Joseph Chun, a formerly homeless man, says sometimes it is difficult for him to believe he earning a good salary making, of all things, premium handcrafted chocolates that are in high demand by Hawaii restaurants and stores.
“I never thought I would be doing this. I thought if I worked I would be doing construction, something out of doors,” says Chun.
He is taking a break from coating dozens of Oreo cups with melted chocolate. Each Oreo cup will be dotted with a small red heart as part of a large order for Foodland stores to sell for Valentine’s Day.
The 56-year-old Chun had a tumultuous life before he became a chocolate maker five years ago, sometimes sleeping on Chinatown streets, sometimes involved in petty crime, a dead-end existence so hollow it hurts him now to discuss it.
“I don’t like to go into detail about my life before,” he says. “There were criminal elements, there were drugs. Even when I start to talk about it, I feel sad. It brings back so many bad memories.”
Chun works as second-in-command in the chocolate factory run by the River of Life Mission on the third floor of its facility at 101 N. Pauahi St. in Chinatown.
River of Life, a faith-based organization, is better known for serving more than 16,000 meals a month to needy families and some of Oahu’s most hard-core homeless than it is for creating prize-winning gourmet chocolates.
River of Life went into the chocolate-making business to help teach work skills to its clients who are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction or struggling with mental illness or have recently been released from prison.
“We offer the chocolate-making opportunity to anyone willing to learn,” says Davi Teves, a businesswoman who helped set up the chocolate company known as Chocolate on a Mission.
Clients in the mission’s 18-month alcohol and drug addiction recovery program known as “Mending in Paradise” can choose chocolate making or other jobs around the mission to gain employment skills.
Teves says since the factory started in 2011, many who have signed on to learn chocolate making have gone on to become successful employees at other kinds of businesses.
But she says, “Other clients have gone back to their old ways; unfortunately, a lot of them. But we let them know we love them and they are welcome back when they are strong enough to return. Our goal has always been to help one person at a time.”
Chocolate worker Norman Sailes , 42, says he is grateful for the chocolate-making opportunity. “I didn’t want to go back to living on the streets. It was a big relief to find this work.”
Sailes is originally from Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. When he came to River of Life, he had been homeless for years in downtown Honolulu. His physician-prescribed medications for his illness were so out of whack he was sleeping most of the day. Now his medicine is under control.
Sailes is a quiet man with a direct way of speaking. He loves to write. He says he finds the chocolate work “spiritually peaceful, although at times it can get monotonous.”
Teves agrees that hand-making hundreds of chocolates in a day can definitely get boring. She says they try to vary the job by teaching workers all different aspects of the chocolate making, including inventory, packaging and delivery.
When Chocolate on a Mission was launched the Halekulani Hotel was the first to order its confections, Since then the regular customers have included Foodland, R. Field Wine Company, Taormina Restaurant in Waikiki, Kakaako Kitchen, Roy’s Restaurants as well as companies in Japan.
Teves says the new Bloomingdale’s store at Ala Moana Center is interested in Chocolate on a Mission and she is hoping Duty Free stores in Hawaii will start ordering their chocolates.
The factory’s chocolates have won prizes three different years in United Cerebral Palsy Association’s Dessert Fantasy competition.
Chocolatier Ana Sagadraca is in charge of the workers as they create a wide variety of confections, including dried mango slices dipped in premium chocolate, chocolate-covered Oreo cups drizzled with white mint chocolate, chocolate pretzels, and hand-dipped shortbread cookies.
Their latest creations are two lines of gourmet chocolate bars the factory calls Lauhala Bars and the Barefoot In The Sand line. One of the chocolate bars in the Barefoot In The Sand line features dark chocolate with Molokai sea salt and macadamia nuts. A bar in the Lauhala line is Hawaii-inspired, containing chocolate, coconut, pineapple and macadamia nuts.
The factory is also known for its custom chocolates imprinted with messages or pictures or company logos that customers can order for their special parties and events.
Sagadraca has 20 years experience, most of it at Kona Paradise Candies, a company now known as Hawaiian Paradise Candies.
She says her most difficult challenge has been learning how to be patient with the formerly homeless workers, many of whom still struggle to manage their tempers and impulsivity.
“Sometimes I will ask a worker to do something and he will say, “I don’t want to do that.’ And storm out of the room. I have learned to let them cool off and to wait for them to walk back in,” says Sagadraca.
It can be stressful in the factory, trying to meet deadlines for big jobs such as Taormina Restaurant’s order for dark chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, each nut dotted with exactly eights grains of Molokai red sea salt to represent Hawaii’s eight islands.
Sagadraca says when she started at the chocolate factory, she was very impatient with the workers. “But I found out the more you listen to them, the more you grow to love them. I try not to think of their pasts. I treat them like regular people.”
“It makes me feel good to help them learn about chocolate,” she says.
She says her second-in-command, Joseph Chun, has become so talented at all aspects of the business that he is able run the factory when she goes on vacation to see her family in the Philippines.
Chun, who is from a local military family and served for five years in the Navy before his life went awry, says he is very proud he can run the whole chocolate business.
“This is the most important thing I do, my job. I love the people I am working with. They are like my family,” he says.
Chun says the responsibility has helped him transform slowly from an angry person unable to control his temper to a disciplined worker.
“I am tired of hurting people,” says Chun, “ I know the bad I have done. I want to see some good come out of my life. I am tired of being mad. A healing process has taken place since I have been here.”
One-hundred percent of the money earned from the chocolate factory’s business goes back into helping the River of Life Mission’s programs dedicated to “restoring broken lives.”
Teves says she hopes to see a day when 100 people are employed in the chocolate factory to expand the mission’s goal of helping men and women willing to work hard for a second chance.