The Women-Run, Mission-Driven Vanilla Brand That Wants to Level up Your Baking
It started as an aid project; now it appears in buzzy restaurants around the world. The Heilala Vanilla team reflects on a decade of supporting communities in Tonga and the creation of their new line of flavored vanilla extracts.
At a recent “vanilla dinner” in New York City, Ruby Grant and her guests dined on course after course of vanilla-flavored fare: fish stew with a vanilla-seaweed glaze, vanilla plantain tarts, watermelon cocktails infused with pure vanilla paste.
“It’s so exciting to see chefs and home bakers use vanilla in different and exciting or unusual ways,” she says. “I think sometimes you don’t realize if vanilla is there in a dish, but you always know when it’s not. It’s a bit like salt in that way.”
Grant’s enthusiasm for the pantry staple is to be expected: She’s the general manager of sales and marketing for Heilala Vanilla, an award-winning brand based in New Zealand and Tonga. The dinner was to celebrate the launch of Heilala’s new line of flavored vanilla extracts, live on Kickstarter now.
The 11-year-old company developed their new product offering, which includes coffee, berry, cocoa, pumpkin spice, peppermint, and oak aged vanilla extracts, as part of an ambitious effort to grow their business, expand to new markets around the world, and employ more growers and farmers in Tonga, the chain of islands in the South Pacific the company calls home. In addition to running their own vanilla farms in Tonga, they’ve partnered with local growers to set up a transparent, ethical supply chain of vanilla beans, vanilla paste, vanilla extract, and more that reaches bakers around the world, as well as chefs at chic establishments like New York’s Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Tavern.
“It was always to benefit a community in Tonga, while creating the best vanilla in the world,” says Heilala cofounder and CEO Jennifer Boggis. “That’s what our initial mission was, and it’s what continues to drive us today.”
After a cyclone ravages Tonga, a retired farmer brings vanilla back to the islands
On New Year’s Eve, 2001, Cyclone Waka swept through the Tongan island of Vava’u, decimating buildings, farms, and infrastructure. The storm, one of the most devastating the South Pacific kingdom has ever experienced, caused over $50 million (in U.S. dollars) in damage and defoliated nearly every tree on the island.
Boggiss’s father, John Ross, a retired farmer from New Zealand, had visited the island for three months not long before the cyclone hit. He returned to Tonga to take part in the relief efforts, marshalling retired builders, plumbers, and electricians from his local Rotary club to help rebuild schools, houses, and infrastructure.
During these relief efforts, the head of the village sought his advice: “He said, ‘We’ve got all this land, but our people have no employment,’” recalls Boggiss. “‘What can we do to create a livelihood?’” Ross knew that vanilla had once grown in Tonga, and, unlike fresh fruits and vegetables, which must be harvested and shipped out quickly, the growing and harvesting cycle for vanilla is slow and measured — a must for the relatively isolated kingdom, since freight transports don’t regularly visit the islands. The village head granted Ross a lease on a farm, on the condition that he use it to provide employment to members of the community.
Ross then embarked on a “worldwide vanilla trip” to Costa Rica, Réunion Island, Madagascar, and Tahiti, learning everything he could about the plant and bringing the knowledge back to Tonga. His first crop, harvested in 2005, yielded a modest 90 pounds of vanilla beans. He told his daughter, “We’ve got to do something with this. We’ve got to make sure this is going to be an ongoing and viable form of community employment.”
From vanilla beans to pastes, extracts, and “breakfast vanilla”
Boggiss left her job in accounting in 2008 and devoted herself to building the Heilala Vanilla brand full-time. (Heilala is the national flower of Tonga; it’s also the name of the eldest daughter of the family that gifted Ross the farmland.) They began to expand their product offering: In addition to selling whole vanilla beans, they created a vanilla extract and vanilla paste for baking (one teaspoon of the paste packs all the flavor of a whole vanilla bean); vanilla sugar and vanilla syrup, which has a consistency similar to maple syrup; and a “breakfast vanilla” extract that contains glycerin instead of alcohol so it can be added to oatmeal, cereal, smoothies, and other cold dishes.
And they developed a direct, transparent supply chain that eliminated many of the faceless intermediaries that vanilla products normally pass through. “Typically, vanilla goes through about 10 steps in a supply chain before it actually gets to a chef or a home baker,” Boggiss says, “from a grower to a processor and an exporter and a warehouse and a distributor and a wholesaler.”
In contrast, Heilala harvests vanilla on its own farms or sources it from partner farmers in Tonga, and does all of the processing, manufacturing, and shipping in-house. And although vanilla prices dip and surge based on market and climatic factors — in 2018, increased demand and extreme weather in Madagascar briefly made it more expensive than silver — Heilala strives to pay farmers a fair and consistent price for their vanilla, Boggiss says.
That transparency — plus the product’s consistent quality — has made Heilala a favorite among chefs who want to know where their ingredients come from and care about sustainable and equitable production. “Products like cocoa and coffee in recent years have really paved the way for origin stories,” says Grant. “Consumers and chefs want to know what’s in their food, where it’s coming from, who are the creators behind it; they can then tell those stories on the menu or to their customers and feel really good about the product they’re using.”
Harvesting vanilla often requires a woman’s touch
Heilala now employs about 16 people in Tauranga, New Zealand, and around 20 in Tonga, depending on the season. Last year, Heilala planted an additional 100 acres of vanilla, on land granted to them by the King of Tonga in recognition of the company’s contributions to the community, and aims to employ an additional 150 people, most of them women, by 2025.
Unlike most farm work, which tends to involve grueling physical labor, the work of growing and harvesting vanilla is particularly well suited to women, Boggiss says. “Vanilla is quite a magical process. It flowers once a year, and those flowers have to be hand-pollinated within four hours of them opening, and then a green bean grows for the next nine months. To hand-pollinate the flowers you need quite delicate hands — you can do it with a little toothpick — so women are great at that.
“Then, during those nine months when the vanilla beans are growing, it’s [about] keeping an eye on them, looping them, feeding them mulch and weeding, that sort of thing. It’s very non-physical. The harvest period is gradual, like the flowering period; it goes over about six weeks. Then there’s the drying and curing process, which goes over about three months: wrapping the beans up at night, putting them away, just like babies, and taking them out in the morning, putting them in the sun, turning them so they don’t get sunburned. You even massage the beans when they get to a certain step in the drying process.” All of which the women can do in a communal space, on a nine-to-three schedule, Boggiss says.
Gathering feedback from their customers, Heilala invites other flavors into the mix
Now, for the first time, Heilala’s vanilla products will cede a little space in the mixing bowl to other beloved baking flavors like coffee, berries, peppermint, and pumpkin spice.
“We get a lot of feedback from our vanilla community. They’re often telling us what they like about products, what they don’t like, and it’s given us an opportunity to take that feedback and develop new products,” Grant says.
They started working on the flavored extracts after hearing that customers were pairing their vanilla with flavors like peppermint, cocoa, and pumpkin spice in their creations, particularly in holiday treats. “We tested out a spiced vanilla extract last Christmas and sent it out to our foodie community — home bakers, influencers, media, baking publications — and we got really positive feedback,” Grant says. “People were using it instead of chai and cinnamon in their baking. Since then we’ve spent most of this year refining and tweaking the new range.”
As it grows, Heilala remains committed to its social mission
John Ross continues to be involved with Heilala; he’s the company’s supply chain manager, and he’s currently in Tonga to oversee the harvest and support the community in general. “John might spend half of his day helping out on the vanilla farms or training farmers and looking at crops and plants, but a lot of his time is also spent helping someone fix a flat tire or repairing a broken water pipe,” Grant says. “There are so many different things that he uses his Kiwi ingenuity for, and he’s one of the locals when he goes up there.”
“We like to be involved not just [with] vanilla farmers but at a wider community level,” Boggiss says. This year, Heilala are partnering with a volunteer organization to build a house for a family whose home was destroyed in a recent cyclone. And Ross and his Rotary club friends continue to do work on the islands; their latest project is installing a solar water pump in a village there.
“Going up to Tonga is an experience that makes you grateful to be part of something that’s more than a job,” Grant says. “When you see the impact that vanilla farming has on the communities, allowing families to send their son or daughter to university or buy a new tractor or be able to plant something else on their land, those things make what we do every day worthwhile.”
The only downside to helming a growing vanilla business? “People visit our factory here and they say, ‘Oh, I love the smell. You must love that vanilla smell!’” says Boggiss. “I don’t smell it. I must be immune to it now.”