Posted on June 25th, 2012
I am hiking up northeast Brooklyn streets, pretty brownstone blocks giving way to commercial drabness of Myrtle Avenue, the highway past that, industrial buildings looming on the other side. My face is covered with a film of oily moisture, my jeans are sticking to my legs, my messenger bag pulling on my left shoulder and I swear it’s sweating worse than the right one. I did not dress for an urban hike on an unexpectedly steamy, humid late spring day.
In my head, imagination runs wild. I am about to meet Ryan Cheney, the co-founder of Raaka Virgin Chocolate. Ryan is the sort of entrepreneur we all love to read and talk about: found a passion, wanted to make a difference too, and successfully combined the two. But what would a real chocolate factory look like? Would it be huge, like post-depression factories of the 1940s? Would Ryan be wearing a puffy white chef’s hat and stand there twirling a musketeer-worthy mustache?
Under the elevated expressway, down an industrial block, into an unassuming brown doorway, up a flight of stairs, down a long hallway to an unmarked loft. Ryan opens the door; he is tall and dressed in a black t-shirt, shorts and a baseball cap. This is overwhelmingly… normal.
Ryan Cheney fell in love with the raw cacao bean while he was in Thailand. He spent a year learning the ins and outs of making and producing chocolate. Meanwhile, as he gathered information on the countries that export the cacao bean, he knew he wanted to help the farming communities there, to ensure that the farmers made a living wage and had the money to educate their children and feed their families.
He came back to New York and soon teamed up with Nate Hodge, a friend and gastronomist. Together, they set up the basic tools and machinery right in their apartment, working around the clock to manufacture, distribute and promote their product. A year and a half later – they sold their first bar in December of 2010 – Raaka is growing, with three full time and six part time employees, and 2012 total projections of five tons of beans imported from Haiti and the Dominican Republic to be made into seven kinds of chocolate bars. They even do weddings.
The space is clean, but shows signs of a busy workday. It is roughly the size of a large living room in a Tribeca apartment. Bags filled with beans take up much of the space, as do large bourbon casks (for the bourbon bars). Four stone and steel grinding machines churn around the clock, crushing the beans (already shelled, using another machine) for three days before the cacao can be cooled to just the right temperature, frozen in rectangular shapes of two sizes, trimmed and hand-wrapped. The scent of chocolate envelopes me, makes it hard to focus.
After Ryan takes me through the importing, manufacturing and wrapping process, he lets me taste the goods. Now, I’ve tried many different kinds of chocolate over the years, with the dark, bitter varieties being my favorite, so while I expected good – even great – chocolate, I did not expect different. But each bar is its own thing. The Chili bar has a slight cherry undertone and a bit of a kick; the Blueberry Lavender bar’s flavors likewise do not overpower the bean, but make themselves known; and the Bourbon Cask Aged bar – not actually made with bourbon, but aged in wooden casks – has that oak-tinged finish to complement bourbon, should you pair the two. (Sea Salt, Vanilla Rooibos, Black Coffee and the almost raw – in the best way – Dark bars round out the selection, which is bound to expand with time.) We then sat down at the stainless steel wrapping station for a chat about the future of Raaka Chocolate and its globally aware, socially conscious operation.
The Farmer General: You just came back from a trip to Boston. How many beers did you put away while there?
Ryan Cheney: Not many, considering it was mostly business. We just expanded into the Whole Foods there – 28 locations in the Boston area, to be precise.
FG: Do you feel Whole Foods does right by its small food producers?
RC: Actually, yes. They get behind a lot of small organic growers and manufacturers. And the increased demand from Whole Foods means we’ll be importing more beans from the farmers in Haiti, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic [currently the world’s Number One exporter of cacao beans], so there’s more business all around.
FG: And what is your mission in these developing countries?
RC: We try to do business in a way that allows the farming communities there to thrive. The communities that grow and harvest the beans usually deal with the food producers in the West through two levels of middleman; this eats into their profits. We try to deal with them directly, cut out the middleman. As a result, the farmers get a minimum of $500 above market price per metric ton of cacao beans.
FG: How did you get into chocolate?
RC: I was living in Thailand and visited a cacao farm. I became intrigued with the process of making chocolate, and with the bean itself. Cacao beans are a lot like grapes: so much depends on the soil, the temperature, the levels of precipitation in the region – each variety has its distinct taste. All these factors come into play to determine the taste of wine, and so it is with chocolate too.
FG: Each bar you make retains much of the original flavor of the bean. Your chocolate isn’t too sweet, and it often tastes even darker than it actually is. What’s your secret?
RC: Most chocolate makers roast their beans; that’s where the bean loses a great deal of its flavor. We aim to retain as much of the bean’s original flavor as possible, so we forego the roasting in favor of fermentation. Then we add just enough flavor – blueberry, say, or sea salt – to make it completely original.
FG: When you started Raaka, did you have targets you wanted to hit? Was there a business plan?
RC: Oh, we definitely had a business plan, but we just kind of let the business grow naturally, through a lot of work and cost cutting in our personal lives. We started very small, in my apartment, just Nate [Hodge] and I. When the orders poured in and we hired extra help, we’d sometimes just pay them in cash. Eventually we got enough orders where we needed more space, we had to crank out more batches. We poured our savings into the space and the equipment, borrowed where we could – and now here we are and growing. Each batch takes at least three days to make, and our capacity is approximately four thousand bars a week. We grind around the clock.
FG: So it all happens right here?
RC: Yeah, almost everything’s done in-house. We make the chocolate, trim and wrap the bars… I handle many of the usual aspects of running the business myself, including promotion, web design, displays, and payroll stuff.
FG: What about the wrappers? Each type of bar has its own, beautiful, subtle wrapper pattern.
RC: That’s a friend of ours, Elissa Barbieri. She is an artist and designer who works with patterns. We only use 100% post-consumer recycled paper.
FG: Your locations are constantly expanding – before you got Raaka into Whole Foods, your chocolate was available in coffeehouses and shops all over New York.
RC: We have many distribution channels, including retailers, cafes and farmer’s markets all over the East Coast, plus in PDX and Canada. Then there’s our website, and we also do wedding orders and participate in tasting events.
FG: So can we look forward to spotting your booth at Brooklyn farmer’s markets this summer?
RC: Actually, it’s difficult to keep chocolate from melting in the outdoor summer heat. You have to keep the bars in these pricey sleeves that keep them cool. Our farmer’s market season just ended, but we’ll be back there in the fall.
FG: By that point, can we look forward to new flavors?
RC: [laughs] You’ll just have to wait and see.