We all know the chocolate bars we grew up with and tend to pass out at Halloween. There is Snickers, Twix, Milky Way, and a host of others. Now, there’s another chocolate company puttings its product to market and it's based right here in Washtenaw County. 89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan reports on the high-end chocolate maker that is making its mark, but remains "Hidden in Plain Sight."
It’s a nice drive along some of western Washtenaw County’s country roadways to get to where we’re going. There is plenty of open space and farmland between WEMU’’s Ypsilanti studios and the home of Mindo Chocolate Makers in Dexter.
Jorge: I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place or not.
Barbara: Everybody says that.
Barbara Wilson co-owns Mindo and greets me at the front door of what looks like a regular single-family home. That’s because it is. She’s lived there since 1983, and, in 2009, she and her husband Jose Meza converted half of their 2,800 square-foot home into a chocolate factory.
Barbara: That’s technically a bedroom, but now it’s being used to package chocolate bars. So. there are four bedrooms.
Jorge: Who got kicked out?
Barbara: Well, they moved out, one by one…all my children moved out when they were seventeen.
Wilson says the company was founded almost by coincidence during a 2008 visit to Jose’s home country of Ecuador. While standing in the kitchen of her Dexter home, she reflects on that visit to the City of Mindo. Back then, they still owned an auto repair shop in Ann Arbor and wanted to keep track of business while traveling, but it wasn’t all that easy.
"We started a little business there because we couldn’t find fast internet there. So, he said let’s do an internet café," said Wilson.
As time passed, the couple expanded their business in South America, adding coffee and brownies to the internet café. Oddly enough, Wilson says she had a difficult time finding chocolate for the brownies.
"So, at first, I was bringing it from the United States and I said, 'Something is wrong here, I know that Ecuador is known for having the best cocoa beans in the world.' And so I started figuring why I couldn’t find good chocolate. They send our good cocoa beans to Europe, the United States," said Wilson.
So instead of importing chocolate from the United States, Wilson started making her own in Mindo. It was a hit and that launched the next phase of their business. Now, they harvest cocoa trees in Mindo and have hired a crew of 20 employees to run their chocolate-making facility 365 days a year. She says it only made sense to start selling their confections in the U.S. as well.
"We’re walking into our chocolate kitchen," said Wilson.
The chocolate kitchen is separate from the kitchen in the family’s living quarters. The 14x20-foot space used to be a living room. Now, it’s a commercial kitchen with a variety of utensils including large pots and pans, chocolate molds and stone grinders. Mindo's Chocolate-Maker Anna MacKinnon is standing over a stove.
"I’m heating some dark chocolate up to 118 degrees, and then I’m going to lower the temperature and raise it again, so that it’s all tempered," said MacKinnon
To help lower the temperature to 83 degrees, MacKinnon transfers the chocolate to a marble countertop.
Anna: I’ve spread it with an offset spatula and a bench scraper onto the marble.
Jorge: So you’re spreading it around.
Anna: Yep, spreading it around to kind of get the temperature even. So this is the sound of a spatula and a bench scraper.
A few minutes later, MacKinnon takes the chocolate back to the stove to bring it back up to 91 degrees.
"It makes the structure of the cocoa butter the strongest possible and the smallest possible. So, if you’ve ever seen untampered chocolate, they're called blooms of cocoa butter, and, as time goes on, the cocoa butter you’ll see it more and more. So, when we make it strong and small it disappears and it’s the shiny snappy chocolate that everyone is use to," said MacKinnon.
The chocolate is then poured into rectangular molds.
Anna: We then take it, this is about to get loud, we take it to the vibrating table and it’s going to shake all the bubbles out and kind of spread the chocolate. And I use a little offset spatula to kind of spread it around. And now I’m going to knock-out some bubbles.
Jorge: So you’re dropping it down.
Anna: Yeah, I’m dropping it down on the tray so we can get as many bubbles out as we can.
Then, the chocolate must be refrigerated for a few minutes before it’s removed from the mold and ready to package. It is in the packaging room that I meet 19-year old Jaime Moorehouse. She’s one of five employees who works at Mindo’s Dexter facility.
"So I’m currently packaging our seasonal garlic bar. It’s got sesame, sea salt, and, obviously, organic garlic," said Moorehouse.
Mindo offers 14 different flavors. There is cherry and blueberry and rustic bars that offer a bit more texture. There is also a collection of bars made in Ecuador that have a stronger cocoa bean taste. The best seller, though, is the sea salt bar. It accounts for about 8,000 of the more than 50,000 candy bars sold each year. Moorehouse says, she can package up to 500 bars a day. Seeing Mindo’s products in area stores gives her a sense of accomplishment.
"Incredibly proud, far too proud. I went to Plum Market the other day and I saw our display and I ended up taking a picture of it and sending it to Alex, our general manager. And I was so excited about it. Especially when I go to the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market, I get to talk directly to customers," said Moorehouse.
Mindo also sells tea, hot chocolate sticks, and cooking products. The company’s products can be purchased in over 50 Michigan retail outlets and online. Ramiro Castro is the company’s sales and marketing representative. He says Mindo is helping bring a good amount of attention to Dexter as it expands its offerings around the country.
"We have the opportunity to participate in different food expos and the Specialty Chocolate Association as well because the quality of our products opens the door to those markets. We have a little bit in San Francisco, we have a little bit in New York, a few places in Washington, Chicago now," said Castro.
Before leaving the chocolate factory, Barbara Wilson offers me a taste. As any good journalist would do, I, of course, said yes. It’s research, you understand? I had bites of raspberry, strawberry, and even Mindo’s “Pure 67%” bar that contains more cocoa beans.
Jorge: That’s delicious. You can taste the richness in it.
Barbara: The flavor goes on for a long time. It takes at least a minute and half to taste everything.
I then move on to something more daring.
Jorge: I’m taking one for the team. I’m about to eat the sea salt and sesame garlic chocolate. It tastes like pizza.
Barbara: Some people use it for cooking. They’ll throw it in their spaghetti sauce, something like that.
Jorge: You can definitely taste the garlic for sure, but it’s not too overpowering.
Barbara: I don’t think so, but I like garlic.
While the garlic bar isn’t what you expect from a regular chocolate bar, it’s produced for the growing market of customers who are buying specialty chocolate.
Wilson’s love for the business has grown so much, she now spends time teaching others from around the world how to make chocolate. She says she has worked with chocolate-makers from Japan, Mexico, Germany, and others. And, while those folks travel great distances to visit, tours and training sessions are available to you as well. And the more people who utilize that resource, the less likely it is that we’ll be able to say that Mindo Chocolate Makers is Hidden In Plain Sight.
To learn more about factory tours and chocolate making classes, click here.
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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him firstname.lastname@example.org