Maureen Nikaido squeezes the chocolate into molds
Maureen Nikaido squeezes the chocolate into molds that are then cooled in preparation for wrapping. Her husband, Michio, designed the scale that allows her to precisely squeeze 45 grams of chocolate into each bar. (Photo by Mike McInally for Philomath News)

It took the idea a few years to germinate for Maureen Nikaido — but now that the idea has blossomed, she isn’t wasting any time.

As part of a trip to Nicaragua in 2013 to see a girl she and her husband, Michio, had been sponsoring through the Christian humanitarian-aid organization WorldVision for years, the two made a side visit to the city of Granada. There, they visited a chocolate store — in many ways, a museum that showed in loving detail how cocoa beans are turned into chocolate.

“Honestly, I don’t think I had ever thought about where chocolate came from,” Nikaido said in a recent interview in the Philomath commercial kitchen she rents to create chocolate bars for her company, Moku Chocolate. “I might have told you Belgium or Hershey, Pennsylvania — but I really hadn’t given it much thought.”

Nikaido learned a lot more about cocoa beans and chocolate during that 2013 trip.

“I learned there’s deep, deep cultural and social history to it. … I learned that it’s mostly grown on these small family farms and a lot of times it’s like a secondary crop for the family. But the families are in poverty, and they are just not getting a very fair share of it. That was one thing that really caught my attention, because I had that emotional connection to Nicaragua” — another location where cocoa beans are grown. 

“So there was this little thought in my head, like ‘I wonder if there’s something I can do to help in this process,’” she said. “I had no idea what that would be.”

Years passed. “Life happened,” as she said, including a move to Philomath. 

“I love being a chocolate maker in Philomath,” says Maureen Nikaido of Moku Chocolate, seen here in the commercial kitchen where she and a helper handcraft about 400 chocolate bars each week. (Photo by Mike McInally for Philomath News)

The “little thought,” though, never went away. She started to do research into chocolate, and then she realized that “regular people do make chocolate.” She took an online course to learn more. In 2020, she became one of those people making chocolate at home.

And that’s when the pace really started to pick up: Over the space of not quite two years, Moku Chocolate bars — featuring single-origin chocolate (that is to say, featuring cocoa beans from one specific area) — have won national and international acclaim and are available at Market of Choice and First Alternative Natural Foods Co-op locations. Most recently, Moku Chocolate has been named one of 17 national winners for chocolate in a competition hosted by the San Francisco-based Good Food Foundation; Nikaido will accept the award in early March in San Francisco.

Nikaido quit her job last year at the Oregon State University Foundation, after nearly 30 years working in higher education, to focus on her growing chocolate business. She and an assistant create, by hand, the chocolate bars, producing about 400 of them each week. Nikaido now is pondering the same sort of questions that face other fast-growing startup businesses, about whether — and how — to scale up the operation.

In a way, Nikaido’s realization that “regular people do make chocolate” came at a fortuitous time: It coincided with the nationwide growth of craft chocolate — high-quality product that emphasizes the location where the cocoa beans are grown, in much the same way that quality wine focuses on where the grapes were cultivated. “The craft chocolate community lined up with a lot of my values,” she said.

And it led her to an online course for budding food entrepreneurs offered through Portland Community College. At the time, Nikaido, who had just started selling her chocolate online, was thinking that she could sell the bars at farmers markets or holiday bazaars or boutique stores. An adviser in the class suggested that she make a pitch to a bigger target: Market of Choice, which had a connection to the class. As it turned out, the Eugene-based grocery chain was sponsoring the Oregon Chocolate Festival and wanted to buy Moku products to include in their festival gift bags. That led to Market of Choice adding Moku products to all 11 of the chain’s stores.

At almost exactly the same time, Nikaido learned that her goat milk bar — with cocoa beans from the Sierra Nevada region of Colombia — had won gold and silver citations from the 2020-21 International Chocolate Awards competition.

The two bursts of good news kicked Moku Chocolate into another gear. But the material Nikaido learned in the Portland Community College class gave the company a foundation that allowed it to grow: In addition to facilitating contact with vendors like Market of Choice, the class covered topics like food safety, packaging, branding and marketing. 

“Everything has been a huge learning curve for me,” Nikaido said. “This is all new to me.”

Even as she learns about how to manage a growing business, she continues to hone the craft she loves — making chocolate. To purchase the cocoa beans, she works with larger companies that ensure that farmers are paid above-market rates for their crops. And she enjoys tweaking the process to bring out different “flavor notes” in the beans. For example, changing the length of time that beans are roasted can result in different flavors coming to the forefront of the chocolate. 

Although the business by its nature has a global side, Nikaido is determined to keep focused on Philomath: “I love being a chocolate maker in Philomath,” she said, and already is working with local partners. Dirt Road Brewing, for example, is experimenting with creating a porter using some of the husks that she winnows from the cocoa beans after roasting them. And she’s formed a partnership with Compton Family Winery, which sells her chocolates but also pairs them on occasion with wines for special tastings — chocolate from Peru works well with the pinots, she said. 

Nikaido still stays in touch with the Nicaraguan girl, Maybelene — now a young woman of 22 with hopes to attend veterinary school. She hopes to make a return trip someday to Nicaragua. In the meantime, though, Nikaido can thank Maybelene and that 2013 side trip to a Granada chocolate store for pushing her life in an unexpected direction: “There’s people out there who know they want their own business or they know they want to be an entrepreneur or something,” Nikaido said. “I never aspired to that. I think it’s just because I started making chocolate and I needed to sell the chocolate.”