Alex Whitmore is founder and managing director of Taza Chocolate, a local company that makes stone ground, organic chocolate using traditional Mexican techniques at a plant in Somerville. Taza Chocolate makes 40 different products that can be found in 2,800 retail stores across the country. Globe reporter Taryn Luna spoke with Whitmore recently. Here’s what she found out:
1Whitmore, 36, is a Bostonian through and through. He was born in the city and grew up in Greater Boston. After his parents divorced, his father lived on a boat in Boston Harbor and taught a young Whitmore to sail.
“That was my first exposure to boats.” Whitmore said. “I wanted to sail the world. I was kind of a romantic. I still am.”
2He got his chance to sail after graduating from Vassar College in 1999. He met Walter Cronkite, the legendary American broadcast journalist and sailing enthusiast, through connections at local yacht clubs. Cronkite hired him as first mate on his 60-foot sail boat, Wyntje. A year later Whitmore was promoted to captain.
“We sailed all over the Eastern Seaboard. We spent summers in New England and Martha’s Vineyard. In the fall we went to Chesapeake Bay. We would winter down in the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda. It was great; a really fun couple of peripatetic years.”
3Whitmore later traveled the country working odd jobs as a waiter, bartender, parachute packer, and bike courier. Then he landed a job at Zipcar in 2002, first maintaining the cars and later helping the company move into new markets.
“I learned a lot about corporate office politics and how businesses work at that level. Eventually I just realized it was great, but I wanted to do something more. I had this feeling deep down inside that I was working on someone else’s dream, and not my own.”
4He played around with a few different business ideas before deciding to create his own chocolate factory. Whitmore discovered stone ground chocolate while traveling in Oaxaca, Mexico. He apprenticed under molineros, or millers, in Oaxaca to learn the craft.
“In that part of the world, they have this tradition of drinking chocolate. They drink chocolate like we drink coffee. I love chocolate. My dad always kept these Lindt chocolate bars in the freezer. I would eat an entire Lindt bar for breakfast. I always had some dark chocolate around.”
5Whitmore made the first batch of Taza Chocolate by hand in his apartment. He worked out a deal with J.P. Licks to use its coffee roaster at night to roast the cacao beans. His then-girlfriend, now wife, Kathleen Fulton, designed a logo and wrapper.
“Then I hired a buddy to wrap them. I built the company slowly.”
6Taza Chocolate is made bean to the bar in Somerville. Whitmore and his 58-employee team roast the beans, run them through a winnower to remove the shells, and grind them into “cocoa liquor” using stone mills from Oaxaca. The liquor is combined with sugar, then ground again. The chocolate is tempered, set into molds, dried, unmolded, and wrapped. The result: a rough, gritty-textured chocolate with strong flavor.
“The whole inspiration behind what we do here, and what makes our chocolate so different than what you can find in the marketplace, is that we took that traditional milling culture and transplanted it here in the Boston market.”
7Taza only works with USDA Certified Organic cacao farms that practice sustainable agriculture. Taza pays at least $500 dollars per metric ton above market price, visits each farm every year, and only buys from farmers who ensure fair and humane work practices and do not engage in child or slave labor. Whitmore also has as third-party company audit the process every year to prove the claims are true.
“It makes so much of a statement if you actually have an audit. It puts some teeth behind your words. We’re pushing the envelope and getting other chocolate companies to think about what they are doing. That’s pretty exciting for us.”