Sweet Sensations

Ko Bakery Kauai Lei

This bakery owned by two couples infuses its nostalgic treats with island-inspired flavors.

Text by Coco Zingaro
Images by Bryce Johnson

Chris Spinosa admits that he’s a bit behind schedule as he dashes around a quaint commercial kitchen tucked behind a car dealership in Lihu‘e, Kaua‘i. It’s only 9 a.m., but he has been hard at work since 3:30 a.m., an indecent hour for most of us still snuggled in bed. The scones he’s busy arranging are so deliciously fragrant that my mouth begins to water. “Look at how even and beautiful they look,” says Spinosa’s business partner, Morris Wise, who is taking a break from his administrative duties.

Spinosa, Wise, and their respective husbands own and operate Ko Bakery (“ko” means sugarcane in Hawaiian). “All of our baked goods are what your mom would have made, but better. But don’t tell your mom that,” Wise jokes. Their menu is nostalgic—think pound cakes, cookies, and brownies—but with an island-inspired twist. Macadamia nuts and liliko‘i (passionfruit) are among the favored local ingredients.

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“I worked a long time on a lot of these recipes,” Spinosa says. A professional pastry chef from Washington, D.C., he received formal training at CakeLove, the celebrated D.C. bakery that initiated the cupcake renaissance of the last decade. Prior to moving to Kaua‘i in 2011 with his husband, David Schwartz, Spinosa spent several years ideating his brand of sugary concoctions. “Some recipes come together quickly, some take forever,” he says. It took him roughly 50 tries to perfect the Ko Bakery brownies, while his specialty cakes featuring indulgent flavors like haupia lime (haupia is coconut cream pudding) were whipped up with far greater ease. Try the crispy cookies and you’ll understand what a perfect marriage of flavors he strives to achieve.

In 2013, Spinosa gladly joined sugar-coated forces with Wise, who now lends a hand in recipe development. A professional musician and pipe organ builder (the kind you see in cathedrals), Wise moved to Kaua‘i from California in 2009 with his husband, Byron Barth, and was already running a successful biscotti business, Hula Baby, when he met Spinosa. His recipes survive with Ko Bakery, which now produces Hula Baby biscotti featuring flavors like blue Hawaiian basil and chocolate coconut, great pairings for morning coffee.

The Kaua‘i Community Market on Saturdays at Kaua‘i Community College is the best way to find Ko Bakery products and to meet their makers. Aside from this, a number of retail outlets on the four main Hawaiian Islands sell Ko Bakery goods. The couples also run a catering business and create custom cakes—picture marbled cakes with caramel swirls, vanilla buttercream, and homemade caramel sauce made with Koloa Rum—for private events, weddings, and birthdays.

The bakery has won over hearts and bellies with products like “Sweet Pahoehoe,” a brioche with chocolate and cinnamon (an island version of a popular east coast dessert called Babka, and named after lava because of its signature swirls). They’re also committed to celebrating all of their customers, including LGBT couples getting hitched on the Garden Isle.

“We’re an inclusive business,” Wise says.

“Except for gluten-free,” Spinosa chuckles.

You really can’t match their macaroon, made with toasted coconut, Swiss meringue, and cake flour, which gives the small delicacy a unique texture and deep flavor. Though, I have to wonder, while savoring the pleasing smells permeating from the kitchen, how they manage to keep their waistlines from expanding along with their business.

“I have a sweet tooth, I will not deny it,” Spinosa says.

“Me too,” Wise agrees.

It probably helps that the owners are on their feet a lot, sometimes 10 hours a day, in order to keep up with demand. But having a bustling business and supportive community is not something you’ll ever hear them complain about. “The aloha spirit is still alive here,” Wise says. “We live in this awesome place that we don’t take for granted.”

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For more information, visit kobakery.com. To place an order, call 808-212-9437.

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