Redefining Vanilla: From bean to bottle and beyond with Heilala Vanilla.
In Conversation

Redefining Vanilla: From bean to bottle and beyond with Heilala Vanilla.


In this edition of our In Conversation series with B Corp businesses we are featuring a brand almost everyone has in their kitchen pantry; Heilala Vanilla. 

After Cyclone Waka, Jennifer's father, John, transformed a gift into empowerment with a vanilla farm in Vava’u. Join us as we explore the unique bond between Heilala and the resilient community of Vava'u, how being B Corp certified is an extension of their very reason for existence, and their remarkable efforts to oversee every step from cultivation to marketing.

How and why was Heilala born?
Heilala was born out of a deep connection to the people and the land of Tonga. It all started with my father, John Ross, who embarked on a journey to Vava’u, Tonga, for a significant birthday celebration. As a retired South Auckland farmer with a love for adventure, he sailed to the Kingdom of Tonga on a boat he had built himself.
During his time in Vava’u, he fell in love with the beauty of the place and the warmth of its people. When Cyclone Waka struck and caused extensive damage to the Vava’u island group, Dad returned with friends from his Rotary Club to aid in the cleanup efforts.

As a gesture of gratitude for his assistance, a local family gifted Dad a plot of land. This gift came with a request to use the land to provide employment opportunities for the villagers. Inspired by this opportunity, Dad and I seized upon the idea of cultivating vanilla.

During previous trips to Tonga, Dad had encountered wild vanilla orchids. Drawing on his farming experience and after conducting extensive research and visits to established vanilla farms in Réunion Island, Tahiti, and Madagascar, he began cultivating vanilla on his plot of land in Tonga.

Through hard work and dedication, we partnered with other growers throughout Tonga to establish vanilla plantations. Thus, Heilala was born—a venture grounded in appreciation for the land, respect for the people, and a passion for producing exceptional vanilla.

What makes Heilala different from other vanilla products in the market?
Typically, vanilla is treated as a commodity, much like cocoa and coffee, passing through numerous traders before reaching the customer.

However, Heilala stands out as a unique vanilla producer that oversees the entire process—from cultivation to manufacturing to marketing. In today's culinary landscape, home bakers and chefs are increasingly interested in the origins of their ingredients, seeking transparency in sourcing and production methods.

Heilala meets this demand with a transparent supply chain, using clean label ingredients, and making a positive impact on local grower communities. The support from our customers inspires us to continue implementing best practices in vanilla production.

What does being B Corp Certified mean to Heilala?
To me, being a B Corp signifies a purpose that goes beyond just selling a product. The partnership between Heilala Vanilla and the resilient people of Vava'u in the Kingdom of Tonga originated two decades ago as an aid project to rebuild after a devastating cyclone. It was this act of kindness by my father, John Ross, that sparked the creation of Heilala Vanilla. For us, being a B Corp is an extension of our very reason for existence.

It's exhilarating to witness how our mission resonates with our community, empowering us to provide support to hundreds of vanilla farming families and their communities. Our commitment to sustainability, community development, and ethical labour practices fills me with immense pride and I can’t wait for B Corp movement to grow exponentially.  

What are you doing to move forward in 2024?
In 2024, we're pushing forward with our commitment to redefine vanilla and its endless possibilities. While vanilla is often unfairly labeled as plain or uninspiring, we believe there's something truly magical about our vanilla pods that sets them apart.

Recognising the evolving tastes of cooks and bakers, we've embarked on an exciting initiative to expand our product range beyond traditional extracts and pastes with a lineup of new flavours infused with pure vanilla, including Cocoa, Berry, Coffee, Pumpkin Spice, Butterscotch, and Apple Pie—each one enhancing beloved baking flavours.

Moreover, we've recently launched an alcohol-free vanilla range. Our brand-new Alcohol-Free Vanilla Paste is a groundbreaking product crafted through a meticulous glycerine extraction process. This innovative approach preserves all 200+ compounds of a vanilla bean, ensuring that our product retains the rich, buttery, bourbon-like flavor that defines Heilala. Catering to diverse preferences, this new offering reflects our commitment to providing choices for our vibrant baking community.
Where do you see Heilala in the next 5 years? Continuing our journey of growth particularly in the USA where we are building our retail footprint. We also want to continue to support rural communities in Tonga through the Heilala Vanilla Foundation.
In the next five years, I envision Heilala continuing its journey of growth, especially in the USA, where we're focused on expanding our retail footprint. Our goal is to bring Heilala vanilla to even more households across the country!

Additionally, we're deeply committed to supporting rural communities in Tonga through the Heilala Vanilla Foundation. Our aim is to create sustainable opportunities and make a meaningful impact on the lives of communities through education, empowerment, and community development initiatives.

Proudest business achievement in the last 12 months? 
We  try to celebrate small victories as well as the big wins, be it welcoming a new retail customer in the USA, achieving milestones as a team, or witnessing heartwarming moments through the Heilala Vanilla Foundation.

However, one particular achievement stands out: In 2023, Heilala was honored to be named a Game Changer by the esteemed Food & Wine Magazine. Being recognised as one of the 15 Game Changers Who Are Reshaping the Way We Eat and Drink was a momentous accomplishment for us.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Be brave enough to have the courage to face head-on what isn't working your career (and life) and take proactive steps to change. I had a safe, secure career as an accountant but looking at spreadsheets and forecasts just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.

Find something that gets you excited to get out of bed in the morning – Heilala was exactly that for me. There are always mighty high hurdles and tough situations in the journey of building a business and a brand. To get through tough times need a strong ‘Why’ and ‘Purpose’ as it anchors you and gives you some air in your tyres to keep going when you most need it.

If someone was visiting where you live, what’s the one thing you’d tell them to do?
Living in Tauranga, I would highly recommend taking a walk up Mount Maunganui if you're visiting. The view from the top on a beautiful day is absolutely breathtaking, offering a fantastic opportunity to soak in the surroundings while getting some exercise. And after the hike, indulging in brunch at The General café is a must—it's the perfect reward for conquering the hill.

What's your go-to song to elevate your mood?
My ultimate mood-lifter song has to be "Valerie" by Amy Winehouse – the perfect cold plunge song!

What’s your go-to beverage?
I don’t drink coffee so I love a hot chocolate when I’m at a café or on the go. It's rich, decadent and warm and is a lovely treat now and again.

Running a business is a constant juggling act, what does managing wellbeing look like to you?
As a business owner, maintaining wellbeing is crucial amidst the hustle and bustle of daily operations. For me, finding balance and rejuvenation involves seeking solace at our holiday house in Lake Taupo.

It's a sanctuary where I can escape the noise, connect with nature, soak up the sunshine, and savour the fresh air. I find peace in practicing yoga, cooking nourishing meals, and cherishing moments with my family. Furthermore, my passion for travel energises me, providing inspiration from experiences in food, culture, and emerging trends.
Where to find Heilala
Check out Heilala's Instagram here 

Check out their website here