The Sweetest Thing
Kula & Kō Confectionery gives Taiwan’s famous pineapple cakes a local twist.
✏️ KYLIE YAMAUCHI
📸 CHRIS ROHRER
At Kula & Kō Confectionery, a familiar Hawai‘i staple takes center stage. Perched on the second floor of International Market Place, the cozy confectionery serves a single, simple product: cake bars. Inspired by Taiwan’s popular pineapple cakes, Kula & Kō’s cake bars consist of a dollop of pineapple jam encased in soft, crumbly shortbread that can be popped in your mouth or savored in small bites.
Five years ago, Kula & Kō owner Julianna Paik, a Korean American, and her Taiwanese American business partner were looking for a a way to give back to Hawai‘i, where they both have family ties. Paik’s partner suggested they introduce the islands to pineapple cakes, a billion-dollar industry in Taiwan, given the role that pineapples played in molding Hawai‘i’s history during the plantation era. The pineapple industry, led by the still-active Dole Plantation, brought in waves of immigrant workers who would go on to shape Hawai‘i’s melting pot of cultures. The friends traveled to Taiwan to familiarize themselves with the product.
Over the span of two years, Paik and her associate partnered with Dole Plantation and hired pastry chef Amanda Cheng to invent a recipe for what came to be known as “cake bars.” Taiwan’s pineapple cakes are often cut with winter melon or strawberry, but the duo opted for a pure and authentic pineapple filling. Their cake bar’s sweet and tart pineapple filling is achieved by dehydrating a fresh Dole Pineapple for five and a half hours. One box of six cake bars contains an entire pineapple’s worth of fruit. Kula & Kō’s humble kitchen team based at Sand Island is made up of fewer than 10 employees, who bake, package, and deliver the product by hand daily throughout the week. The shop currently offers three crust flavors: butter, macadamia nut, and haupia.
The shop at International Market Place is an homage to Hawai‘i’s plantation era. Kula & Kō commissioned artist Lauren Tragmar to paint scenes of this historical period on the store wall. Paik hopes that by seeing images of workers, pineapple, and sugarcane, customers might inquire about the cake bar’s ties to Hawai‘i’s plantation history. “Everyone sells the idea of aloha, but there aren’t many gifts that actually have to do with Hawai‘i,” she says. Following this logic, Kula & Kō’s product packaging features gold geometric patterns inspired by native Hawaiian kapa, a traditional fabric made from tree bark, stained with dyes, and stamped with intricate patterns. The design earned the company a national award for best packaging design in 2017.
From the start, Paik knew she wanted Kula & Kō to honor Hawai‘i’s local culture. Paik recalls advice from a kupuna (elder) upon first opening the store: “If you want to last, you have to bring in the locals.” Since then, the company’s small team of sales associates and bakers have made it a priority to not only live by their motto of “treating pineapples like royalty,” but also valuing the locals and visitors who come to Kula & Kō for a taste of Hawai‘i and a piece of its colorful history.