Cori Ehukai Nakamoto is living every entrepreneur’s dream. She followed her passion for cake decorating and successfully turned her hobby into a flourishing business aptly named Cori’s Cake Dreams. With the support of OHA Mālama Loans, today she has three Cake Dreams Bakeshop sites. Like her impressive cake designs, Nakamoto’s aspirations show her boundless, creative energy and optimism for the future.
Nakamoto’s sweet taste of success didn’t happen overnight. For more than a decade, she dedicated herself to perfecting her craft, creating and selling her exquisitely designed luxury cakes for weddings, showers, birthdays, and other special occasions on weekends – while working full-time as an orthodontic care coordinator.
The McKinley High School graduate who grew up in Kalihi first became smitten by the joy of cake decorating when she took a cake decorating class with her mom. That was a pivotal experience. She sold her first cake in 2010, nearly 13 years ago, and soon was taking as many as four to five orders a week. Her weekends were spent producing cakes from start to finish — baking, decorating and delivering — all on her own. And she enjoyed every sweet moment.
Nakamoto’s professional validation came when she and Nixon Dabalos, another Hawaiʻi baker, were selected by Netflix producers to be one of the four contestant teams on the popular show, Sugar Rush: Extra Sweet in 2020.
“When we got to the studio it was awesome,” Nakamoto said. “It was like a Disneyland for adults in the cake business. We just gave it our best shot and hoped to make it past Round 1.”
The baking team representing Hawaiʻi actually did better, winning all three rounds and impressing the judges with their innovative creations. They were required to make desserts made with childhood sweet and savory junk food snacks.
The Hawaiʻi duo outshined the other contestants with their cheese-filled cupcake encrusted with cheeseball crumbs; their Hawaiʻi-inspired rainbow Ho-Ho made with chantilly and mango jam drizzled with Milk Dud glaze; and a boombox and gumball machine expertly designed to burst with candy when the cake was cut.
They made all of Hawaiʻi proud winning the grand prize of $10,000. Nakamoto said she is still reaping the benefits of the notoriety of winning on a nationally acclaimed show, but she has remained grounded and humble and is working as hard as ever.
“Even though others tell me, ‘You’re there,’ I don’t feel like I’m quite there yet,” said Nakamoto, who continually strives to get better.
In May 2022, Nakamoto successfully acquired two bakery locations, one at Fort Shafter and the other at Tripler Medical Center, and six employees, which she subsequently doubled to a staff of a dozen to greatly expand her vision and operations. It was exactly what she had been praying for to take her business to the next level. She recently celebrated the grand opening of her third bakery at Schofield in Wahiawa.
The bakeries offer every imaginable delight: cassava flan, Ube Brazo De Mercedes, blueberry cheesecake tarts, banana bread, Fruity Pebbles macarons, and even the cheeseball cupcake that won the hearts of the Netflix Sugar Rush judges.
With the bakery acquisitions, Nakamoto made the difficult decision to give up her orthodontic position after 20 years.
“I loved working there,” she said, noting that her sisters, Darcie and Bree, and her friends from church have been her main source of encouragement as she ventured into her business on a full-time basis.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) Mālama Loan program has been instrumental in supporting Nakamoto’s dream. OHA helped Nakamoto to finance the purchase of a new freezer, build a new website for her bakeries, develop marketing materials, and provide employee uniforms and startup capital to cover the first month of payroll.
Aikū‘ē Kalima, manager of OHA’s Native Hawaiian Revolving Loan Fund program, said the program provides more than lend money. “We contract a vendor to provide technical assistance to every approved start-up loan applicant to ensure their success. It’s like having a personal coach or mentor assigned to you to review your business plan to not only ensure you can repay the loan, but also to enjoy long-term business success.”
Nakamoto does not consider herself a role model but is proud to represent Native Hawaiians. She offered some practical words of wisdom for others: “When times get rough, most businesses scale back, but that is the time to push through.”