Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Choco le‘a is a gourmet chocolate company where you will find the most exquisite, delectable treasures that would make even Willy Wonka envious. The name is a combination of the French word for chocolate (choco) and the Hawaiian word for joy (le‘a). Lovely Mänoa Valley is home to Choco le‘a, which is located in a charming building that resembles a house. Upon entering the chocolate shop, beautiful display cases filled with 18 enticing signature artisan dark chocolate truffles and seasonal treats await you. The kitchen is in the adjoining room, where all of their sweets are made fresh using a blend of the finest Hawaiian and European chocolates.
At the heart of Choco le‘a is local girl Erin Kanno Uehara and her love of chocolate.
Spread Joy Wherever You Go
Uehara always knew that she wanted to go into teaching because she loved the idea of working with kids. After graduating from the University of Hawai‘i with a bachelor’s degree in education, she became a teacher at Leihoku Elementary. Teaching first and fourth graders was a rewarding experience, but she soon burnt out.
While teaching, Uehara’s years of training in jazz and hip-hop dance were put to good use when she accepted a part-time job offer as an instructor at a friend’s studio. Due to her efforts, the number of students grew from 20 to over 230 in a short amount of time. Her entrepreneurial spirit awakened and her dance instruction became a full-time business.
In 2012, while attending a bridal expo at the Blaisdell with her mother, Uehara heard that a vendor was giving out free chocolates. The temptation was greater than she could resist, so she searched for the vendor and “kept talking to him in order to eat more of his delicious samples.” While they were talking, her mother was amazed to discover that the vendor, Colins Kawai, was actually Uehara’s long-lost uncle!
Uncle Colins explained to his newfound family that his hobby of making chocolates started 12 years ago, thanks to a truffle recipe that he found in Sunset Magazine. He is a self-taught chocolatier who honed his skills by refining that recipe. In 2010, he established Choco le‘a as a side business, doing catering orders for weddings, parties and other special occasions. He and his wife Joan had full-time jobs, so he hoped to pass on his knowledge and skills to someone who would continue his love for the craft of chocolate making. Uncle Colins was delighted that his niece Uehara could perhaps be that ‘‘someone” he was looking for.
When asked by her uncle if she would be willing to learn his craft, Uehara was at first hesitant. However, encouraged by her husband Chris (her fiancé at the time), who was interested in taking lessons, she agreed to give it a try. Learning the ins and outs of chocolate making provided a great opportunity for her to spend quality time with Uncle Colins and Aunty Joan.
A Leap of Faith
With the additional help from Uehara and Chris, the business gained momentum and orders poured in. Noticing this, Uehara realized that she had to make an important decision. Something had to give; it was difficult for everyone to keep up with the demands of dual careers. Could she actually give up her thriving career as a dance instructor, which she loved, to “risk everything on a business that she knew absolutely nothing about?” Her path became clear when she heard God telling her to choose the chocolate business. After serious consideration, Uehara took the leap and quit her job.
Follow Your Dream
In spring 2013, Uehara received her master’s degree in business administration from the Shidler College of Business. Also in the same year, finding a location to build a commercial kitchen became a priority. Uehara believed it was a providential sign when she had a dream of a white picket fence. She drove around O‘ahu searching for it and in Mānoa, she came across a property with a fence that looked like the one in her dream. It was the perfect location except for one major problem — there wasn’t any space to rent. Fortunately, she was able to sublease space from the owner of LMS Boutique, one of the stores located on the property. The kitchen was built and when the boutique owner retired one year later, Uehara took over her space. On September 1, 2014, Choco le‘a’s retail shop opened for business.
Challenging Days Ahead
Choco le‘a was flourishing with custom bulk orders, corporate partnerships (including the Moana Surfrider, Ritz-Carlton, Royal Hawaiian, Four Seasons, Louis Vuitton and Prada), wholesale accounts, retail sales, catered events, exports to Japan and more. The year 2020 was supposed to be “the year with the 20/20 vision of where we were going,” said Uehara. “For the first time, I felt we had finally reached a point where we knew what the whole year looked like … We were ready to just explode this business.” But then COVID-19 struck. Suddenly, she lost 70% of their business due to cancellations and the other 30% was lost with the temporary shop closure due to the lockdown. At this crucial juncture is where our Q&A session begins.
LK: How did you deal with the challenges of the lockdown?
EKU: By putting people first and making sure I found my own peace, so I could bring peace to others. With Choco le‘a’s mission of “bringing peace to our world, one chocolate at a time,” I really thought about how we could still do this without our chocolate! Being in lockdown and with young kids at home, I thought about what I could do and that was to “bring peace to our world, through words.”
I was still able to connect with our customers, or “chocolate friends” as I coined them, via email so I started sharing my heart and sections of my journal in real time. Every week I searched for a lesson learned, an opportunity now, and hope for our future to find meaning and encouragement in it all. I found that sharing my thoughts through email were really helping others too.
As a business, we built again slowly from the ground up. We had to be flexible and try new things so we started selling online, made a monthly subscription option for a chocolate preset bundle and did curbside pick-up only.
LK: Your journal entries, consisting of 20 reflections and 20 routines, became the content for your book, “Bringing Peace To Our World, One Chocolate Story At A Time.” Which chapters are your favorites?
EKU: My favorite chapter is the final one on “Love” because it basically sums up all of the lessons learned, all of the opportunities now, and all of our hopes for our future into one word: love!
My non-negotiable daily routine is Chapter 22, “Mornings.” It’s also a practical one for others to begin right now. This routine is my favorite because it sets the tone for my quiet alone time with God. I find guidance and comfort in the Word, reflect and journal what I am grateful for, and schedule my day to focus on doing the work that matters most. It’s basically how I find my own peace, day after day.
LK: Please explain your awesome logo.
EKU: Our logo features a koa‘e‘ula (red-tailed tropicbird) holding a cacao branch in its beak. Beautiful and graceful, a koa‘e‘ula is capable of flying long distances. Our logo symbolizes bringing peace and chocolate, analogous to the dove holding an olive branch in the biblical story of “Noah’s Ark.”
It ties in perfectly with our mission because we truly believe that we can make a positive change in this world through our chocolates. We strive to bring peace by empowering each person to use chocolates to connect with others and sweeten relationships. We also donate to a variety of charities and nonprofits that support various peace initiatives around the world.
LK: Can you tell us about a charity that your company supports?
EKU: We are very active with The Salvation Army, giving both monetary and in-kind donations as well as doing hands-on community service. I serve on their Honolulu Advisory Board and I’m also a founding board member and past chair of their young professionals group, Echelon. In addition, we give to at least one nonprofit organization or charity per month and try to support a range of causes in our community.
LK: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
EKU: That I was able to build and maintain both a business and a family that I love. I have found a rhythm between the two that takes a lot of work, but it works for us. What I learn in business, I can apply at home and what I learn from home, I apply to my business. For example, just learning how to better communicate and recognize the strengths of my family members has helped me to do the same in work. Creating systems to ensure success at work has also transferred to home and how I empower my kids to help around the house.
I’m also super proud of building a sweet work culture with our team and authentic relationships with our chocolate friends and the community. What you see is what you get. We are truly at peace with how we go about doing business with integrity and humility.
LK: What have you learned about yourself since becoming a business owner?
EKU: That I can’t do this alone. I’ve discovered through trial and error, working all areas of my business, what my God-given skills and talents are. I also learned what they are not and so I surrounded myself with people who have different skill sets. I’ve found that we are all really better together when we are working towards one vision and clearly understand our purpose and part that we can contribute.
LK: Can you share some of your upcoming projects?
EKU: I’m really focused on solidifying the systems and foundation of the company to ensure the long-term sustainability and success. We are always expanding and innovating our chocolate offerings, so you’ll see new forms of truffles, toppings and centers this year. We just launched what we call our “tougher truffles,” which are vegan and non-dairy truffles that do not require refrigeration, but still taste really good! This new option will allow us to get involved in more opportunities such as outdoor events and maybe eventually shipping.
We create new products for every single major holiday and new flavors just about every single month! Something that is coming up for Mother’s Day, Teacher Appreciation, Nurse Appreciation, graduation and end of the school year gifts is our brand new “Take a Break Bundle.” It offers coffee truffles, made in collaboration with another small local business, and tea truffles, using loose tea leaves grown in Hawai‘i, steeped in our cream and infused in our chocolate ganache centers.
Beyond chocolates, I will be offering more experiences out in the community with chocolate tastings and talks where I share my book, story and business tips at events. I hope to also write a second book one day to help other small local businesses and busy working moms.
LK: How about a fun fact about Erin?
EKU: In college, I would bite each of the 30 pieces in the box in half so that if my roommate or her friends opened the box, they wouldn’t eat any. I’ve learned to share since having my own chocolate shop!
LK: What is the most fulfilling aspect of your career?
EKU: Being able to bring out the best in people, which includes chocolate friends, my chocolate family (team members) and my own family at home. As the leader of the company, I’ve been able to empower my team by guiding and trusting them to grow while having fun at work. Using my platform of chocolates to empower customers to uplift and bring joy to others is also very fulfilling.
LK: What quote inspires you?
EKU: “Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” -1 Thessalonians 5:16
Start Each Day with a Grateful Heart
As a Yonsei, Uehara is thankful that her upbringing and the influence of Japanese culture has taught her to value the importance of hard work and perseverance. Her diligence through the years hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year, she was chosen to be Honolulu County’s Small Business Person of the Year. “Work is something I can’t wait to do every day,” said Uehara. “I’m so glad that I took steps of faith in obedience and followed God’s plans.”
Uehara has been on an incredible journey of connections, discovery and most importantly, faith. What will happen in the upcoming chapters of her story? We’ll have to wait and see, but one thing is certain. She will continue to amaze us with delightful new experiences to sweeten and enrich our lives.
Lois’s interest in Japan started with J-pop and martial arts shows. Her decision to study Japanese led to teaching English in Hamamatsu. She enjoys singing and doing creative projects.