Accelerating Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

Accelerating Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

Molding a Chocolate Company in Small Town Oregon

August 02, 2022






Molding a Chocolate Company in Small Town Oregon

August 02, 2022

Maureen Nikaido didn’t see herself as an entrepreneur. She wasn’t the Silicon Valley type inventing something cool, taking meetings, and making things happen, she thought. She was just a lady in a small town with a passion for making chocolate.


Not just any chocolate. Award-winning craft chocolate.


Chocolate, just like wine and coffee, will differ based on where it is grown. The soil and the climate, for example, naturally affect how the cacao beans from a certain region will taste. Nikaido first learned about this on a trip to Nicaragua.


“Craft chocolate makers really want to bring out those differences and that’s why there are often single origin flavors,” explained Nikaido. ”Because each of them are different and they want to bring out the flavors in that particular one.”


Not only do they care about the quality and unique flavors, craft chocolate makers also care about the livelihood of the farms that grow the cacao beans. Many of the growers are small, family farms who are often paid above market price for their beans. This promotes a higher quality product and directly impacts the lives of the families who grow it.


“I never wanted to be an entrepreneur,” said Nikaido. “I never aspired to be that…I went to Nicaragua, learned about chocolate, wanted to do something with chocolate, then started making the chocolate.”


In 2020, her thinking about what an entrepreneur is changed.


After years of making chocolate in her kitchen, creating a mouth-watering aroma in her home on a regular basis, she decided to turn her hobby into a business. Nikaido opened Moku Chocolate in Philomath, a small town nestled in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range. Admittedly, she had no idea how to run her business.


“So much of it I was just learning by doing, trusting myself as far as my instincts about the chocolate,” she said. “Other things like doing the accounting or just running a business, I didn’t have the confidence in that.”


She didn’t know how to start thinking about ways to scale her business. She assumed she would stay small, continuing to sell to local outlets like Market of Choice and The Coop.


“Luckily, there’s so much help along the way,” she realized.



Providing Access to Capital


Getting involved with RAIN turned out to be exactly the help she needed. Nate Conroy, venture catalyst for the organization serving Linn and Benton counties, first learned of the chocolate maker after seeing a Facebook post suggesting Moku as a local option for holiday gifts.


"I went to her website and the branding, the packaging, and the national awards were so impressive,” Conroy said. “I thought I was looking at an established, huge company based in a big city somewhere."


Nikaido credits a packaging and branding class at Portland Community College for helping her develop a professional and signature look that features bold colors with Japanese themes.


Realizing Moku was in small town Philomath and only a few years old, Conroy reached out to introduce himself. In that conversation, he asked Nikaido what help she needed. That was a turning point for Moku Chocolate, according to Nikaido.


Upon learning that she wanted to scale up but didn’t know where to start, Conroy connected Nikaido to a representative from Business Oregon, the state's economic development agency. The three of them met to discuss where her business was, where it needed to be, and the steps Nikaido needed to take in order to grow.


But scaling up would be expensive, and her new business didn’t have the working capital to fund it. Through her newfound connection with Business Oregon, Nikaido applied for and was awarded the Small Business Sustainability Fund.


“To go to the next step to scale up, it’s quite a leap financially, and I wasn’t really willing to do that,“ she said. “It felt like a risk, but then when I had the funding, I felt like I could do it.”


“Business Oregon offers a variety of programs to help small businesses in Oregon get started, grow, and thrive,” said Melissa Murphy, Regional Development Officer at Business Oregon. “We are thrilled that Moku Chocolate has been so successful and is having a positive impact on the community. That’s what we strive for at Business Oregon—to invest in Oregon businesses, communities, and people to promote a globally competitive, diverse, and inclusive economy.”


The grant allowed Nikaido to purchase equipment needed to increase production. She upgraded her roaster, moving from roasting 1 kilo of chocolate to 10 kilos at a time. As well, she ordered a tempering machine, the thing that melts the chocolate and folds it so she can mold it. That machine triples the amount of chocolate she can make in a molding session.


These more efficient tools and faster processes saved Nikaido hours of work, and she is now able to double the amount of hours she can give to an employee.


“That was the most impactful connection that I was able to make through RAIN because that is really going to impact how much chocolate I can make, how efficiently I can make it, how many places I can sell to, how many people I can hire…so that was a game-changer,” she said.


“Eighty-three percent of small businesses in Oregon are unable to secure funding from traditional sources, like banks or venture funds, and most of these businesses are seeking between $50,000 to $250,000 to start or grow,” stated Caroline Cummings, CEO of RAIN. “If you think about the tens of thousands of small businesses in Oregon who need capital to grow—like Moku Chocolate—but don’t know where to go for help, the missed opportunities for growth are staggering.”


Cummings continued, “Filling the capital gap in Oregon isn’t easy, so it’s great when we are able to refer startups and small businesses to alternative funding sources like Business Oregon’s Small Business Sustainability Fund and our new RAINcap crowdfunding program.”


Maximizing Local Connections


Being part of the process of supporting small businesses and running one herself, has opened Nikaido’s eyes to the value small businesses bring to a community. While cacao beans can’t be grown locally, she sources locally when possible.


“As much as I can, I want to make those local connections,” she said. “I make a bar with hazelnuts in it and those are local hazelnuts from La Mancha Ranch & Orchard,” located in Sweet Home.


Nikaido has made two partnerships closer to home; one with 2 Towns Ciderhouse in Corvallis who is using her husks for a special cider, the other with Dirt Road Brewing in Philomath who uses her nibs in seasonal brews.


In 2022, Nakaido moved into a new commercial kitchen space, the third she’s had in the last year. The new space was acquired through the help of RAIN’s connections after Nikaido reached out to Conroy. It is the nicest one yet, she says, and it will provide the space needed as she crafts her way to the next stage in her business.


Maureen Nikaido didn’t see herself as an entrepreneur. She wasn’t the Silicon Valley type inventing something cool, taking meetings, and making things happen, she thought. She was just a lady in a small town with a passion for making chocolate.


Not just any chocolate. Award-winning craft chocolate.


Chocolate, just like wine and coffee, will differ based on where it is grown. The soil and the climate, for example, naturally affect how the cacao beans from a certain region will taste. Nikaido first learned about this on a trip to Nicaragra.


“Craft chocolate makers really want to bring out those differences and that’s why there are often single origin flavors,” explained Nikaido. ”Because each of them are different and they want to bring out the flavors in that particular one.”


Not only do they care about the quality and unique flavors, craft chocolate makers also care about the livelihood of the farms that grow the cacao beans. Many of the growers are small, family farms who are often paid above market price for their beans. This promotes a higher quality product and directly impacts the lives of the families who grow it.


“I never wanted to be an entrepreneur,” said Nikaido. “I never aspired to be that…I went to Nicaragua, learned about chocolate, wanted to do something with chocolate, then started making the chocolate.”


In 2020, her thinking about what an entrepreneur is changed.


After years of making chocolate in her kitchen, creating a mouth-watering aroma in her home on a regular basis, she decided to turn her hobby into a business. Nikaido opened Moku Chocolate in Philomath, a small town nestled in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range. Admittedly, she had no idea how to run her business.


“So much of it I was just learning by doing, trusting myself as far as my instincts about the chocolate,” she said. “Other things like doing the accounting or just running a business, I didn’t have the confidence in that.”


She didn’t know how to start thinking about ways to scale her business. She assumed she would stay small, continuing to sell to local outlets like Market of Choice and The Coop.


“Luckily, there’s so much help along the way,” she realized.


Providing Access to Capital


Getting involved with RAIN turned out to be exactly the help she needed. Nate Conroy, venture catalyst for the organization serving Linn and Benton counties, first learned of the chocolate maker after seeing a Facebook post suggesting Moku as a local option for holiday gifts.


"I went to her website and the branding, the packaging, and the national awards were so impressive,” Conroy said. “I thought I was looking at an established, huge company based in a big city somewhere."


Nikaido credits a packaging and branding class at Portland Community College for helping her develop a professional and signature look that features bold colors with Japanese themes.


Realizing Moku was in small town Philomath and only a few years old, Conroy reached out to introduce himself. In that conversation, he asked Nikaido what help she needed. That was a turning point for Moku Chocolate, according to Nikaido.


Upon learning that she wanted to scale up but didn’t know where to start, Conroy connected Nikaido to a representative from Business Oregon, the state's economic development agency. The three of them met to discuss where her business was, where it needed to be, and the steps Nikaido needed to take in order to grow.


But scaling up would be expensive, and her new business didn’t have the working capital to fund it. Through her newfound connection with Business Oregon, Nikaido applied for and was awarded the Small Business Sustainability Fund.


“To go to the next step to scale up, it’s quite a leap financially, and I wasn’t really willing to do that,“ she said. “It felt like a risk, but then when I had the funding, I felt like I could do it.”


“Business Oregon offers a variety of programs to help small businesses in Oregon get started, grow, and thrive,” said Melissa Murphy, Regional Development Officer at Business Oregon. “We are thrilled that Moku Chocolate has been so successful and is having a positive impact on the community. That’s what we strive for at Business Oregon—to invest in Oregon businesses, communities, and people to promote a globally competitive, diverse, and inclusive economy.”


The grant allowed Nikaido to purchase equipment needed to increase production. She upgraded her roaster, moving from roasting 1 kilo of chocolate to 10 kilos at a time. As well, she ordered a tempering machine, the thing that melts the chocolate and folds it so she can mold it. That machine triples the amount of chocolate she can make in a molding session.


These more efficient tools and faster processes saved Nikaido hours of work, and she is now able to double the amount of hours she can give to an employee.


“That was the most impactful connection that I was able to make through RAIN because that is really going to impact how much chocolate I can make, how efficiently I can make it, how many places I can sell to, how many people I can hire…so that was a game-changer,” she said.


“Eight-three percent of small businesses in Oregon are unable to secure funding from traditional sources, like banks or venture funds, and most of these businesses are seeking between $50,000 to $250,000 to start or grow,” stated Caroline Cummings, CEO of RAIN. “If you think about the tens of thousands of small businesses in Oregon who need capital to grow—like Moku Chocolate—but don’t know where to go for help, the missed opportunities for growth are staggering.”


Cummings continued, “Filling the capital gap in Oregon isn’t easy, so it’s great when we are able to refer startups and small businesses to alternative funding sources like Business Oregon’s Small Business Sustainability Fund and our new RAINcap crowdfunding program.”


Maximizing Local Connections


Being part of the process of supporting small businesses and running one herself, has opened Nikaido’s eyes to the value small businesses bring to a community. While cacao beans can’t be grown locally, she sources locally when possible.


“As much as I can, I want to make those local connections,” she said. “I make a bar with hazelnuts in it and those are local hazelnuts from La Mancha Ranch & Orchard,” located in Sweet Home.


Nikaido has made two partnerships closer to home; one with 2 Towns Ciderhouse in Corvallis who is using her husks for a special cider, the other with Dirt Road Brewing in Philomath who uses her nibs in seasonal brews.


In 2022, Nakaido moved into a new commercial kitchen space, the third she’s had in the last year. The new space was acquired through the help of RAIN’s connections after Nikaido reached out to Conroy. It is the nicest one yet, she says, and it will provide the space needed as she crafts her way to the next stage in her business.


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