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The Sweet business of chocolate

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOAN BROWN - Peggy Alter of Chocolate Craft works at her North Williams location.Chocolate.

The mere mention of it can make people lick their lips in anticipation.

It can be light or dark, sweet or bitter, and is considered both an antioxidant and an aphrodisiac.

However, for several local chocolatiers, chocolate isn’t just a culinary pleasure, it’s a way of life.

For Brian Flick, owner of Pitch Dark Chocolate, his retail store on NE Sandy Blvd. is just a small part of his operation. Flick’s business is concentrated on wholesale production.

“My goal is to elevate what consumers think of craft chocolate,” says Flick.

In March 2013, Pitch Dark Chocolate opened a 1,300 square-foot space that included a basement for storage and an office area.

By the end of 2014, Flick expects to be processing 2,000 pounds of chocolate per month. By August 2015, he expects monthly production to increase to 4,000 pounds, and at that stage Pitch Dark Chocolate will need a bigger space.

According to Flick, Pitch Dark Chocolate is made in uniquely specified and controlled processes, and uses cacao beans from different countries, including Fiji, Madagascar and Ecuador. Each grower and each process creates it own flavor.

“The farmer is a microbiologist and he’s elevated fermenting cacao to the next level,” said Flick of the beans he purchases from Ecuador. “He’s treating cacao beans like wine makers treat their grapes. He’s subdivided and sorted the pods into different categories, and then he blends those in different proportions, then he’s actually inoculating with particular yeast grains. That brings out a different inherent flavor quality in the beans.”

Quality, stage of processing, and pricing of chocolate varies greatly. A price break for bulk chocolate is often had at 300 pounds. Cocoa beans, fermented and dried may be bought from a local dealer in 150-pound bags. Another option is to buy a 20,000-pound container of fermented, dried beans from the source. Currently on the world market cocoa is at a three-year high of about $3,200 a metric ton.

But, as Flick pointed out, “In order to encourage the farmers to continue growing certain varieties, it demands a higher price. The beans are completely different. We don’t add any soy-lecithin or vanilla. The only thing we add is cocoa-butter” and that is at a tiny percentage compared to the cocoa (but the exact amount is a trade secret) “to get the viscosity to a proper level so that one — when tasting it has a certain mouth feel, and two — just to be efficient to work through the machines.” The other addition is sugar. “So,” Flick said, “roughly, a 150 pounds of cocoa in a bag turns into 200 pounds of chocolate.”

Costs for machinery include a roasting machine, quality used, for $15,000 to $20,000; a used winnowing machine could run $1,000 to $20,000; a refurbished roll mill is about $10,000; a new stone grinder will cost about $8,000; a new conche machine is about $10,000; and a continuous, 200 pounds an hour, tempering and molding machine starts new at around $25,000.

“Chocolate changes flavor each hour it’s been conched (the process of mixing cocoa butter in chocolate),” said Flick.

Food costs should run about one-third the price of the finished product, labor should run another one-third, and everything else falls into the last third. A general practice for pricing is to retail the product at no less than twice the cost. Today, Pitch Dark Chocolate is in approximately 30 retail locations.

For Sarah Hart, owner of Alma Handmade Chocolates, her venture into the business of chocolate began in her Portland home in 2004.

For a year prior, she studied with Ian Titterton, head of the Baking Department at Clark College.

In 2006, Alma Handmade Chocolates opened their retail store on Northeast 28th Avenue. Today the selection of confections includes 15 different flavors of truffles, three different toffees, two barks and three caramel sauces.

“We’ve been so small for so long,” says Hart. “We’ve really pretty much boot strapped it all along. We like contests, we use word of mouth. This year we won a Good Food Award, which is a national, vetted contest for really quality artisan food that’s sustainably sourced and ethically sourced. That gave us big exposure.”

Hart’s advice to someone thinking about getting into the chocolate business is, “Read everything you can get your hands on. Taste everything and think about. Where’s the hole? What isn’t being done that would be interesting or fun for people to experience?”

This is exactly what Cristina Yen, creator and owner of A Yen for Chocolate did. Yen founded her business in 2011, and in her first three years tasted more than 50 different brands of chocolate, developed over 25 flavors, and used more than 406 pounds of chocolate.

“When my husband and I moved to Portland eight years ago I decided to change my career path and went into culinary and patisserie at Western Culinary Institute,” says Yen. Before graduating she did a three-month internship in Paris. While she was completing her internship, Yen bought a couple of chocolate molds.

“When I came back to the United States a very good friend of mine on the east coast had broke up with her boyfriend and she was heartbroken. I felt bad that I couldn’t take her out and get drunk, so I decided to make her a box of chocolates. That was my first box ever. That was 2008, 2009.”

Yen started making chocolates to take as hostess gifts when she and her husband were invited to dinner. After that her business started to materialize.

“I had a couple of friends who were getting married, and they asked me if I would make chocolates as their wedding favors. From that point onwards I became more serious with chocolate confection making.”

Although Yen didn’t start with a retail presence, she now has one at a local bakery, Le Cookie Monkey on Northwest 24th. Nonetheless, she still focuses on private events and custom orders.

“Because I use very high-quality chocolate I also want the flavor development to show through even though it’s been infused with other herbs and spices,” says Yen. “A lot of my flavors are unique in a sense that you can taste the spices and yet they’re subtle, I still want you to taste and savor the chocolate. Because I grew up in different countries I like to use herbs and spices of different cuisines, and then make them work together to create a different flavor.”

When asked about her favorite Yen laughed, “Since I create them, I like them all! One of the best sellers is salted caramel with brandy and cardamom. A white-flavored chocolate that’s been very popular, especially paired with white wine, is a basil, lemon grass and lime. I’ve done a tort with candied figs inside.”

Unique chocolates are also a specialty of chocolate artisan Peggy Alter, whose two businesses are not the familiar neighborhood confection and chocolate stores. In 1991 she started Confection Art.

“I was the first person in the United States to actually manufacture and sell modeling chocolate.”

Later, Alter opened her second chocolate-related business.

“I invented Chocolate Craft Studio so people can come in and play with chocolate. What we do here is chocolate parties — just having fun.”

Although the majority of her parties are for nine to 12 year-old girls, Alter said she caters to adults as well.

“Something adults like to do is to make chocolate wine goblets, and they bring their own wine. If we get a group of engineers we have to give them some kind of real project, so we make chocolate bicycles.”

As enjoyable as it may sound to have the opportunity to work with chocolate day-in and day-out, it’s still a business.

For Flick, his strategy is to constantly reinvest and build Pitch Dark Chocolate for the long haul.

“My goal is to keep the cost down as much as possible, and make it as approachable and affordable as I can. To do that we need to be very efficient in the production numbers, and to produce a certain volume so that we can buy beans at a lower price point.”

“You should enjoy the pieces of what you’re doing every day,” says Alter when asked about her advice to people looking to start a chocolate business. “Talking to customers, doing the dishes. You should enjoy the parameters. When I was putting this together I was thinking about doing biscotti, I was thinking about doing personalized fortune cookies, I had these very different concepts of what I wanted to do, but they all fit the parameters of being flexible, not having a lot of overhead, having good shelf life. It has to be something that works for you and makes you happy. I only work for myself.”