The co-founders of Ritual Chocolate—a fledgling natural chocolate company—share the trials of starting a small business, their goals and why their chocolate product breaks through the marketplace clutter.
If you ask Robbie Stout and Anna Davies, co-founders of the Denver, Colo.-based Ritual Chocolate what inspired them to start a bean-to-bar chocolate company they will half-jokingly reply “Eating bad chocolate.” But after speaking with them over a breakfast of poached eggs and massive amounts of chicory coffee, it’s clear there is another, much more tangible reason why Ritual Chocolate was created: pure unadulterated passion for the art of chocolate making.
Craft manufacturing is a steadily growing trend in the food world. Fueled by increased interest in ingredient sourcing, consumers are appreciating the nuances in luxury food items. Take coffee for example. While coffee tasting (otherwise known as "cupping") and connoisseurship was previously considered fringe knowledge, coffee geeks who thrive off deciphering the wide variety of flavors in a roast are sprouting coffee shops across the country. The terms “single origin” “micro lots” and “Chemex-brewed” are weaving their way into everyday vocabulary.
This taste revolution, Davies and Stout say, has not yet occurred with chocolate. “Chocolate appreciation is 5 to 10 years behind coffee,” the duo explained. “Conventional chocolate usually contains over-roasted beans and flavorings like milk and vanilla. A lot of people don’t know what chocolate is really supposed to taste like. When you start with good beans, you are able to coax out complex flavors—the only ingredients in Ritual Chocolate are cocoa beans and cane sugar.”
And Ritual Chocolate is definitely complex. When you first place a piece on your tongue, you taste dark chocolate—what’s the big deal? But when it begins to melt, flavors morph into dark fruit like blackberry and plum; ten seconds in and a rich, earthy, sweetness starts to develop, rife in walnut and pecan notes. The taste eventually floats into a sweet and lingering memory—you find yourself daydreaming about the chocolate half an hour later.
This ain’t no Hershey’s folks.
So how does Ritual Chocolate wheedle such multifaceted flavors out of the cacao fruit? “First and foremost you must start with a high-quality grower—our Costa Rican beans are truly phenomenal.” What follows is a labor-intensive process of sorting, roasting, winnowing, conching (smoothing), aging, tempering, molding and finally wrapping the final chocolate product.
Certainly, starting a small business is difficult. The fledgling Ritual Chocolate has been in stores since summer 2011 in local and national natural food markets, bookstores and coffee shops, and online. Eventually, the founders would like to open a storefront where they could educate customers about the intricacies of chocolate making, and hold tastings, pairings and even classes. “Educating our consumers is a large part of our future plans,” Davies said. “People need to know this is a craft product … it’s handmade and unlike conventional chocolate. The care taken to make it shines through in the taste.”
Ritual Chocolate may have just appeared in stores, but the researching and sourcing process took three years—including a trip to Costa Rica to source their beans, consulting with chocolate experts and designing their package label. Davies and Stout are the sole workers in their factory, and are deeply involved in every aspect of production—from sorting the beans to hand-wrapping the bars.
“It’s been a long road and hard work,” Stout said. “It’s bittersweet sometimes, but it’s good—it’s chocolate. Especially when you are elbows-deep in a vat of chocolate you think, 'It could be worse.'”