.

“The key is quality,” says Ikawa. “Our theory is that we are going to make our candies the best we can and no one can do it better.”Big Island Candies’ home is a 40,000-square-foot factory in the outskirts of Hilo. Every day, between 500 and 700 customers (many of them bused in) visit the facility’s 4,000-square-foot retail outlet that does nearly $8 million in annual sales. After visiting the factory, which is a cross between restaurant kitchen and high-tech lab, it is easy to see why a small company in the little town of Hilo can do such big business.

While best known for its chocolate-covered shortbread cookies, Big Island Candies produces a wide range of sweets. All are baked and packaged at the Hilo store. The mail order division ships Big Island Candies product around the world.

Upon entry, customers are welcomed by an official greeter, who offers a free sample and a cup of freshly brewed Kona coffee. Inside, Big Island Candies’ beautifully packaged goodies are impeccably merchandised in neat rows. Along one wall of the showroom runs a huge plate glass window, which reveals the majority of Big Island’s production facility.

Behind the glass are 90 full-time employees, who take orders, mix, bake, dip and ship their cookies and candies all across the globe. Their numbers will swell to 150 during the peak sales period from October to mid- December. The factory operates two shifts, running from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Because of the repetitive nature of he work, each shift begins with calisthenics.

The Hilo showroom-factory, where workers and product are both attractions, is now a major tourist stop. Each visitor receives a personal greeting and a free sample. Most leave laden with boxes of cookies and candies.

Ikawa’s operation could be a lot bigger if he had agreed to sell his cookies and candies to distributors or directly to wholesalers. But doing so might compromise the company’s renowned reputation for quality. It also might mean that the company might outgrow its small-town roots.

“The thing about Big Island Candies is that when you call to place an order, you’re talking to someone from Hilo,” says Ikawa. “When you get the cookies in the mail, the box will have a postmark from Hilo. That’s very important to me. That’s what makes us special.”

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