- Michigan operation boasts 209 wholesale customers, 54 products, two distributors
- Invested $45,000 for major upgrades to double production
- Focus on getting more wineries, tasting rooms, restaurants, bakeries into its customer base
Having a high-speed internet connection in the lush cloud forest town of Mindo, Ecuador, was important to Barbara Wilson and José Meza, but it would cost a pretty penny.
The solution? Start an internet cafe on the first floor to share the costs and use the second floor to escape the frigid winters of Michigan.
Mindo crosses countries, with a small-batch chocolate factory in Dexter, a facility in Quito, Ecuador, and El Quetzal de Mindo, a restaurant in the village.
Today, the Michigan-based operation boasts 209 wholesale customers, 54 products, and two distributors including Gourmet Foods International and Cherry Capital Foods.
The business has grown considerably in recent years. The owners built a 533-square-foot warehouse on their property in Dexter to store cacao beans, invested in a bigger label machine and new cocoa press, and purchased a machine for tempering chocolate from Italy, which led to a sizable boom in production.
Employees can now temper and mold 100 pounds of chocolate per hour, rather than doing it by hand, Wilson said.
To start off the chocolate-making process, cocoa nibs are refined using a stone grinder in the Mindo kitchen, Alex McCoy, general manager at Mindo, said in an email. As nibs are ground into chocolate, the conching process is happening simultaneously, she explained.
“During this step, the chocolate is turned and aerated, allowing it to release chemical compounds that translate to bitterness and astringency,” McCoy said. “When done for the proper amount of time, conching dims some of the more aggressive flavors like bitterness and astringency, while allowing the subtle floral and fruity notes to come through. The result is a well balanced and nuanced flavor profile.”
The company has two 65-pound conche machines, in addition to three smaller 8-pound machines, that take between 24-30 hours to complete a full batch of chocolate, she said.
About $45,000 was invested in the major upgrades, which have boosted production by 350 percent. Now, the company produces 7,000 pounds of chocolate per year, but it still operates out of the 2,800 square-foot single-family home in Dexter that was converted into a chocolate factory in 2009.
The Michigan business recorded $224,600 in revenue last year, and projects revenue for 2019 at $282,500.
The bean-to-bar chocolate maker now sells 22 types of chocolate bars, baking chocolate, drinking chocolate, hot chocolate sticks and other seasonal items.
Mindo’s chocolate recipe contains two ingredients: heirloom cacao beans and organic cane juice. The cacao content varies between 67 percent and 100 percent depending on the product, according to Wilson.
Heirloom cacao — sometimes referred to as the diamonds of cacao — are usually grown in the shade along with other fruit trees, like bananas, papayas, or cashews, according to the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, a joint partnership between the USDA and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. The fund was created in response to the environmental change and economic influences threatening the world’s supply of cacao.
“These aren’t the kind that are designed for high productivity,” Wilson said. “Those are hybrid varieties that were designed for that purpose, and that’s the majority of the cacao beans in the world put into chocolate.”
Mindo also sells raw ingredients including Miel de Cacao, a cocoa fruit syrup often used marinades, vinaigrettes, stir fry and cocktails, which is distributed by Gourmet Foods International to Kroger stores across the U.S.
“The fruit of the cacao is really being wasted, and so [José] collected it and turned it into a syrup so it really has an interesting flavor,” Wilson said.
The company’s biggest accounts include Farmington Hills-based Plum Market and Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, which carry Mindo chocolate bars, drinking chocolate, cacao powder and more, along with Michigan By the Bottle, which purchases tasting squares and chocolate bars to pair with wine.
Albena Detroit, an eight-seat restaurant on the bottom floor of Siren Hotel in Detroit, Mabel Gray in Hazel Park and Fresh Farms Market in Grosse Pointe are among the local establishments that sell or use Mindo products.
The Royce Detroit wine shop and bar purchases a rotating variety of Mindo’s tasting tiles, which it sells for $1 each to pair with wine. Flavors currently include sea salt, vanilla, cinnamon and cocoa.
“They’re very rustic chocolates that happen to pair well with wine,” Royce Detroit manager Julie Herrmann said.
“We tend to focus on naturally made wine, so it’s just a more obvious pairing.”
Mindo owes much of its success to traveling to schools, universities, libraries and a variety of groups to educate the public about the health benefits linked to chocolate with a high percentage of cacao.
“Just to say, here’s a chocolate bar for $8 versus one that costs $1.50 — they don’t know the difference,” Wilson said, “so it’s really critically important that people understand why it’s so expensive.”
There are approximately 210 chocolate makers in the U.S. and Canada that use specialty cacao to produce chocolate, according to the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute.
“We didn’t realize what we were getting into, but we were one of the first small-batch chocolate makers of this new wave of chocolate makers,” Wilson said.
This year, the company hopes to expand its tourism offerings, and is in preliminary talks with city officials to bring a chocolate festival to Dexter.
Aside from finding more ways to streamline production processes to make the company more profitable, it plans to break into more areas of Michigan and the Chicago area, with a focus on getting more wineries, breweries, tasting rooms, restaurants and bakeries into its customer base.