Tree to Bar: From Nicaragua to North Carolina
This past week I visited Asheville, North Carolina. The days were full of spring. Trees were bursting with blossoms and tiny clumps of new green leaves. And, there was, of course, chocolate.
A stiff, cool breeze blew as I walked across Pack Square to investigate French Broad Chocolates' Chocolate Lounge, and the company's boutique called Chocolate + Milk (the "+" is silent) next door.
I was a block away when I saw a long line extending from the Chocolate Lounge entrance. This was obviously a very popular community gathering place in downtown Asheville. And the cold wind wasn't deterring eager customers waiting to sip drinking chocolate and coffee, and to order desserts.
Because of the long line at the Lounge, I ducked next door into Chocolate + Milk to sample a cashew caramel (from the company's caramel collection box) and two different ice creams (neither with chocolate). However, the Nibby Road ice cream—a version of Rocky Road, with cacao nibs, home-made marshmallow fluff and toasted almonds—did beckon.
There was also an impressive wall of craft chocolate bars from a variety of craft chocolate makers (including French Broad). I bought a few different bars, including a French Broad Chocolates Cacao Bisiesto Nicaragua dark bar. More on that collaboration below.
Interview with Dan Rattigan at the Factory
I met with co-founder Dan Rattigan at the French Broad Chocolates Factory and Tasting Room—about half a mile south of the company's Chocolate Lounge and Chocolate + Milk locations.
But, before delving into the tour and interview I should mention a few weeks ago I was in Nicaragua, coincidentally talking with the founders of Cacao Bisiesto—a source of cacao beans for French Broad Chocolates.
Cacao Bisiesto - Nicaragua
Two weeks before landing in Asheville, I was with a group* outside of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, bouncing along on dirt roads, visiting cacao farms. Here the group was able to commune with cacao trees laden with pods (fruits that contain the cacao beans (seeds)) and learn some of the secrets to great cacao.
Farmers cultivate cacao fruit (pods), which grow on trees. Cacao pod colors include green, red, magenta-purple, pink, yellow and orange. Small white flowers (like the tiny one shown at right next to a green pod) turn into much larger pods than you'd imagine. And the white, pulpy fruit (inside the thick outer layer), is delicious.
This farm tour was led by Gifford (Giff) Laube and Jose Enrique Herrera, of Cacao Bisiesto (La Dalia, Nicaragua). Giff and Jose Enrique work with local Nicaraguan cacao farmers (and their own cacao) to produce high-quality fermented beans to send to chocolate makers (primarily in the U.S.).
Their combined advice on everything from how to grow and trim cacao trees to how long to ferment cacao has been beneficial to farmers and makers alike. I'll be running a separate story on them this week.
Cacao Bisiesto supplies cacao beans to French Broad Chocolates. And yesterday's Chocolate of the Day was a Cacao Bisiesto Nicaragua bar, made and sold by French Broad Chocolates. It's a good example of collaboration across a great distance.
French Broad Chocolates - Chocolate Factory Tour
Now, back to my interview with Dan Rattigan at French Broad Chocolates' compact and well-organized factory.
Dan gave me a quick factory tour. First, you start with great beans, and then, after opening bags of beans, you do a final sort. Then you roast, crack, winnow the beans...and then you take pieces of the roasted beans and you grind/conch and temper the chocolate—one small batch at a time.
That's how you make craft chocolate from fermented and dried cacao beans. There is a lot more to it than that; and plenty of opportunity for mishaps if you're not careful.
Because of the skills required, I never tire of seeing chocolate being made.
A rich chocolate aroma filled the area where beans were being ground into a dark viscous and fragrant mass.
Across the room, carefully labeled blocks of untempered chocolate were neatly stacked awaiting future use. Additional stores lay in the "Chocolate Vault" (a much nicer, more spacious walk-in version of my home office-based Chocolate Vault).
Machines - The move to more stainless steel
I enjoyed seeing machines that Dan had designed and built himself early on—next to a row of gleaming stainless steel machines running in full production mode—and hearing about ongoing updates being made to accommodate growing demand.
We also talked about the company's award-winning green business status—and their use of solar energy (a favorite topic of mine). Dan designed a solar system capable of collecting/producing and piping hot air to a production area, to aid in the roasting process.
Making chocolate from scratch (bean-to-bar) requires great beans as well as precise equipment and processes. It also takes the right people to make craft chocolate and to run a successful, multi-faceted business.
Fortunately, Dan and Jael Rattigan seem to make a great pair; and they've worked hard to assemble a great team.
The Man Behind the Chocolate
Dan Rattigan had the intent listening skills of a successful executive; and the natural ability to convey a compelling narrative.
Dan and Jael Rattigan (husband and wife team) fell in love, and co-founded French Broad Chocolates after living in Costa Rica, where they purchased an abandoned cacao farm, and operated a restaurant called Bread and Chocolate.
This experience contributed to a decade's worth of accumulated knowledge about sourcing great cacao (from Cacao Bisiesto in Nicaragua and organizations in other cacao-growing countries).
Dan clearly understands the value of in-country relationships to obtain high-quality beans, and of paying employees competitive wages to achieve positive results. An example of their progressive management philosophy: the company was in the process of implementing an "open books" system to foster transparency and better understanding.
Dan also possessed a keen understanding of sustainability, continuous improvement and lifetime learning to meet their goals. On the business side, I asked Dan whether they'd thought about expanding partnerships (both at the supplier end and with other businesses that might be open to co-branded products that incorporate French Broad Chocolates).
Right now, their successful chocolate-related business(es) are gobbling up almost all the cacao that Dan can produce. However, more collaborations or partnerships in the future might be possible. In the meantime, congratulations to the Rattigans for building successful community and product.
Before I left I sampled a chocolate from the tasting case in the front. It was a fresh-tasting, Maple Smoked Salt chocolate. I highly recommend it.
If you're visiting Asheville, tours at the factory are held on Saturdays. Check the company's website for more information.
*The Nicaragua cacao tour was arranged by The Chocolate Garage (Palo Alto, CA).