The Chocolate Life

Discover Chocolate and Live La Vida Cocoa!

We're getting ready to sign the lease (we hope) in the next week or so for an 1860 square foot space in a tiny little business/industrial park in the San Francisco Bay Area that we hope to transform over the course of the next couple of years into a successful fine chocolate (bean-to-bar) and artisan confection business. 

Clay suggested the idea of starting a discussion thread here on Start-up Central as a way of sharing what we learn along the way with others either already involved in their own start-up or still contemplating jumping in. We really liked the idea -- it fits well with our commitment to always 'paying it forward' in life, and with the idea of one hand up, one hand down (one hand reaching up to accept the help/wisdom of others who have something to offer/share and one hand reaching down offering help/wisdom to those with whom we have somethign to offer/share). We'll share what goes right, we'll share what goes wrong -- open source, nothing held back or edited. We welcome your thoughts, questions and suggestions along the way.

Snapshot of where we are today:

- Custom molds are paid for (~$8k), but on hold until our trademark registration is approved (wouldn't be much fun to have molds that we can't use...). Hope to be cleared to move forward by January.

- $1400 trademark search with Thomson Compumark completed. The attorney has reviewed it and is now in the process of filing the registrations (another $1k +/-)

- We're a newly formed S-corp. (Total legal fees to date, including the above ~$4.5k)

- We've designed our packaging, but won't order it until our trademark clears.

- Leslie is going to be full-time, I'll be part-time (mainly on weekends) since I have a day job that (a) I like, and (b) will let us support/sustain the chocolate business through its first couple of years. We'll hire help as soon as the work load dictates.

- We subscribe to the Lean Start-up approach -- an iterative build, measure, learn process; pivot (change direction) when needed, etc. and to the idea (as articulated many times by Brad Churchill in his posts on this site) that making a profit isn't a 'nice-to-have', it is a 'MUST have'.

- Oh yeah, we make a pretty decent bean-to-bar chocolate. At least WE think so. And so do some (possibly biased) friends, family and co-workers. But we all think our own kids are cute, so just to be sure we're not kidding ourselves about where we really are, we're sending bars out this week for formal 3rd party evaluation (~$1k)

- We plan to spend a good part of the first year perfecting our systems. We're not going to scale to any kind of volume until we've worked the kinks out and are capable of delivering a consistently excellent (and profitable) experience to our customers.

- For manufacturing flexibility and resiliancy we plan on using multiple small scale pieces of equipment rather than single larger volume pieces.

- We know that we don't know what we don't know. We plan to contract with Clay for consulting services, both on the plant layout and on the business side.

- We're utilizing SCORE resources to learn more about the accouting, insurance, legal, and sales and marketing sides of the business, and to make contacts.

There's more, but you get the general idea...

Next major milestone for us is seeing if the landlord will accept our proposed lease addendum and mark-ups. That will be our next post...


David and Leslie

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The twins apparently read the script and showed up the day after Leslie landed in TN. One boy, one girl – both happy and healthy.  Since we’re down to one part-timer (me) while our full-timer (Leslie) is in TN, progress was a little slower this week – although not completely absent. Things will pick up again week after next once gramma bootcamp concludes.  ; )


We spoke to our contractor briefly about the leasehold improvements (there won’t be any real activity there until we get the floor plan worked out so he knows where we want the walls, sinks, electrical, etc.). We also got back in touch with the designer who we’ve been working with on our packaging and bar designs. We’re going back and forth on a couple of different approaches – one is a bit fancier (and hence, more expensive) and the other is a still-very-nice envelop-style package that would be less expensive and more environmentally appropriate. The latter option is our current leaning.


We’re also starting to explore web design options. We’ve gotten several good referrals (some from this forum). Our plan is to have internet sales be one of our primary outlets during the first two years. The website will be the proverbial first impression for most of future customers, so we can’t afford to underwhelm.


A couple of interesting side-notes on our leased space: about four bays down from ours is a long-time tenant that used to have a (traditional) printing business, but that business has all but died due to the advent of the internet, DIY, big-box competition, etc. While still nominally a ‘printer’, what’s really inside their two bays is wall-to-wall restaurant equipment (refrigerators, freezers, ovens, proofers, Hobarts, wine coolers…you name it) that they are liquidating for one of the owner’s (now-retired) parents. I already have by name on a low boy, and may also jump on a small Hobart (for future use). Interesting and odd bit of good luck. The next bit of good fortune is that our newest soon-to-be neighbor is apparently opening up a machine shop in the bay right next to ours. The guy doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to be my new best friend! I hope he likes chocolate – A LOT!!!


Grampa Dave and Gramma Leslie

Congrats on the new grandchildren.  A few more mouths to introduce to the fine chocolate world. 

I am reading with with great interest.  I returned from the DR on Thursday night and on Friday found out what I need to do to get the licor and butter out of Newark airport.  I am using a broker this time, but have learned what it will take to receive shipments on my own.  I also made contact with the supplier of licor processed by the Rizek's in order to compare prices and see if it is worth doing on my own. 

I have been thinking a great deal about how I can get some assistance for supporting these rural women associations making chocolate.  Besides the people I met at the WCF meeting a few weeks ago, on my way out of the Santo Domingo I was overweight (the suitcase), and had avocados, balls of chocolate paste, and a bottle of cacao wine pulled out trying to figure out what to send back with the driver.  This lady comes up and admires the avocados and I offer a few, then the wine, the a few balls of chocolate.  She ended up working for the International Finance Corporation and is willing to direct me to the right people who work with small business development in the DR.  Sometimes I am just really lucky. 

Another bit of good news, my wife Marisol has someone working on fixing up my work area in my basement, floor, walls and ceiling with a sink, added outlets, and better lighting.  What a women.  This is a former one car garage attached to our basement which I already converted the garage door to a regular door years ago.  I am going to have a full kitchen to work in downstairs (she is tired of hearing my melangers run while she watches novelas) and complete work stations to process cacao from bean to bar.  Nothing big, but it will let me learn more about the chocolate making process and prepare a bunch of different goodies using my chocolate. 

Ordered the custom mold from Tomric and should get started sometime in December working out of a rented commercial kitchen in Englewood, NJ.  They have a real nice set up and charge $20 hr. without an oven and $25 hr with.  The month of November will be used to work on all the things David has wrote about (minus the lease) and packaging.  Sort of had an a ha moment yesterday on how the women could package their balls of paste and maybe with the more processed licor after I test it out. 

Having a great time and the best thing I ever did was leave my teaching job.  If interested I posted some videos and pictures on my personal facebook page (Tom Forbes, Ridgefield, NJ) and La Chorena Chocolate facebook, plus  We painted a Peace Corps volunteers house who is working with one of the groups.  It is the same community I worked in 26 years ago as a volunteer. 

The paid evaluations have been an incredible valuable experience. We learned what we set out to learn – where we have the greatest opportunity to improve our chocolate. But we also learned a great deal about sensory evaluations. There are certain things that they can/will tell you, but there are other things that you really have to take in context – the HUMAN context.


All three of the tasters identified our particle size and tempering as areas that need to be improved. We’re currently using just a little Santha melangeur as our combination refiner/conch, so no major surprise on the particle size/mouthfeel feedback. The tempering was also understandable as I hand tempered (tabled) very small batches for these evaluations, and frankly, my technique is still a work in progress. So much for where they all agreed…


Actually, they also all agreed (mostly) on our best chocolate – one of our Peru Nacional’s. But from there it was very much a rating of personal preferences.  Without going into all of the details, suffice it to say that one of the tasters singled out one of our bars as having potential to be our signature bar, while another taster was…well…less impressed. Another bar that two of the tasters (and ourselves) thought was sub-standard was the other tasters favorite.


Those results actually thrilled us – it goes back to the notion that if you test a product (any product) and more than about 20% of the testers really like it, it doesn’t matter what the other 80% think about it – you have a market – a passionate group of customers who will seek out that particular product.


Back to the particle size thing, though. While we like the idea of hand crafted (and even ‘rustic’) chocolate, we’re really after something more refined – literally and figuratively. We’re looking into roll refiners to improve our particle size control. We’ve found a couple of candidates, but they’re pretty expensive (almost $15k) – just wondering if anyone on this forum has any thoughts or experience with roll refiners – any recommendations?


I don't think hand crafted and rustic are necessarily in same spectrum of terminology. What I mean, is that it is possible to hand-craft rustic/textured/grittier chocolate and very refined (in both the literal and figurative senses). I know of several makers who use only melangers and make chocolate that is very refined in both senses.

You say 'no major surprise' on the particle size because you're using a Santha, but I'd actually say that that could be a surprise, as it's definitely possible to make very smooth chocolate using any of the small melangers.

(None of this is to say that a roll refiner may be better or worse for you, of course, just that it's possible to get smooth chocolate out of a melanger.)

Thanks (again!) Ben. What you say makes sense and is completely in line with what I've read I'm a few other posts on this forum in the last couple of days. I'm going to measure my particle size and make sure that's really my problem, and that I'm not just under conching. I really appreciate the feedback and guidance. Lots still to learn...

Does anyone have any thoughts about whether a melangeur can safely be left running (unattended) routinely overnight? Are circuit breakers (and possibly thermal sensors) sufficient protection from fire risk? Are other people doing this? There are some pretty obvious benefits in terms of cycle time and just general processing if it can be done safely...interested in your thoughts...


When in use, I always leave mine running on the kitchen table overnight.  There have been a few times when the rollers were seizing that I didn't go to bed early or ended the conch, so I could go to bed.   That was more when I was making milk chocolate.

Thanks. I'm wondering more about leaving a couple of them running in the factory overnight and going home. Just wondering if the normal safeguards are sufficient and if anyone else does this as a matter of practice. Any ideas about what safeguards might be required/appropriate to do so safely?

I regularly leave my melangers running for days straight, and know of many others who do the same. I've never had a problem with the motors overheating or anything.

Thanks, Ben - that's what I was hoping to hear. I wanted to sanity check, though before I went too far.


We bought a micrometer (accurate to 1 micron) and microscope last week to get a better handle on our particle size situation. The micrometer can tell us about the maximum particle size in our chocolate and is very fast and easy to use. The limitation, though, is that it can’t tell you anything about your particle size distribution. That’s where the microscope comes in. We won’t be able to do anything with the microscope this weekend (no slides…), but we did run tests on a half dozen of our bars tonight using the micrometer.


Very interesting results, and very much in line with what Ben, Clay and many others have previously stated – stone melanguers are fully capable of producing very fine/refined chocolate.  One of our older batches that was in the melangeur for 60+ hours had a maximum particle size of six microns. Our more recent batches where we had opted for a lighter conche (and because it’s all done in the same process, less refining) our maximum particle size ranged from about 25-35 microns for most batches, but up to as high as 40 microns for one origin. Mystery (if there ever was one) solved with regard to the grittiness.


Over the next couple of months we’ll be running some tests and measuring particle size as a function of (a) time in the melangeur, and (b) batch size. Larger batch sizes means that any given particle will spend less time between the wheels and the base, which should translate into larger particle sizes at any given time. That being said, there are several possibilities for controlling particle size and total time in the pot. We’re also going to test the effect of running the melangeur as a conch (no refining) by separating the wheels from the base – can we conche in a Santha without further refining?


Next week, once we get the microscope slides, we’ll be doing our first measurements on particle size distribution. It’s a fairly tedious process from what we understand, but will give us a really valuable set of baseline data to work with and compare to when we make any future process changes.



David and Leslie

We got some good feedback on our package design this week from a couple of people we respect a great deal. Our logo, in particular, left them puzzled – it wasn’t clear how it tied-in to the rest of the ‘Arete’ story. Fair point, and point well taken. Since that meeting we did some serious thinking, came up with a much more coherent approach, and are on a path to have a new logo done for us by an artist/illustrator whose work we greatly admire. Our name sometimes takes some explanation, and this new logo, combined with some new package text, will help to tie it all together. There was something missing before for us in our packaging, and for the first time now, it all seems to ‘fit’.


We met with our contractor at our space earlier this week and went through what we need done (add one wall, add one door, prep and coat the floor, paint, add a drop-ceiling with lights/electrical). We should get the quotation later this week, and providing it comes in at a reasonable number we’ll start the improvements immediately. This is the gating factor for us right now in being able to order equipment, scheduling our inspections, and ultimately, to opening the doors.


Once we get a solid timeline on completion of the improvements, we’ll order our oven (Moffat Turbofan with steam), a couple more melangeurs, the temperer (FBM Aura), and start installing the smaller items that we already have. We can’t wait to have the place done enough that we can start running test batches, and wringing the processes out in anticipation of getting the green light for go-live.


Happy Thanksgiving to all of our Chocolate Life friends,

David and Leslie


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