Maureen Nikaido is on a mission to honor the farmers who grow cacao and educate American consumers about the goodness of bean-to-bar chocolate with her new brand – Moku. The first spark of this idea came in 2013 when she and her husband, Michio, toured a small museum in Grenada, Nicaragua.
Before that trip, she was a typical buyer, grabbing a chocolate bar off the supermarket shelf without knowing how it was made, or where it came from – assuming from a chocolate factory.
A museum changed her perspective
Maureen and her husband went to Nicaragua in 2013 to see a girl they had been sponsoring through the Christian humanitarian-aid organization WorldVision for years. During that visit, they had a free afternoon and made a side trip to Grenada. To get out of the heat, they stopped in a small cacao museum. It was at that museum she learned how much cacao is grown on family farms- often as a secondary crop, the deep cultural and social history and how the system puts farmers in poverty.
This shocked Maureen to discover how little farmers are paid for all their crops – most barely able to make a living. With her emotional connection to Nicaragua, she left with the desire to somehow help these farmers.
She put off her ideas when she and her husband moved to Oregon to start new jobs. Maureen, with 30 years of being in the education field, started work at Oregon State University, where she had been the Director of Alumni Relations for the College of Liberal Arts. She has always loved to cook, making meals from scratch, and finds baking relaxing. It was natural for her to start exploring chocolate through cooking.
Yet, to create a bean to bar chocolate she had to learn more. In the Fall of 2019 Maureen took an online course at Ecole Chocolat – a professional school of the chocolate arts for chocolatiers and chocolate makers based in San Francisco. Part of the course involved learning to taste chocolate flavors with flights of craft bars. They presented different ways to taste too – such as distinguishing similar flavor notes from different makers or different bean origins.
Then, with a how-to book (“Making Chocolate: From Bean to Bar to S’mores; a cook book“from Dandelion Chocolates) as her guide, Maureen used rudimentary tools to take a bag of cacao beans and turn them into chocolate bars. A mallet helped her crush cacao beans. She separated the nibs from the shell with a hair dryer. Her husband helped by engineering and reconfiguring other items into needed tools during the process.
She spent a lot of time in her kitchen doing the process over and over again. “There are no recipes” she says, because each maker has their preferences and the beans’ flavors change with origin, fermenting and roasting.
The Pandemic Changed Her Business
Just before the COVID-19 shut down, Maureen and Michio took a trip to Belize where she saw her first cacao tree, deepening her resolve to support the farmers with her chocolates. It was while they were there that she came up with the name for her company. A Belize guide advised her to keep it simple. She started with Mo – her nickname – and ended up with Moku, liking how the sound lands.
As the pandemic raged on, the side effect of being home offered her the opportunity to take a Portland Community College class virtually on bringing food products to market. Aside from learning aspects such as food safety, law and marketing, this course offered her connections and support to bring her hobby to the business level. One connection was the artist who designed her packaging using elements (water colors, mountains, farmers) important to Maureen and the story she wants to share.
Another connection helped with distribution. While Maureen prefers farmers markets and local shops (such as the winery where I first came across her bars), she met the buyers for an Oregon upscale chain called Market Of Choice. She now sells cases to them. Maureen also learned about online sales, and with the period where she couldn’t go out to markets, she could still sell her bars.
Maureen was already making single origin chocolates, but wanted to move beyond her comfort zone and create something adventurous chocolate lovers might enjoy. Experimenting with beans from Colombia, she noticed an apricot flavor came out.
“What goes with apricot?” she asked herself. “Goat milk!”
At first the goat milk bar didn’t really work flavor-wise, until she learned the secret to mellowing it out and creating a flavor profile she enjoys.
In her research during her PPC course, she discovered the International Chocolate Awards competition and in October of 2020 submitted her goat milk bar. She had been making chocolate for less than a year, and at that point didn’t even have packaging.
At first, she had planned on selling through farmers markets and boutiques, but her business advisor encouraged her to think bigger, and she approached an upscale Oregon-based supermarket chain. Her packaging was finalized in January 2021. Just in time, as it turns out.
In March of 2021, Maureen learned she won a gold and a silver for her goat milk bar in that international competition, and then- coincidentally- received a large order from that upscale market. Then, The Meadows, in an unusual move for them, tasted her bar one weekend and placed orders the next. In March of 2022 Moku was one of 17 national winners for her dark chocolate
These days Moku keeps Maureen so busy she quit her day job. More stores are ordering and her business is growing. She and her assistant hand craft about 400 bars a week. Most recently, Moku Chocolate has been named one of 17 national winners for her dark chocolate (70% Dominican Republic beans) by the San Francisco-based Good Food Foundation. The awards keep rolling in, with six awards from the Kentucky Craft Chocolate Challenge.
She is still taking things one step at a time, to make sure she enjoys what she does, and can keep her mission of helping cacao farmers at the forefront of why she makes craft chocolate.
Moku in NYC
A favorite story about Moku, for me, is when I went with friends to update my NYC chocolate tour. So much had changed due to COVID-19 issues closing venues and even entire chains. We ended the trip at The Meadows, a boutique store that has walls of craft chocolate (as well as a variety of salt and bitters).
There I met the manager, who was visiting the NYC store from her Portland base! She told me about how Maureen bravely showed up one day at the store, and how quickly they turned around and ordered some. The manager, who tastes hundreds of bars, was impressed with how quickly Maureen’s bar was finessed – something most craft chocolate makers take years to achieve!