Ambassador of the bean
Palo Alto woman holds 'chocolate parties' to boost cacao farmers
Standing in her tiny Palo Alto "chocolate garage," Sunita de Tourreil shakes a rich, brown cacao pod full of beans.
"We've all seen chocolate — we eat it — but we've probably never seen this," she said. "On the other hand, the farmers who grow it have only seen this pod, but they've never seen the chocolate, or eaten it in the form we enjoy."
De Tourreil aims to bridge that gap — and boost the connection between cacao farmer and chocolate consumer — through the Chocolate Garage, in which she offers tasting parties in her downtown location, people's homes or corporate venues.
Tasters "will leave knowing much more about chocolate and cacao and feeling very good: full of chocolate," she said.
De Tourreil, a former UCSF biology researcher concentrating on the human form of mad-cow disease, turned into a researcher of chocolate after a chance meeting seven years ago with an Ecuador-based chocolate maker. He was growing the beans and making the chocolate on site, and had sponsored a village health clinic and school.
"He was doing great work with a rigorous, for-profit model, but he had no access to capital to scale, market and distribute his product," de Tourreil said.
As a result, de Tourreil and her "business and life partner" Greg Wolff launched Chocolate Dividends, a company featuring fair-trade products that reinvests profits into social enterprises such as the Ecuador-based Yachana. But the couple quickly realized people strongly prefer eating chocolate to talking about socially responsible investing.
"If you make it personal and about chocolate — about what they like and their tastes — people can learn a whole lot about cacao in the process," she said.
De Tourreil's "friends and family" chocolate tastings grew into more formal, for-hire affairs, with proceeds going to the Chocolate Dividends fund, which is invested in social enterprises through the Calvert Foundation.
The Chocolate Garage opened its doors on Gilman Street in June 2010. Party-goers can feast their eyes on elegantly wrapped chocolate bars made everywhere from Ecuador to Missouri to Madagascar, and hear a torrent of chocolate stories from de Tourreil.
The actual chocolate-eating comes at the end. De Tourreil also offers blind tastings and corporate team-building activities with a chocolate theme.
She favors the expression "happy chocolate" to describe an end product that tastes good, contains healthful antioxidants and has a "happy" history: "The cacao farmer gets a good price and the supply chain is short, with fewer middlemen."
With the passion of a researcher who's found her prize topic, she tells stories about the economics of cacao farming and cacao-based cottage industries for women while passing out chocolate-covered cacao beans from Nicaraguan maker Momotombo. She makes a point of promoting Palo Alto's Monique's chocolate shop on Bryant Street, where owners Mark and Cathy West craft "single-origin" confections that reflect the region where the bean was grown.
"I love what Monique's is doing, showcasing the cacao," de Tourreil said. "I don't see them as competition at all.
"What's so exciting is that there's a blossoming of American artisan makers that's going on, an explosion that's occurred just in the past five to seven years."
She rattles off the names of chocolate-makers in Missouri, Tennessee, Utah, Colorado, California, Washington, Virginia, Massachusetts and New York City. "If all of these craft makers and farmers could afford to hire an organization to promote their chocolate and explain the value-add of the farmer and the importance of preserving these varietals and fine cacaos, they would hire me."
De Tourreil hopes to link up some Silicon Valley business brains with a few small chocolate makers next month when they come to town for the 37th Annual Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.
"A lot of these small makers aren't taking salaries yet and investing everything in their business. Let's taste the amazing chocolate and then talk about, how do we get them to actually stay in business?"
Info: For more about the Chocolate Garage, go to thechocolategarage.com.