When Dan and Jael Rattigan met at a wedding in 2003 they didn’t imagine that within a few years they’d have travelled all over South America, run a coffee/chocolate ship and set up French Broad Chocolates. But as their interview below highlights, French Broad is a true love story. After their friends wedding they decided to go on a trip together to Costa Rica and that made them realise that “life in the Midwest just wouldn’t do”. So they dropped out of graduate school, packed their lives into a 40-foot vegetable oil-powered school bus (converted by Dan), and drove south (having just learned Jael was pregnant).
A few months later, they arrived in Puerto Viejo de Limon, a small Caribbean village filled with fisherman, surfers, and expatriates from around the world. And soon after arriving Dan and Jael opened a café and dessert shop, Bread & Chocolate. Bread & Chocolate still exists, but Dan and Jael decided they weren’t beach people and, in their words ” somewhere along the way, Asheville, NC, became their destination and French Broad Chocolates was soon birthed” (as was their second son, Max — their first having been born in Puerto Viejo).
The business began out of their home kitchen, with the pair selling their chocolates online and at local farmers markets. Demand quickly grew, by 2008 they were able to open the “French Broad Chocolate Lounge”, and in 2012, Dan and Jael’s dream of becoming a bean-to-bar chocolate maker was realized when they opened French Broad Chocolate Factory & Tasting Room. Intent on nurturing connections to the source of their food, French Broad Chocolates imports cacao directly from “trusted farmers” and crafts amazing chocolate that win awards galore
Our path to bring on board French Broad isn’t quite one of unrequited love … but definitely did require lots of patience! From when we first started, we’ve loved their bars … but we had to wait for a few years before we could pry some bars from Dan, Jael and Chelsea for international sale.
We spoke to Dan and Jael a little about their background, mission, passion and beliefs – please see below for a summary!
What’s your background? Why and how did you get into chocolate?
The story of French Broad Chocolates is a love story. Our path in chocolate began in 2003 with a moment of inspiration, right in the beginning of what is now commonly called the bean-to-bar revolution. I became excited about chocolate when I first tasted Scharffenberger chocolate, and began making recipes from Alice Medrich’s cookbook, Bittersweet. This phase of chocolate experimentation and play led me to the thought, “Chocolate is the thing that will make me happy.”
At the time, Dan and I were both in grad school (he was in law school and I was in business school). That January, a few short months after we met, we both decided to drop out of grad school and move to Costa Rica. We bought a 40-foot school bus, transformed it into an RV, converted it to run on used vegetable oil, and drove that bus to Costa Rica. We found a sweet little open air cafe off the main street in Puerto Viejo, and opened our first business together, a restaurant called Bread & Chocolate. We were in a cacao growing region, and were able to visit cacao farms, talk with farmers, and see how rustic chocolate was made on the farm. This experience affirmed our path in chocolate.
We have hit a limit with the amount of chocolate we can make in our current facility, so now it’s time for our next growth phase. Every expansion project is our biggest yet, and this is no exception. We’re building a new chocolate factory with scaled up equipment and production capacity. It will be built to offer fantastic tours, educational classes, pairings and other events. And we’ll have a cafe that will serve our ice cream, pastry, chocolates, and coffee.
When did you start your company — and with whom? How many are there of you?
After two years in Costa Rica, we decided we were ready to move on. We sold our restaurant to one of our cooks, hopped back on the bus and headed for the mountains of Asheville. We founded French Broad Chocolates almost immediately in 2006, just the two of us. We started as chocolatiers, handcrafting bon bons using other people’s chocolate, and selling them at local farmers markets.
In 2008, we opened French Broad Chocolate Lounge and created a sacred space for chocolate lovers, with wine and beer, coffee and tea, and seating in a beautiful cafe atmosphere. We were really honing in our food philosophy and values, buying only local berries, honey, herbs, eggs and flour from local farmers and producers. When we couldn’t buy it locally, such as almonds, for example, we’d buy direct from a farmer in another region. It felt right. But something was nagging us. It was the chocolate part.
Chocolate was in the name of our company, but it was the ingredient we had the least connection with. We were buying good quality chocolate, a lot of fair trade and organic, but we had no connection to the source. We came to realize the next step in our journey was to create a connection to the source of our cacao by opening a bean-to-bar chocolate factory and making all the chocolate we use in our confections and desserts.
Our company continues to grow; we now have 80 employees, including a pastry team, confections team, chocolate making team, service, shipping, and various administrative positions.
What mission have you set yourselves for making chocolate?
Our company mission is “To make awesome chocolate – beautiful, wholesome and delicious, crafted with love and served with gratitude”
As a B Corporation, certified September 2017, we strive to use business as a force for good, in way that aligns with our principles and is good for people and the planet.
Where do you want to go next? New bars? New beans? New markets?
We are in a really exciting growth phase right now. We’re building a new chocolate factory that will allow us to make more and better chocolate. We are creating new products, such as a home baking line, a professional line for chefs, and smaller bar formats. We’ll continue to support the farmers and producers with whom we have relationships, which is one of the most exciting aspects of growth. We’re thrilled to continue to share our chocolate and our story with chocolate connoisseurs in other parts of the world, like the U.K!
What is the story behind your company name?
Our company is born and raised in the beautiful mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina. French Broad River, which runs through our town, is a symbol of this: a geographic stamp marking our relationship to Asheville. The metaphor of the river has taken on new significance to us of late. As we meditate on chocolate, on how we can do justice to this craft, we often think about the only constant in life: change. We consider ourselves lifelong students, always looking to learn from our colleagues, our experiences, and our medium. We are committed to continuous improvement, to never settle.
Who designed your packaging – and what are you most proud of about your packaging
Dan and I came to realize that every person and every company has a story to tell, and ours makes us who we are. We wanted our packaging to convey the story of the chocolate – of us, of our company and of our partners, whether that be a cacao farmer or producer, a local coffee roaster, or a malt house.
So we had the idea to design our bar boxes like a book, quite literally. They are designed to look like an antique book, with gold foil spine. They open like a book and tell the story of the chocolate within. We want to honor all of the people involved in the journey of the chocolate, and create an emotional experience for the people enjoying our chocolate.
How did you source your beans?
Each origin has a story to tell and a deepening relationship. We are committed to being a part of a community that brings mutual respect and equity to our cacao partners.
Our current partners:
CAC Pangoa, an organic cooperative in Satipo, Peru. We collaborate with Conservation Cacao and a small cohort of other makers to preserve endangered varietals and strengthen quality of process in this mature coop, that is evolving from primarily coffee to include fine flavor cacao.
Cacao Verapaz in Guatemala, a sister organization to Uncommon Cacao, a fellow B Corp: from this small group we are connected with three Mayan producer associations in the Lachua region. In the three years we’ve worked with them, we have seen them become certified organic, and their fermentation quality continues to improve.
Cacao Bisiesto, a boutique fermenter in Matagalpa, Nicaragua: since 2013 we have been their primary buyer, and share their beans with several other American makers. Their post-harvest protocol is exemplary, producing consistently chocolate-forward flavor with minimal fruity acids.
Cacao South, Limón, Costa Rica: since 2012 we have developed a new market in the Valle Estrella area for old timers who saw the cacao market implode decades ago, but still have groves to tend. From this region, the most active exporter is APPTA, but this producer association lost much of their farmers’ confidence and were paying at market, giving Daniel South the ability to be competitive on price and service. Daniel has developed his curing method to take the greatest advantage of the unpredictable weather in Costa Rica’s Atlantic zone, using a mixture of sun drying and greenhouse drying.
What inspired your choice of wrapper/mould design?
Our mold design was inspired by the idea of sharing and tasting chocolate. We designed it to easily snap into small rectangular sections, each bearing our company logo. We loved the idea of being able to share a little mini chocolate bar. Our wrapper is a plant-based cellophane, as compostable packaging is important to us. The wrapped chocolate is placed in our book-inspired box.
What innovations in tech, crafting, marketing etc. are you pursuing?
We are innovating our entire chocolate making process, moving from small-scale stone melangeurs to custom-made Italian ball mills. Our high-tech chocolate refining practices are balanced with an antique cacao roaster, also from Italy. We are happy to be on the forefront of making not just bars with our chocolate, but also bon bons, pastries and desserts, ice cream, and soon, baking chocolate.
What is your favourite food? Wine? Other chocolate makers?
I adore homemade pizza and a cold glass of French rosé. My favorite chocolate makers are the talented folks at Dick Taylor.
What chocolate achievement are you most proud of to date?
It was a proud moment to win the achievement of Best Origin Chocolate at the Northwest Chocolate Festival, especially because we were hosting our cacao producer from Nicaragua, whose terrific beans made the chocolate what it is!
We were proud of achieving Certified B Corp status, which required us to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. This represents our commitment to using business as a force for good.
Finally, we are proud that French Broad Chocolates has crossed the line of 10 years in business!
Let’s talk beans! Who farms the cacao you use? What’s their mission? How long have they been growing cacao (co-op, the farmer, bean supplier)
When we set our sights on making bean-to-bar chocolate, we knew we needed to begin with a reliable source of cacao. So in the summer of 2011, we made an expedition to Perú. We met up with James, a friend of Dan’s sister who happened to work as an organic certifier for BioLatina. James helped arrange farm and fermentary visits at several organic cacao operations throughout the regions of San Martín and Piura. We traveled over two weeks through Huanuco, Tingo Maria, Tocache, Tarapoto, Piura, and Chulucanas.
As availability has changed over the years, we’ve gotten to explore other partnerships in Peru. We have had the pleasure of working with an indigenous community in Amazonas, a co-op from Tocache (San Martin), and another cooperative called Pangoa CAC.
No cacao source connects us with our roots more than Costa Rica. Our farm partner, Daniel, worked for us at our restaurant, Bread & Chocolate, that we opened in Puerto Viejo! Now, Daniel buys cacao from several farmers in his area. On a piece of family land, he has built a fermentary and drying operation, and has developed his business to include agro-tourism, cacao export, and value-added products like nibs and baked goods for visitors to the region.
In 2013, we were blessed with a direct connection from a mutual coffee contact to Giff Laube, who formed Cacao Bisiesto with his partner, José Enrique Herrera. Both are agronomists with a passion for cacao. They are taking a unique tack in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, attempting to protect heirloom varieties on the brink of extinction. They both grow their own and cure the harvests of surrounding farmers, providing a much higher value than the farmers could previously expect. Giff has been to Asheville to speak with our staff and customers, and we have been to visit him and his family in Matagalpa. In 2014, French Broad Chocolates’ 68% Cacao chocolate bar with Giff and Jose Enrique’s cacao won best origin dark bar at the Northwest Chocolate Festival, and in 2015, a Good Food Award!
In 2015, we brought a new partnership online, by allying with Uncommon Cacao. An awesome organization (a fellow B Corporation) with a mission to de-commodify cacao, bringing fine flavor beans to the craft chocolate industry while building value for producers so they are incentivized to continue! We purchased the entire export crop from a Maya Queqchi producer group in Lechua, in the village of Rocja Pomtila, called ASODIRP.
Tell us about your process…
Since we opened our factory in 2012, we have been evolving our chocolate making process to best highlight the flavors of our origin cacaos. Starting with initial bean sorting, in which we visually inspect to cull defective seed. I set up a dust hood, vibratory gravity feed sieve, and conveyor to optimize the comfort of this tedious but necessary step. We roast in convection oven, use a BLT Winn-45 to winnow, and then pre-mill cacao with Packint’s poriphry stone 2-roll mill. Horizontal melangers are used for the primary ingredient mixing and particle refinement, followed by FBM “kleego” vertical conche.
While we enjoy the flavors we’ve created, our evolution is currently accelerating. We are headlong into an expansion (target completion late 2018) that will bring us new methods for inspection, roasting, milling and conching, and that’s just the beginning. Our refurbished antique Italian FIMT drum roaster (as of today, it is clearing customs) will provide an exciting new challenge for our chocolate makers to harness cacao flavor. We are currently in lab testing with a new liquor milling paradigm, in which we employ a single stage antique colloid mill for coarse liquor, followed by Packint’s low-speed ball mill for completion of liquor milling. Ultimately we will be utilizing the ball mill for full batch particle refinement, and then Packint’s vertical conches to achieve better dispersion and viscosity reduction.
Our ingredient sourcing is generally producer-direct. From Wholesome Sweeteners we buy organic Paraguayan sugar. For milk chocolates, we buy Organic Valley organic dry milk, and we clarify our own butter fat from Natural By Nature grass-fed butter. When additional ingredients are used, their selection is highly intentional: for example, we have partnered with a local craft malter Riverbend Malt House, to produce 2-row barley malt for our Malted Milk bar. For our Sea Salt bar, we get South Carolina sun-dried flake salt (our local version of Maldon), collected from protected waters in Bulls Bay.