Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 10, 2013

Community-supported chocolate?

BY NATHAN PAYNE npayne@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — LELAND — Nichole Warner is pretty serious about her chocolate.

So serious that she and her husband, Drew, decided to launch a bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturing operation as part of their food company this year.

And this week the couple announced a community-supported chocolate program that will help their fledgling company buy $50,000 worth of equipment and supplies for the operation.

The Warners have owned and operated the Just Good Chocolate company in Leland since 2011. Despite dreams to manufacture chocolate from scratch, the cost of the equipment required to process cocoa beans into chocolate bars is a bit prohibitive.

“It’s always been our intent to grow our base of products,” Warner said. “It’s very specialized and it’s very expensive.”

The Warners decided to start small, producing cacao nib snacks, cocoa powder and hot cocoa mix. Those products are available in about 70 stores across Michigan, including Tom’s grocery stores and Oryana Natural Foods Market. The organic, fairtrade products fulfill Warner’s moral mission as well as her passion for chocolate.

The production of those foods was relatively easy and didn’t require much processing, but it’s always been Nichole’s intent to produce artisinal chocolate, she said.

Nichole, 39, works in the company’s kitchen to package the snacks and powders while Drew works a day job.

The idea to give the company a boost through community involvement was a thought that came to Warner while she was considering turning to crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter to expand the business. But crowdfunding asks for donations and Nichole didn’t want donors.

“We just thought this was a great way to get people involved,” she said. “This is a way to do it where people will get their money back. We’re hoping to sell at least 100 shares by Nov. 30. That will make us pull the trigger.”

A full share will cost buyers $250, but will be rewarded by a box of chocolate and snacks once a month for a year. The box will be filled with at least $20 worth of products, including the chocolate produced by the new equipment, she said.

Effectively, chocolate lovers simply will be buying their snacks in advance, Warner added.

Because of the costly equipment and complexity of the process to convert cocoa beans to chocolate, few companies take on bean-to-bar processing.

Warner has some smaller scale equipment she’s been using to make practice batches of chocolate. The new equipment will allow her to make batches of about 50 pounds of chocolate each. Those batches would make more than 250 chocolate bars, Warner said.

She’s been using skills learned in a chocolate making class a few years ago to develop recipes for chocolate bars.

She’ll shoehorn the new gear into an 1,100-square-foot kitchen the company operates in Leland. It’s too small and out of the way to have a public space, but Warner hopes in the future to open a chocolate tasting room as part of the business.

Meanwhile, she hopes to begin producing 70 percent cacao chocolate bars by February 2014. The company will establish the first line of organic, fairtrade bean-to-bar chocolate before moving onto other types of chocolate, she said.

If you’re a serious chocolate fan, you can buy a share, a half share or even a special taster’s share from the Just Good Chocolate company by going to justgoodchocolate.com.