Happy Chocolatier

Sunita de Tourreil and the Chocolate Garage

Every maker we work with we work with in a different way, because they each have different needs and different products.

Tucked away on a side street in Downtown Palo Alto, the Chocolate Garage is a small one-room shop. The walls are painted a cheerful green, couches and chairs are clustered in a cozy circle, and cupboards line the walls, all stocked with artisanally-crafted chocolate bars. The store is the labor of love of Sunita de Tourreil, for whom the phrase “Happy Chocolate” is more than a marketing motto. Equal parts business model, mission for global equality, and social experiment, the Happy Chocolate philosophy is changing the chocolate industry one bar at a time.

“People sometimes ask me ‘Isn’t all chocolate happy?’” says de Tourreil. “Of course, eating delicious chocolate gives us pleasure, but there are some truly ugly aspects to commercial cacao production.” By this, she means exploitative pricing models—large chocolate companies that pay farmers in Africa and South America a pittance for low-grade cocoa beans—and their consequences, including extreme poverty and child slave labor.

De Tourreil considers this an extreme example of the traditional for-profit business model. In contrast, she says, “Happy Chocolate is a business model that adds value along the entire supply chain, making sure that the people who are growing the cocoa and eventually eating the chocolate are happy, and everyone between—the harvester, the maker—are happy, too.”

For the Chocolate Garage, she seeks out chocolate-makers whose dealings with growers are equitable, with a preference for chocolatiers located in the same country where the beans are grown to maximize the capital kept in the local economy. De Tourreil then pays these makers nearly twice the commodity price for their bars. “That is, in the long term, both the sustainable model and the model that will create change in people’s lives,” she says.

The relationships that de Tourreil develops with chocolate makers allow her to make innovate arrangements with them, including her Future Chocolate program. Customers pay a lump sum of several hundred dollars up front, and apply it to their Chocolate Garage purchases over time. This allows de Tourreil to raise funds to invest in the makers’ businesses, whether that involves financing the acquisition of an extremely rare batch of cocoa beans or commissioning a special chocolate line. “Every maker we work with we work with in a different way,” she says, “because they each have different needs and different products.”

Customers pay more for Chocolate Garage chocolate than for grocery store candy—the average cost of a bar is around $12—but have the satisfaction of knowing their purchase supports responsible industry. They also have the pleasure of enjoying exquisitely delicious, complexly flavored chocolate, which will reward mindful tasting. “Mass-produced food—chocolate included—is bland and oversimplified, and you eat more of it in order to feel satisfied,” says de Tourreil. “But the lovely thing about high-end chocolate is how nuanced the flavor is. You only need to eat a square or two. There’s a neurologic component: you’re binding certain receptors to achieve a sense of satiety.”

If she slips into scientific language, it is not surprising. Nearly a decade ago, de Tourreil (who holds a Master’s Degree in microbiology) was employed at UCSF as part of a clinical research team studying the effects of Mad Cow disease on the human brain. At the same time, she spent all of her spare time to researching sustainable development, fair trade, and green business, “and I started to see,” she says, “that my true passion was what I was doing on the weekends.”

SNS-ChocolcatewebLeaving the lab in 2004, she devoted herself entirely to her new interest, attending conferences and making connections. “One thing led to another. I met really inspiring people, and it seemed that craft chocolate could be a wonderful vehicle for me to address the issues I cared about in an accessible way.”

Open hours at the Chocolate Garage are limited—Wednesdays, 5 to 9pm; Saturdays 9am to 1pm—but they are an opportunity to enjoy a unique salon-like atmosphere. De Tourreil offers six different kinds of chocolate to sample, and customers often bring their own bottles of wine or whiskey to share and pair with the tastings. “There are so few places left for people to gather as a community,” says de Tourreil, “and the Chocolate Garage turns out to be just that. People come from very different walks of life, and they’re able to engage with each other.” De Tourreil also hosts tastings for private parties and corporate team-building.

At its heart, the Happy Chocolate project is one with a focus on fostering empathy. “People who grow cacao may seem very different from average Americans,” de Tourreil says. “They speak different languages, they eat different foods. But mostly, they’re families who want their children to do well. My hope is that in making all of that transparent, I’ll succeed in making people value things differently and value others differently.” She continues, “And It’s been lovely to see people sense there’s something different and real about that and want to be a part of it.”

Written by Leah Ammon
Images by Daniel Garcia

Entire Article originally appeared in Issue 6.1 “Sight and Sound”

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