This is a long post about chocolate. If you don’t care about chocolate, you probably won’t care about this post!
If you haven’t figured it out by now, chocolate is vital to my well being. I’m sure that given enough time sans chocolate, this could be remedied, but why would I want that? Chocolate is near and dear to my heart, stomach and hormonal system, and I like it that way.
Because of my love affair with all things chocolate, I jump at the opportunity to see how it’s made. I have been on two chocolate factory tours, Theo and TCHO, and although they happened ages ago, I’d like to compare my experiences here. Both are committed to sustainable and fair trade practices, so I feel that comparing the two on social practices is reasonable as well.
I just want it to put it out there that BOTH of these companies are doing amazing things within the chocolate world – particularly from a human rights perspective. The fact that they are so involved in the origin of their beans is huge and they should both be commended. This is mostly my opinion on the tour experience.
Theo: The storefront at the Theo factory is warm and welcoming. There is a fireplace with a couch that encourages you curl up and sip on some complimentary coffee while you wait for the tour to start. If you’re antsy to get started with the chocolate tasting, as I was, you can wander around and sample ANY of their chocolate bars. They do have confections for sale that are not available for sampling, which is tragic but understandable as they are handcrafted. I never fail to leave the store without a massive sugar high and a wee bit of a stomachache, but it’s totally worth it.
TCHO: Granted, TCHO is newer and hasn’t opened their real storefront yet, so that could be a part of the problem. They had their storefront set up inside the warehouse that houses the factory. The building is large, there is a ton of concrete, and it’s pretty cold. There is one lonely bowl of samples (which might just be a negative to me, not to anyone else). A nice perk is a full service coffee counter with Blue Bottle coffee and decent seating.
Theo: Everyone at Theo is friendly and open. All three times I’ve been there, they’ve engaged me in conversation, shared their favorite chocolates and been very helpful with my questions. The tour guide was open, funny, genuine and clearly very knowledgeable about chocolate and their policies.
TCHO: The employees seemed friendly; they didn’t engage with me more than asking for my name to cross my name off the list, but they definitely weren’t unfriendly by any meals. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable about the TCHO brand and their history – slightly less knowledgeable about chocolate itself and the details of some of their processes. Again, TCHO is much newer, so their employees are on more of a learning curve as well.
Theo: At Theo, the tour starts with everyone sitting in a room and a presentation from the tour guide on how their chocolate is sourced, the steps it goes through for processing, and their commitment to sustainability and human rights. Pictures and samples are passed around as the guide leads the discussion. After the discussion, the guide led us into the factory and showed us all of the equipment and explained in detail how it all works. We were allowed to take photos and ask questions. The other employees we saw working seemed engaged and smiling and happy to be there. The tour ends back where it starts with more samples and time for Q and A.
TCHO: First off, one major perk of the TCHO tour is that it’s free. The TCHO tour starts sitting on bleacher style seats for a very well done and dynamic video. Many of the people behind TCHO are techies, and it definitely shows. The video focuses strongly on how the TCHO brand was created and how they maintain it. For example, TCHO has a beta testing program where they send bags of different batches of chocolate to taste testers to rate and review. That’s much different than Theo that doesn’t engage much with the public in the creation of their chocolates. The actual packaging was also a major component of the video. A great deal of thought and effort was put into their packaging because they feel the packaging is a big part of the chocolate experience and they want to get it right.
The intro video also showcased their sourcing practices and commitment to sustainability, although it’s a briefer segment than the brand piece. After the intro video to the company, our tour guide spoke a bit and then put on a second video that was a virtual tour of the factory that we were sitting in – showing the machinery, the process, and the end result.
After that, we donned our hairnets and got ready to see the factory! One really nice feature is that if you don’t have closed toed shoes (which are required) they have plastic clogs in all different sizes for you to wear. That was awesome because I DID wear sandals and was nervous I wasn’t going to get to see everything.
The tour itself was a bit redundant because the machinery wasn’t running and the video had covered everything we saw. The time inside the factor was 10 minutes or less. There were factory workers there running the packaging machine and they didn’t even look up or acknowledge us. The whole thing felt a bit like a sweatshop to me. No photos were allowed. Hence, no photos here.
After the tour, we went back to the intro space and sampled some chocolate and had the opportunity to ask questions. We also got a 10% off coupon for the store, which was awesome – especially because the tour was free.
Sustainability and Human Rights
Both companies are committed to providing living wages for their cocoa bean growers, sourcing organically when possible, and being sustainable in their factory and packaging processes. They both go out in the field, meet with their growers, and have a strong connection to the communities they source from. Theo imports the beans raw and roasts them onsite at the Seattle factory. TCHO imports them after roasting in the region.
TCHO highlights the sustainability and fair trade angle more on their website and less within the tour. THEO has far less info on the web, but discusses more extensively in person. Either way, what’s important is that both of them are committed to creating great, sustainable chocolate.
Can’t cover a chocolate factory tour without talking about the chocolate!
Theo: Having Theo for the first time changed the way I think about chocolate. Obviously there is other fantastic chocolate out there, I had just never had it. Their flavor combinations on their artisan bars are amazing (Bread and Chocolate and Chai and Coconut Curry being some of my favorites). They also have single origin bars available, meaning the beans were sourced from one origin and there are no mix ins so you can really taste how the growing environment affects the flavor. They have a 91% single origin that is so palatable and delicious, you would have no idea it was SO dark. One of my favorite things about Theo, and something that stuck with me the most, is that they don’t use soy lecithin in their chocolate. On the tour, our guide explained that many chocolate makers will extract the cocoa butter and sell it to cosmetic companies, and then they have to add in the soy lecithin to make it creamy again. Not so at Theo. Their creaminess is all natural.
TCHO: TCHO has an innovative concept around redefining how chocolate is classified. Most people, especially those that are in to chocolate, classify it based on it by percentage. When it says 91%, we anticipate bitter. When it says 30%, we know it’s going to be milky. TCHO doesn’t do it this way; their concept is based on the flavor of the chocolate. They are very particular about sourcing their beans to create chocolate with different flavor profiles – “Fruity,” “Nutty,” “Citrus,” “Earthy,” “Floral,” and “Chocolatey.” Their reasoning is that when something says 60% on the label, you don’t really know how it will taste, especially if it’s a new brand. Our guide had to clarify more than once that there are NO mix-ins in the chocolate. There is no actual fruit in “Fruity,” it just has a fruity flavor, sort of the way you’d classify wine or olive oil (shout to my friend Derek that gave me my first ever olive oil tasting back in the day!). Each of their flavors is sourced from a different region, giving each a distinct flavor profile. While the concept is interesting, the chocolate was not impressive to me. The flavors differences were so subtle, it didn’t seem worth buying multiple bars. Sadly, I didn’t even use my 10% off coupon to buy anything. But it’s possible my palate just sucks.
I think it’s pretty clear. I have a lot of love in my heart for Theo. TCHO is still growing and figuring out where and how they want to stand – so I am in no way ruling them out as awesome chocolate makers. I so support their commitments to their growers and the environment. But at TCHO, the whole thing has a very start up, techie feel, which is great if that’s what you’re into. For me personally, the family feel at Theo just fits better for me, plus I like their chocolate more, so it wins in both respects. The TCHO tour was such a different experience, it was fascinating to see the differences in the way each place approached things. TCHO is very Silicon Valley and maybe in the long run, that will benefit them because they have a ton of innovative ideas and approaches to flavors and the process. I’ll be interested to see where they are in a year and maybe I’ll have to do the tour again.
But for now, Theo, you’re my number 1!