Chocolate Wine Fridge

A few weeks ago, we could no longer close the plastic containers where we stored our chocolate. We realize Rubbermaid containers were no longer a viable solution for the massive amount of chocolate we produce and purchase. It was time for a new addition to our chocolate factory!

So, we found a fancy wine fridge on craigslist that the owner said no longer cooled. Perfect! We hooked it up at home and determined that it is not easily fixed, but the light still works, the door still seals, and the shelves still slide in and out. In other words, we suddenly were in possession of a beautiful and well-organized space to store our chocolate!

chocolate fridge

chocolate fridge

The only hitch in the plan was that the drawers were made for wine bottles, not chocolate. Well, a quick trip to the hardware store and some creative tubing/wiring solved that conundrum! We now have seven shelves of chocolate.

lighted chocolate fridge

Here’s the shelf just for our own chocolate (not the prettiest, but definitely the proudest!):

Bags of Root Chocolate. Packaging soon to come?!

Bags of Root Chocolate. Packaging soon to come?!

And the shelf for our friends’ chocolate (Arete, Confluence, Cocoa Logos, Endorfin, Dandelion):

Chocolate from our friends

Chocolate from our friends

Our single-origin bars from all over the world (Askinosie, Fine and Raw, Raaka, Marou, Castronovo, Manoa, Amedei, Lonohana, Lillie Belle, Vintage Plantations):

single origin chocolate bars

single origin chocolate bars

And the flavored bars (Manoa, Elbow, Antidote, Mast Brothers, Patric, La Colombe Workshop, Cocacu, and Il Morso):

flavored chocolate

flavored chocolate

Some mainstream bars and delicious truffles from our friend, Belinda:

Mainstream chocolate bars and truffles

Mainstream chocolate bars and truffles

And finally, Mexican chocolate (Taza, Guelaguetza)!

Mexican chocolate

Mexican chocolate

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Chocolate Business Models

How do we transform our experience with chocolate from a hobby to a business without losing the fun, collaborative, part-time nature of it all?

Honestly, this is a very difficult question and we don’t assume that there is an answer. This question goes much deeper than the surface question of how to start a business – it asks how we want to spend our free time, how we want to spend our working hours, how much financial risk we are willing to take on, how confident we are that our chocolate is actually any good, if chocolate bars are our ultimate product, what the future of our family looks like, and how permanent we are in our current living location.

All that said, we are trying to follow the practices of The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, in order to keep the potential business light and flexible. Some of the recommendations in the book are difficult to apply to a brick and mortal chocolate shop, since it’s mostly geared toward tech startups. However, we’re doing our best!

Let’s take a look at the different business model options for starting a bean-to-bar chocolate business (at least to our knowledge in California):

Cottage Food Operator (CFO)

In another post, we went into some detail about this business model. The basic idea is that this business model allows the food maker to prepare food in a private home and sell by delivery or pick-up. We don’t know of a chocolate-maker who has successfully done this.

Pros

  • We could set this up in our kitchen with limited financial input
  • We could work on chocolate at any hour of the day, in our pajamas if we want

Cons

  • We would have to deliver the product to our customers, since shipping is not permitted
  • Most famers’ markets do not allow CFOs, which would limit our distribution
  • Sales are restricted to our county, which is quite small and limits our growth potential significantly
  • Licensing is by county, so if we moved to another county, we would be required to start the process over
  • It would be very difficult (nearly impossible) for us to be profitable due to these limitations
  • We could not import (or store) large quantities of beans in our apartment

Private Wholesale Commercial Kitchen

This business model constitutes a private space in a commercial zone rented and outfitted as a legal commercial kitchen. With the wholesale model, the assumption is that there will not be customers purchasing products directly from the physical site. Instead, the product will be sold either online or through a third party distributor. This is what our friends at Arete have at the moment.

Pros

  • We would have full access to the space
  • Once we pay for the outfitting of the space, our cost of operation would decrease significantly
  • This provides the highest potential for growth
  • We could import beans and store them here

Cons

  • It is difficult to find a space small enough to be practical for small-batch chocolate-maker use
  • These types of spaces are few and far between, can be very expensive to rent, and are almost always very expensive to outfit
  • This is very location-dependent and would require the decision to permanently be located somewhere

Private Retail Commercial Space

This business model constitutes a private space in a commercial zone rented and outfitted as a legal commercial kitchen, like the wholesale space described above. Products could still be sold online and through other distributors. In addition, this model makes it possible for customers to come purchase products on site, like Dandelion’s Valencia Cafe.

Pros

  • We would have full access to the space
  • This can be incredibly lucrative, depending on the location, marketing, local foot traffic, and many other factors
  • We could import beans and store them here

Cons

  • It is a huge investment to build out a retail space
  • There are a lot more requirements, such as ADA bathrooms, to consider
  • This is very location-dependent and would require the decision to permanently be located somewhere
  • We would need to either quit our jobs or hire staff to physically run the store

Shared Commercial Kitchen

This model involves renting shared commercial kitchen space, typically by the hour or with a monthly membership fee. An example of this is KitchenTown, located in neighboring town, San Mateo.

Pros

  • This provides the lowest up-front cost of making chocolate commercially
  • The commercial kitchen has legal documentation and gear for producing and selling food
  • There’s a particularly amazing shared commercial kitchen about 10 minutes away from our apartment
  • The hours are usually flexible, so we could continue to do this on nights and weekends
  • This provides a community of food makers who we could get to know
  • We could import beans and store them here

Cons

  • Since cocoa butter is so susceptible to other scents, it’s possible that the chocolate could take on the flavor of whatever else is being cooked in the space while it’s in the melanger
  • It’s possible that we do so well that we would outgrow the shared space
  • Not all of the gear is provided, so we’d need to bring our own in
  • We would need to share the space with other chocolate-makers, which means coordinating times and machine usage

So, what’s the verdict? Good question. We’re not sure yet. We’ll keep you updated with our decision!

Where do you make your chocolate? What do you think the best option is for a chocolate start-up? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Madagascar batch

This week we made chocolate again and this time, it was delicious, fun, and scientifically documented. Who am I kidding – that’s always what our chocolate-making process looks like!

(Side note – we wish we could be in two places at once, but we will not be able to attend the Northwest Chocolate Festival this weekend. Instead, we’ll be celebrating our wedding anniversary and attending a good friend’s wedding in Kansas City. For all you chocolate-makers out there, let us know how it goes, and we’ll see you there next year!)

We started this batch on Friday the 26th with the roast. Using the Madagascar 2012 harvest that our friends, David and Leslie at Arete generously donated to our “research and development” fund, we put 932 grams of beans on our two new trays into the oven.

roasting Madagascar beans

We roasted them for 5 minutes at 400, then 15 minutes at 250, then finally 10 minutes with the oven off. Then we removed them from the oven and placed them to quickly cool on our new homemade (!) quartz table. (Richard re-designed our entire apartment to include a chocolate factory in our former dining room a couple weeks ago while I was away at a wedding, including building our new tempering table from a beautiful chunk of quartz and some Ikea table legs – wow!)

quartz tempering table

On Monday night, we had our next chance to work on chocolate. It was time to test the winnower that Richard built out of our vacuum cleaner, a bucket, some serious tubes, duct tape, and the champion juicer. Check it out! This is mock 1 and we definitely have some ways to go on improving this, but I’m super impressed with the speed and ease of winnowing with this! Our first batch had a 65% yield of 607 grams, which we intend to improve with some adjustments to the engineering.

roaster and new winnower

We sent the nibs through our trusty Nutribullet to make them into a powder, then put the grinder, rollers, and resulting cocoa powder in the oven to heat. We set the oven to 200 F then turned it off before putting the items in. We’ve learned that the refining process is a lot smoother (and less noisy) if we heat our tools and ingredients first!

I then spooned in the cocoa powder slowly over 45 minutes, using a heat gun to warm the powder and the grinder as the cocoa mass began to liquify. By 10:35pm, all the powder was in the wonder grinder and we were off to bed!

The next morning at 8am, the liquid looked beautiful (and tasted like chocolatey mud)! Richard added 236 grams of sugar, which he had previously ground in a coffee grinder, making 72% chocolate.

Tuesday night, we finished it off with an hour and a half of conching with the spring-loaded grinder unlatched, so the wheels turned freely in the cocoa liquor without the pressure of refining as well. At 9pm, we turned off the wonder grinder and started tempering! We tried some new tempering scrapers and abandoned them halfway through for our trusty Home Depot plastic paint scrapers. Sometimes fancier doesn’t equate to more functional. That said, the quartz table worked perfectly!

tempering table

To temper, we raised the temperature to 112 in the microwave, then poured the liquid out onto the table. We agitated it and spread it around, reducing the temperature to 81 F with very few chunks. In previous batches, when we hit the low 80s, the chocolate tends to chunk off, which makes it difficult to later reintegrate as a liquid. This time, we encountered much less of that for some reason.

We tried a knife test to check the temper, which was inconclusive. Maybe we don’t wait long enough to see if it hardens with a shiny, hard coat. Maybe we eat it off the end of the knife too quickly. We’ll never know!

We decided to go for it – we poured the chocolate into our molds and for the first time, it oozed into them easily without clumping at all. We tried vibrating the molds by hand, to ease the chocolate into every nook and cranny, and in the process were able to successfully remove bubbles as well!

Madagascar bars

Overall, I’m pretty pumped about this batch. We simplified some of the steps and were more successful at most of them as well. Here’s what the final products look like – much less bloom than previously, beautifully shiny (especially that big one on the right), and delicious. We still have lots to learn, but we’re definitely improving!

Madagascar chocolate

Visiting local chocolate makers

Last weekend, Richard and I had the privilege of visiting a local chocolate maker’s small-batch space. In the true spirit of Clay Gordon’s philosophy on mentoring, David and Leslie showed us around their space, explained their chocolate-making flow, and shared a taste of their favorite in-production bars. They’ve been transparent in their start up process through an extremely useful thread on The Chocolate Life called “Shared Journey,” which I highly recommend other potential chocolate-makers take a look at.

Granted, Arete is not quite in full scale production mode yet, but their deliberate research and development phase is well underway. Their goal – produce an excellent bean-to-bar product! We learned a lot from our visit and are looking forward to staying in touch with our fellow chocolate-making couple, as both of our operations grow!

First of all, they recommended we join the FCIA or Fine Chocolate Industry Association. This is an organization of people involved in the fine chocolate industry “from blossom to bonbon to bar,” as their website states. Its mission is the following:

The Fine Chocolate Industry Association is the professional non-profit organization supporting the development and innovation of the fine chocolate industry and best practices through: Identifying industry standards for cacao growing, bar and confection production, and the use of quality ingredients. Communicating with consumers, the media, and legislators regarding issues in growing, production and consumption of fine chocolate. Educating chocolate professionals on fine chocolate best practices, ingredients and techniques.

Excellent recommendation!

Secondly, they told us the story of taking the online Ecole Chocolate-Making Course. They were surprised when so much of the course involved buying and tasting other makers’ chocolates. Now, they understand the incredible value of building out one’s taste in order to understand what kind of chocolate they wanted to make. We’ve heard this before – eat lots of chocolate – and we’re not going to argue!

When we asked how they work together as a couple, they laughed. Leslie is full time while David continues his full-time job and helps out on evenings and weekends. It turns out Leslie focuses on tempering while David focuses on the roasting. And overall, they just seem to have that excellent vibe of partners. That magic factor that we’ve read about in other partner-pairs like Mish and Rob of Making it Anywhere and Jill and Josh of Screw the Nine to Five. The bottom line – divide the labor and respect each other. Seems pretty logical, doesn’t it?!

Finally, we learned about their flow from one part of the process to the next: from their bean room where they store and sort the beans, to their beautiful oven for roasting. From a rapid cooling device to the cracker and winnower. From there to the sieve, separating out the nibs of appropriate size. Then back to the oven, where the nibs and Premier Wonder Grinders are heated at a low temperature to soften the initial refining process. (Yep, we were delighted to see a few of our very own Premier Wonder Grinders lined up in their shop!) Next, into the whirling melangers which work continuously for days at a time. They often add heat lamps at certain points in the process to increase the temperature as well. Finally, out to a small temper machine or to the large granite table where Leslie tempers the chocolate by hand, and into their almost finalized molds.

Many parts of their flow are hand-designed or modified from the original use of their machines or devices. We’ve noted that in the industry of small batch chocolate-makers, there are few tools made especially for batches of 2-3 kilos. And as a result, there are many creative engineers and artists in the business who rig up their own tools, including Richard and David, among others!

We look forward to staying in touch with David and Leslie and to meeting other chocolate makers, near and far, as we learn more about the industry and how Root Chocolate fits!