Choco le‘a Hawaii was a thriving gourmet chocolate shop in Manoa with plans to expand this year, until the coronavirus lockdown threw everything into turmoil. Now owner Erin Uehara is downsizing and asking customers for feedback.
“It will be smaller and simpler, but still as sweet and satisfying,” Uehara said. The store closed March 19, although Uehara hopes to reopen after her two youngsters return to school in August. She’s moved her shop next door into the original space Choco le‘a opened in 2014 — a 40% reduction in size — where she’s been making a limited amount of candy for curbside pickup twice a month.
“We’re going back to our humble beginnings that will still allow us to keep our focus on the business we’ve always said we’re in … the people business,” she said. “Chocolates just happen to be a sweet platform for our work.”
Uehara learned to make chocolates from an uncle who was involved in charitable work. She has always credited her Christian faith with inspiring her to start the company out of her home in 2012. Her shop’s slogan is “Bringing peace to our world, one chocolate at a time.”
Although she once downplayed her faith, she decided to become more forthright about her trust in God’s guidance when making difficult decisions about her company. “COVID had me on my knees, surrendering to God’s plan,” she said.
Business is down 70%; most of it had been dependent on tourism, corporate sales, parties and fundraising events. She had a staff of 20 she hopes to rehire some day. Uehara has filled the void by staying connected with her customers (“chocolate friends,” as she calls them).
She posts journal-like entries in her weekly email newsletter and on Instagram, sharing life lessons and personal reflections.
So far, feedback has been overwhelming. About 60 people responded to each entry, many saying things like: “Wow, I needed to hear it,” or “I actually followed your advice, and this is what happened.”
She’s also asking customers via email what they’d prefer in her merchandise and getting some surprising answers. For example, some don’t care about the elegant packaging she provides because they just plan to eat the candy themselves, Uehara said.
In a late May entry, she wrote about the pain of giving up the larger space Choco le‘a had occupied since 2017, and equipment that had cost thousands of dollars: “I walked around the kitchen and ran my hand against the remaining cold, clean stainless steel tables, refrigerators and racks, and in the same breath whispered, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye.’”
She thought she would feel even sadder when friends and neighboring business owners took away the equipment, but Uehara came to see her former possessions as valuable investments in friendships.
“The best investments are made in people. Things come and go. You can get shiny new equipment but even the best stuff gets old and breaks down. Spaces become vacant and businesses grow out of it. But the people in your lives, even if they’ve moved on, those who really love you will show up with just a quick call,” she wrote.
“Ask for help. The focus has always been about bringing people together, sweetening relationships and bringing peace to our world. This move, this ‘sale,’ this ask for help, brought people together.”
Uehara contines to make chocolates herself, squeezing the work in between hours of childcare and home-schooling, and after her husband comes home from work. This month, she started holding curbside pickups every other Saturday, with a lot of friends pitching in to make it possible. She offered only two items, a fraction of her 20-plus selection of artisanal dark truffles, but collected 100 orders and sold out in 10 minutes. She recently increased her curbside pickups to every Saturday in July (preorder on Tuesdays), and is making custom ordering available in August.
“Although letting go of this space was physically and emotionally difficult, it puts us in a better position for sustainability as we develop and build again,” she wrote. “We may not be getting bigger as a company, but we can get better as a group of people. Professionally, we will get better at our craft. We will get to know our chocolate friends on a deeper level.”