Lisa Brochu, my wife and consulting partner in Heartfelt Associates, recently celebrated a birthday and suggested we have her birthday lunch at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company. In two decades of traveling to 24 countries and 50 U.S. states to train and consult on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences, we had somehow managed to miss visiting a vanilla farm, so it seemed the perfect opportunity.
Jim Reddekopp founded the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in 1998 following up on a dream to develop his own unique agritourism business. His in-laws were orchid enthusiasts and explained to him that the vanilla orchid is the only orchid that produces an edible fruit. He began his journey to create America’s first commercial vanilla company and admits today he might not have pursued this dream had he known the complexity and challenges ahead.
We live on the Kona or west side of the Big Island of Hawaii and have a small coffee farm where we also raise miniature horses. I teach tourism and destination planning at Palamanui Campus of Hawaii Community College and learning more about unique tourism experiences is always of value. Many of our students grow up on unique Big Island farming operations but don’t always realize the tourism opportunities available with most kinds of farming.
They have a capacity of 24 people per day, but I booked two tickets easily over the Internet, choosing the combination of the Vanilla Luncheon and a guided tour of the vanilla farm, a total of $84 plus tax. The tour alone is $25. The farm is about three miles uphill from the main highway between Honokaa to Hilo at the village of Paauilo, almost a two-hour drive for us. We arrived about noon at the yellow building that houses their food service and Vanilla Shoppe. The building was once a coffee processing plant and later a meat processing operation, since this part of eastern Hawaii has had a rich history of changing agricultural fortunes from sugar cane to coffee to ranching.
The lunch began with Jim, the founder, cooking an appetizer at table side that consisted of a delicious shrimp with vanilla infused spice rub, sautéed in olive oil and served on a crisp bread with vanilla mango chutney. The entrée was a tasty vanilla citrus bourbon chicken sandwich topped with vanilla caramelized onions on a vanilla-flavored sweet bread bun with a choice of vanilla aioli or vanilla BBQ sauce, roasted spiced potatoes and an organic tossed salad with a vanilla raspberry balsamic vinegar dressing topped with spicy honey-peppered pecans. We tried the vanilla-flavored Jimmy Boy beverage, their own version of the Arnold Palmer combination of lemonade and iced tea. The meal was delicious and Jim shared the story of how vanilla accentuates flavors when activated by citrus, cream or alcohol. He also shared how to make your own vanilla extract by combining slit vanilla pods in a bottle with your favorite alcohol – vodka, whiskey, rum or whatever.
After lunch, Ian, Jim’s son, took us down the hill for a visit to the shade houses used to grow the vanilla orchid vines. Ian told the story of their learning journey very well. They credit Tom Kadooka, a Big Island orchid specialist with getting them started. Visits to Mexico farms that produce vanilla and Madagascar where the very best vanilla is produced added to their knowledge bases. Their approaches to growing and harvesting evolved over several years, but the current
system seems to be working well. Orchid vines take from two to five years to mature enough to produce flowers, depending on propagation methods. An orchid flower opens for only 4 hours and must be hand-pollinated in that period or no seed pod is produced. It is a very labor intensive farming activity, perhaps only second to the production of saffron. The pods have to grow for two months, be picked green and blanched, and then stored in a very specific environment and hand massaged to produce the best vanilla. The five Reddekopp children have grown up working to produce the unique crop and their good efforts show.
After the tour, we returned to the Vanilla Shoppe and snack bar. Cold water and a cup of vanilla ice cream completed the tour, along with a short video to reinforce what we’d just learned about the process of growing and harvesting vanilla, followed by a cup of vanilla flavored coffee (along with cream and vanilla sugar if desired). Jim answered questions and shared a favorite quote, “dreams come one size too big so you can grow into them.” They had a big dream twenty years ago and they have grown into it, producing more than 1,700 pounds of vanilla pods each year. They also produce more than 80 unique products using their vanilla as an ingredient. It would be challenging to go through the meal and tour and then leave without buying vanilla flavored items at their gift shop and so of course, we loaded up a basket of goodies to enjoy later, including the “make your own extract” kit of a bottle with three vanilla beans (add your own liquor).
The Reddekopp family added the tourism component to a very successful vanilla production farm to create year-round employment for their best employees. It’s a labor-intensive business and keeping a well-trained workforce makes it all better. For the Big Island it is a unique attraction and one more place for tourists and island residents to get a glimpse of a unique agri-business. We left the experience with new stories to tell and a new appreciation of the complex flavors enhanced by vanilla.