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Taza Chocolate focuses on quality amid growth

Somerville company facing soaring demand

SOMERVILLE — Since the chocolate maker’s founding, workers at Taza Chocolate have hand-wrapped the stone-ground chocolate bars the eight-year-old company makes, folding pink foil and labels around each 3-ounce bar at the rate of about one per minute.

Over the next few days, however, that task will be taken over by a cream-colored machine that will package the chocolate bars at a rate of nearly one per second, helping to alleviate a growing backlog of orders and freeing employees to make more chocolate.

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Taza’s new equipment is a rumbling symbol of the success of the Somerville company, which has grown from two guys selling chocolate bars from the back of their bicycles to a 60-employee manufacturing operation, producing nearly 300,000 pounds of chocolate a year. Taza sells to grocers around the country and the world, as well as beer brewers, ice cream makers, tea blenders, and restaurants. (The company automated the wrapping of its signature Mexican-style spiced chocolate discs about 18 months ago. )

Taza’s is a story familiar to Massachusetts, where manufacturers have succeeded by producing distinctive, high-quality products that can be sold at premium prices to offset high labor, energy, and business costs. Taza, using hand-carved millstones, makes chocolates from cacao beans grown organically in Bolivia and the Dominican Republic. A 3-ounce bar generally goes for $6.50; a 1.55-ounce Hershey bar sells for about $1 at most grocery stores.

“Chocolate making itself is really capital intensive and difficult to do,” said Taza cofounder Alex Whitmore. “When you take the kind of care and sourcing in the ingredients that a premium chocolate company does, you have to charge for that. It’s not easy to do.”

Taza is largely the brainchild of Whitmore, who was inspired by a desire to start his own business and an anthropology degree from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., that taught him about chocolate’s origins among the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec peoples of Mexico and Central America.

His first idea was to open a chocolate lounge called Melt that would sell Mexican-style drinking chocolate and other products. But with the counsel of his then-girlfriend and now wife, Taza cofounder Kathleen Fulton, Whitmore realized a chocolate factory might be a better fit.

A trip to Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, cemented the plan. There, Whitmore immersed himself in finding stone-ground Mexican chocolate, a lightly-sweetened and spiced cacao bean paste that is formed into disks and used to make chocolate drinks.

Mexican chocolate is gritty, rather than smooth like its super-refined European-style counterpart, and often spiced with other flavors, such as cinnamon. Whitmore figured others might be just as intrigued by the texture and taste as he was.

He returned to Oaxaca to study with molineros, or millers, who taught him the craft of chocolate making, including how to carve blank stone wheels to grind chocolate from cacao beans. Whitmore still carves Taza’s millstones, using a chisel and hand-held grinder to etch each one.

“I definitely had to make a lot of bad chocolate before I could make high-quality chocolate,” Whitmore recalled during a tour of Taza’s factory and retail store on Windsor Street in Somerville.

The nearly 17,000-square-foot plant is 10 times the space Taza started with, back when Whitmore rented the coffee roasting machine at the JP Licks ice cream parlor on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain to roast cacao beans. Whitmore would take the roasted cacao back to Somerville in Fulton’s car, then spend hours using a contraption he rigged from a blow dryer to separate chocolate bits from their papery shells.

Friends and relatives were often drafted — bribed with food and beer — to help wrap chocolates in labels designed by Fulton. Whitmore and another Taza cofounder, Larry Slotnik, would then peddle the chocolate from the backs of their bicycles.

Today, Taza purchases fermented cacao beans directly from organic farming cooperatives in the Dominican Republic and Bolivia, paying a minimum of $500 per metric ton over the daily market price to ensure quality. Top executives visit each cacao cooperative once a year to meet with farmers, check on working conditions, and verify that growing practices meet organic and ethical standards.

Taza’s commitment to paying fair prices to farmers and ensuring that beans are grown organically, using environmentally sustainable methods, helped it land its biggest customer, Whole Foods Market Inc., the Austin, Texas, grocery chain that built its following with high-quality, sustainably raised, organic products. Whole Foods stores began carrying Taza products in 2007.

Taza Chocolate’s retail store in Somerville draws fans of the premium product. Sales are growing about 30 percent a year.

ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF

Taza Chocolate’s retail store in Somerville draws fans of the premium product. Sales are growing about 30 percent a year.

“They are huge advocates for how they source and then how they sell their products,” said Eliza Brown, Whole Foods’ executive coordinator of purchasing. “It’s not just about pushing boxes and boxes, and pallets and pallets of chocolate.”

Taza’s sales are growing 30 to 35 percent a year, Whitmore estimated. But as the company expands, it faces the challenge confronted by many makers of niche products, said Glenn Kelley, an adjunct marketing professor at Babson College in Wellesley: how to increase sales without compromising products or principles.

“You want to see how big you can get before you get bad,” Kelley said. “How do you maintain this quality product and grow it?”

That issue is very much on the minds of Whitmore and his partners. Growing at a pace that maintains quality has always been at the center of the business plan, he said. For example, when Taza introduced a chocolate blended with coconut in January, it sold out almost immediately. But the company didn’t increase production because it couldn’t find a supplier that could provide bigger quantities of coconut that met Taza’s standards.

“We’re not going to go out and get a million in financing from a venture capital firm and inject it,” said Whitmore. “We don’t want to do that.”

In addition to selling chocolates to Whole Foods, Taza sells roasted cacao beans to Peak Organic Brewing Co. of Portland, Maine, which uses them to make its oak-aged mocha stout, and leftover shells from cacao beans to Mem Tea Imports in Watertown, which uses them in four tea blends.

At the Financial District restaurant Trade, pastry chef Sarah Cravedi uses Taza’s chocolates to lend a rich flavor to her baked chocolate pudding dessert, a chocolate budino. As with many chefs, she is very aware of where ingredients come from and how they are produced.

“I think about trying to source ingredients locally, but chocolate and coffee, those are difficult,” she said. “I think [Taza] is as close as we’re going to get.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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