Jim Walsh's dream of making premium chocolate from American-grown cocoa beans is a step closer to reality. Now that he has made his first harvest, the managing partner of Hawaii Cocoa is looking for farmers to cultivate 3,000 to 6,000 acres with cacao trees, from which cocoa beans come.
``The current crop that we have right now is called a baby cocoa harvest,'' Mr. Walsh explains.
Hawaii Cocoa has about 350 acres of cacao, and seedlings and trees from this land will be sold to independent growers.
Though his business is in its infancy, Walsh hopes to offer an upscale chocolate in a few selected markets within the next six months.
Walsh says he got the idea of creating a niche for Hawaiian chocolate from the success of Colombian coffee.
The beans from Walsh's trees will contain more cocoa butter than Americans are accustomed to get and will create a chocolate with a ``real, perceived difference,'' he says.
Not leaving that perception to chance, he plans a $12 million chocolate factory that will double as a tourist center, so that visitors can actually smell and touch and taste the Hawaiian product. The factory should be completed in two years, he says.
``There's a tremendous market in Hawaii,'' says Walsh, noting that 7 million tourists fly to the islands each year.
In the past 2 years, the venture has spent $2 million investigating the agricultural and economic possibilities of creating the United States' first cocoa bean industry.
Walsh hopes mainlanders will decide that he has a premium chocolate, such as the West Indies island of Trinidad offered at the turn of the century. Trinidad was the leading producer of cocoa until around 1925, when disease destroyed the crops. The sun set on Trinidad's flavor bean, West African nations emerged as the dominant suppliers, and cocoa has never been quite the same since, says Walsh.
Chocolate giant Hershey Foods Corporation apparently agrees. It has bought a 5 percent interest in Walsh's joint venture, and will help Hawaii Cocoa to ``market their cocoa at a fair market value,'' says Hershey spokesman John Long.
Someday Hershey might even use the beans themselves.
``We don't have any specific product in mind,'' says Mr. Long, but the company is interested in Hawaii as a future source of high-quality cocoa beans. ``There are certainly enough cocoa beans on the market, but not enough high quality,'' he adds.
Most of the cocoa used in the US comes from the Ivory Coast, the Dominican Republic, Malaysia, Ecuador, Brazil, and Ni-geria, says Rhona Applebaum of the American Cocoa Research Institute.
The joint venture originally had a third partner, Amfac Hawaii Inc., a landowning corporation that had a 45 percent interest.
Walsh acquired Amfac Hawaii's share in January, following the November 1988 purchase of its parent company, the financially troubled Amfac Inc., by the Chicago real estate company JMB.
``We decided that cocoa was not a business that we wanted to stay in,'' says Sandy Ebusu, public relations manager of Amfac Hawaii.