The familiar phrase "plain old vanilla" is quite ironic, given what I learned from a recent visit to the Hawaiian Vanilla Co. in Paauilo, Hawaii, and my subsequent conversation with owner Jim Reddekopp.
In 1998, Jim and his wife Tracy lived in Honolulu and operated a successful tourism company. With two young children and more anticipated, the couple decided they wanted a rural lifestyle for their growing family. They found property they liked on "the big island" of Hawaii, and after buying the land, they began researching what agricultural uses it might support. Vanilla cultivation was their choice, and their decision has proven to be a winner.
Jim proceeded to educate himself on all aspects of vanilla, which comes from an orchid plant. When a new plant is first started from a cutting, it takes four years to flower. Once mature, the vanilla orchid then flowers only once a year for four hours and must be hand-pollinated at that time in order to produce a vanilla bean. After pollination, the bean grows for two months, ripens for six more months, is harvested, then blanched and dried for two to three months. Then it is "conditioned" for another one to three months. All of this is why Grade A vanilla beans cost $190 a pound, and top quality pure vanilla extract costs $15 for four ounces.
Jim reported that the supply of vanilla has never matched the demand for this unique spice. The necessary growing conditions are very specific, and there are only a few ideal growing climates in the world for this orchid. Their location happens to be one of them. Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that has the right combination of soil, humidity and heat for vanilla orchids to thrive.
Jim and Tracy have grown their business from scratch into a successful enterprise, selling vanilla beans and vanilla extract to gourmet cooks, restaurant chefs and vanilla connoisseurs. They have also developed more than 50 vanilla-infused or flavored products in their own kitchens. The company farm has become a popular visitor destination for luncheon tours. The couple has parlayed disciplined farming practices, innovative product development, marketing savvy and hospitality into a very successful company. (For those of us in Wine Country, the parallels with wine-growing are evident.)
Tracy describes their current success as a "mountain top experience." In effect, their dream has come true. They've put land that had been a former sugar plantation back into useful production. They have brought economic activity to a rural area that was devastated by the collapse of the sugar industry in the 1990s. In their 12 years in business, they have employed more than 40 people from the local community, the town of Paauilo, population just 511. They have created a sustainable agricultural product.
They have provided a rich learning environment and healthy upbringing for their five children, now ages 8 to 16, who are integrally involved in the family business.
The Reddekopps now find themselves poised on the edge of another major decision: how much to grow? Their current position is enviable. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's want to carry their products. Hawaiian Airlines is interested in a promotional campaign. First Hawaiian Bank has proposed a co-marketing venture. In June, Jim will travel to Shanghai with the governor of Hawaii and other industry and government officials to solidify trade and tourism agreements there.