By Greg B. A few weeks ago, I was approached with a great opportunity: To tour a chocolate factory. I mean, who wouldn’t love this?! Besides, I had just watched a ‘How It’s Made’ show on chocolate, so I felt like I had a lot to bring to the table in terms of discussion. Well, unfortunately, life has gotten in the way, and I have yet to find the time to make it to the factory to check it all out. That being said, I was able to contact the fine folks out at SPAGnVOLA chocolatier for a quick interview. Hopefully I’ll make it out there soon, but in the meantime, please allow me to introduce you to one of Maryland’s premium chocolate producers! And besides checking out their chocolate, who doesn’t love a great entrepreneurial adventure story to boot? If you do, then you’ll love this interview!
F&WB: Hi, and welcome to the Food and Wine Blog! Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions today, we’re so glad we could speak with you. Tell us about yourself, how did you get into the chocolate business?
SPAGnVOLA: Everything is a long answer! (and believe it or not, this is a short version!) About 8 years ago, Eric Reid, Ed Garcia and I started an IT business in D.C. We all built a good personal relationship along with business. Eric and his wife Crisoire (whom he met in the Dominican Republic in the 1990s) had started building a home down in the Dom Rep. and invited us to visit. Upon our arrival we learned of some small estate ventures Eric and Crisoire had embarked on, and upon that visit he had presented us with an opportunity that we (as a group) could purchase some fantastic land in San Pedro de Macoris, that was producing some beautiful tangerines as well as early stages of passion fruit. More from excitement at a cultural expansion opportunity as well as a good reason to visit the Dom. Rep. J , we purchased the land. Crisoire’s immediate family still lived in San Pedro, so we knew we had a great family connection to maintain, cultivate and prosper the area, while we were back in the states. Not soon after we were given the opportunity to purchase an incredibly large estate in Hato Mayor. Well over 250+ acreage of the most beautiful organic luscious exotic land. Tangerine trees so plentiful, that they began to split in the middle from all the weight of the tangerines. Now, a majority of this land was still uncultivated. More with a desire to expand operations, and a love for the area, we made the purchase! (*At this point it sank in….this is a huge endeavor!) Not soon afterwards we came across some Cacao Trees growing on the land. Beautiful Pods of Yellow, Green and Red. At first when discovering Cacao, recognizing this is the source of chocolate, understanding the fruit sides of things, makes you investigate further. How does this fruitful gorgeous Pod turn into chocolate? Well, what we found out about the industry and the difficulty in cultivating high quality cacao trees, we knew this was just the place for it. Proper Elevation, Cultivation Capabilities, Harvest Control, Fermentation steps..…everything the typical Mass produced Cacao process is missing…….isolation and controlled integration. Recognizing the growing need for high cacao content, high quality chocolate, we determined our original goal was to supply the would-be “premium chocolate manufacturers” with these superior beans. We quickly learned that these premium manufacturers, were not looking to purchase such beans, and were content with their “commodity level” beans following by custom recipes of finding ways to make the “taste” better. Unsatisfied there, we began a path of deciding to make our very own chocolate. With custom made equipment and testing and tuning, we were right. The quality of our bean process on the farm turned into the most exquisite tasting chocolate we ever experienced, after comparisons and tastes tests of chocolates from around the world. This led us to open up the United States first true from Farm to Table, vertically integrated chocolate factory, right here in Maryland. With over 25,000 visitors to our factory in the first year, we have removed the stigma of “Dark Chocolate is Bitter” “Young kids don’t like Dark Chocolate” by creating the freshest and purest possible products with no preservatives right from our farm.
F&WB: How often do you visit the Estate in the Dominican Republic? What’s it like down there? Where do all the avocado and other fruit sales go (probably not into chocolate, I assume!)
SPAGnVOLA: Crisoire and Eric are actually down there right now! Obviously with the factory and boutique opening up last year, visits aren’t as often as we wish, but for the first 5 years, perfecting the process and farm, and with her family dedicated to the success, (we are all a team!) we are in constant communication and travel as necessary. As for the other fruit, majority goes to local market, to sell to continue to cultivate the land. In the future, we will look towards a puree system to get those products here as well..but in due time!
F&WB: How much cacao do you ship up to Maryland a year? Is it all destined for further processing in Gaithersburg, or do you sell cacao beans as well?
SPAGnVOLA: Right now, we are harvesting around 22,000 trees, and over the course of the next 5-7 years it will be upwards of 130,000+ trees (Sound like a lot? Not really, since we use SO much actual cacao in the product *70%+ or more…a whole tree even producing 60 pods, may only product 17 or so bars! ) We are Single Estate Chocolate. 1 Cultivator, 1 Harvester, 1 Manufacturer. We are always in limited supply. So as the farm grows, the factory and production manages that growth. All beans from our Farm come to our Factory. Each Sack (155lbs) comes through on a Container Ship from Santo Domingo to Baltimore, then brought here to the Kentlands (Gaithersburg). Since we have 2 harvest periods per year, it can vary on amount. For example, we shipped up 25 Sacks last shipment!
F&WB: The products from your website look stunning, where did your head Chocolatier receive training? (is there formal training involved?)
SPAGnVOLA: Yes there is formal training. Crisoire went to the Barry Callebeaut Academy. Chocolate is incredibly finicky. As most will learn when they visit the factory, not only the handling of chocolate, but temperature control, humidity, air quality and product consistency are critical to the end result. I often compare chocolate making to a science; any little step in the wrong direction will destroy an entire batch. From our little seed on our farm in Hator Mayor to a decadent piece created by Crisoire, can take upwards of 75 proper steps along the way. One mistake…can change the end result.
F&WB: Not to change the subject away from chocolate, but do you serve coffee/espresso in the boutique? A great espresso and some dark chocolate with a hint of fruit is one of life’s simple pleasures. If there is coffee, is there any plan to roast your own coffee beans as well?
SPAGnVOLA: We do have a Barista on site at all times! A good Americano or Espresso is my choice, but yes Mocha and other options are here as well. Along with some fantastic Gelato. I respect what it takes to make a fine coffee, and we search for the best beans for our customers. Knowing the extreme steps we go for creating chocolate, for now, we will leave that aspect up to those experts!
F&WB: How is business? Are your products only available in the boutique, or are they more widely distributed? Are there plans for an increased distribution?
SPAGnVOLA: Business is great! We have received some fantastic exposure from Washington Post, Fox5, Channel 7, as well as “Taste of Mouth” (My version of Word of Mouth). I believe there is a growing trend for consumers wanting to know where their food comes from, even their chocolates. We show them the path we took, and why. Our Free Factory tours on the weekend, do just that. We even have introduced Chocolate Making Classes (www.spagnvola.com ) to give the fans the experience of a lifetime making their own pieces will enjoying an evening with a loved one or friends. It’s a GREAT time. I also believe people magnetize towards quality. We are all aware of the economy we are in right now, but our repeat customer base shows me that people appreciate what we are doing, enjoy the end result, and love telling of their experience at SPAGnVOLA…and most of all we love sharing it. What brings a smile to my face is when a young child enjoys the chocolate. I grew up with an idea of what Dark chocolate tasted like, and to see them turn the page in amazement, they have experienced something they never thought possible!
F&WB: Why Gaithersburg? It’s a nice area, but people look at my funny when I tell them about a chocolate factory near DC! What’s the appeal of the location?
SPAGnVOLA: Well, if you haven’t visited the “Kentland’s” of Gaithersburg, it is a custom built Neo-community, with the growing expansion of Gaithersburg that has a strong community based feel. We truly believe SPAGnVOLA is a community based business where people can be proud of the fact there is a chocolate factory on their Main Street, making chocolate, while they sleep at night. They can even just walk by for a fantastic scent permeating the air. A diverse demographic as well. When you produce a new product, you like to see how different groups react, young and old. I would say our 1st year results, it’s a unified Yay!
Since here at SPAGnVOLA, we believe in a good strong foundation, our expansion will be in the right places at the right time. We have had visitors from New Jersey, North Carolina and even Australia, spend their day at SPAGnVOLA. We think it’s worth the trip.
F&WB: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us here at the Food and Wine Blog! We look forward to checking out the boutique and factory, hopefully soon!