January 29, 2014
Chocovivo is the first bean-to-bar chocolate factory in Los Angeles. Founder Patricia Tsai was inspired to create this small business after visiting Oaxaca, Mexico in 2001, and discovering the traditional and pure way chocolate is made in this region. Tsai worked as an apprentice with a cacao grower in Tabasco, Mexico, learning how beans should be fermented and processed, and eventually opened her own commercial kitchen space in LA. All of the beans used at Chocovivo are considered single origin as they are coming from one plantation in Tabasco – Vicente’s Jesus Maria. We talked to Tsai about the challenges of creating a truly grassroots, tree-to-table product.
What was the inspiration behind creating this business?
I just finished getting my CPA to appease my parents and was struck at the fact that I went to a 4 year Ivy League college to work behind computers and number-crunch. I went through a soul-searching journey to figure out what I could do for the rest of my life. My journey landed me in Mexico and there I was awed at the fact that chocolate was so simple and the transparency of transforming chocolate into food for the people was amazing to me.
How is your business unique from other bean-to-bar operations?
When you see the shiny finish, manufacturers are going through a process called tempering or conching. Chocolate is like a 16 step process. What we are doing is processing using the first 6 steps of making chocolate. When you start over-processing anything you lose nutritional value. We think chocolate is food as opposed to confection or candy. We are taking very traditional methods from how the Mayans and Aztecs made chocolate over 2,000 years ago and adding a modern twist to it with our different ingredients such as black sesame, goji berries, cherries, and almonds.
How have you been able to merge commerce with sustainable business practices?
We try to be as sustainable as possible. We wish we had the capital to be the ideal sustainable company, but we are making important steps in that direction. The most important factor in what we do is where we source our cacao. We work directly with one grower – Vicente. He has a very sustainable farm and is extremely transparent at his farming practices. You can't grow a strong business or brand without the trust of your consumers. I knew before I went into this venture that I had to be as transparent as possible. The concept has always been, "We know our grower and we provide transparency in what we do." You give people the knowledge and they can like us or hate us, but at least we are honest.
Why is the bean-to-bar concept so important to the chocolate industry?
Bean-to-bar is important because at least the customer knows that we are starting as close to the beginning of the food chain in terms of making chocolate. Fermentation and drying of the beans, no matter what kind of chocolate you are getting, starts at the plantation. We make chocolate once a week and our shop allows people to see us working in the factory. You can see the nibs going into the stone grinder to produce a beautiful wet chocolate waterfall. This transparency allows people to feel comfortable knowing they can see their food being made right in front of them.
What's the future of the company? Where do you think you'll have the biggest impact?
We hope to have other little grinding shops in major cities across the U.S. There's nothing like getting a fresh batch of chocolate stone ground that week. It's like a bakery that makes bread except we are making fresh "live" chocolate.
The biggest impact that we can make is through education. By telling the story to each and every customer we hope that they take away the fact that chocolate is purely food. We've dumbed down chocolate so much that we have forgotten that this special food once was currency and only enjoyed by aristocrats from the Mayan days to when it traveled to Europe. There's always forgotten ways of many ancient traditions and customs. I'm here to bring back the beauty of what chocolate can be and how it was many years ago.
What can retailers learn from your success?
We are just beginning our journey of being retailers so there's much to learn from those that have been in the business for many years. What keeps me going is the fact that every single person that walks out that door understands what we do. Obviously there are some that don't get it, but better to give than to doubt. Knowledge is power.