Alum of Chocolate – Cru Chocolate
Karla McNeil and Eddie Houston had been planning to open a coffee shop. They both attended FCI’s Coffee Roasting & Retail course and had even found a great location. That was until someone beat them to it – opening a cafe in the exact location they had been dreaming of. After some time spent soul searching (and wiping a few tears) the pair realized that they could tap into Karla’s Honduran heritage and introduce their local community to the magic, nuance and stories behind thoughtfully sourced and made chocolate. Eddie attended FCI’s Chocolate & Confectionery class and Cru Chocolate was born shortly thereafter.
Q: How did you become interested in starting a food business?
Karla: I grew up in Honduras with a coffee and cane sugar producing family. Chocolate as a bar or tablet wasn’t very common there but cacao was very commonly used to make drinks. In fact the word ‘chocolate’ comes from an old meso-American word which means “bitter drink”. After moving to the US my family continued to send cacao, coffee and other ingredients for use in making traditional Honduran drinks
Eddie: I grew up in Northern California eating chocolate as a candy bar and slowly graduated from sugary milky chocolate to darker and darker chocolates of better quality with fewer ingredients. I met Karla and joined a group of family and friends at a Honduran style New Year celebration where everyone gets involved in making tamales and chocolate by hand. It was a revelation to see and smell the cacao as it was pan roasted, hand peeled and passed around in a mortar and pestle so everyone could take a turn grinding the cacao into a paste. After a lot of hand grinding it was mixed with sugar and then everyone got to hand form their own chocolate creations and could add several toppings.
Karla: This was by far the best chocolate that Eddie had tried and I was surprise at how amazed people were at something that was so normal to me and how magical this experience was for people.
I had done my Master Degree In Sustainability Management and completed my thesis in Sustainable Specialty Coffee Processing for a Coops in Honduras. This is what originally pointed us towards a coffee business. So we first took the Coffee Roasting and Retail course at FCI and had wanted to open a craft coffee shop in our local town, but when a coffee shop opened in the exact place that we were looking to open our shop we spent a week or so of being bummed out. Some days even waking up and crying over the death of an idea. But then we had the spark of insight that we should make craft chocolate instead and that we could use all the knowledge we had learned about craft coffee roasting and retailing and that we actually both liked chocolate more anyway.
Q: What was the moment you decided to start Cru Chocolate?
Karla: It was very hard for me to adapt to the American workforce lifestyle. It was both a challenge and an inspiration since I could not comprehend the 9 to 5 structure in the USA and the fact the people only got one week vacation and their time was controlled by someone else – all that was a foreign concept to to me. So the search for living a free and independent life like the one I had once experienced in Honduras had me constantly be looking for business ideas. I knew I could not live here if I had to work for someone else. I was lucky to meet Eddie who was all into “Good” coffee, since I was still drinking the pan-roasted coffee from Honduras and very organically over coffee and long conversations of mostly me complaining we decided to open a coffee shop. After the disappointment of someone beating us to it, we switched direction to our other love – chocolate.
Q: Tell me about Cru. What is your business all about?
Karla & Eddie: Cru is about connecting the consumers with the origins of chocolate and cacao, about minimizing the gap between the farmer and the consumer and about sharing an appreciation for and celebrating the richness and diversity of the soil, the skills of the farmers and the ingenuity of the makers. Cru is about the use of old and modern techniques to revive and remember ancient traditions and stories.
Q: Who is your biggest food/business inspiration?
Karla & Eddie: We admire Pachamama Coffee Cooperative. They have really turned the value chain upside down by being 100% farmer owned and managed. Their unique business model is an inspiration and a higher bar to aspire to and it remind us th as we become more connected transparency and authenticity are not just the right thing to do and be but that they are the future.
Q: How did FCI’s Chocolate Intensive help you towards launching your business?
Karla & Eddie: The FCI Chocolate course was inspiring for us to see behind the scenes of different types and scales of chocolate businesses. It helped us realize that we can create the type of business that we want and that aligns with our values. It was also another great opportunity to connect with other like-minded craftsmen and women that value the origins of their food.
Q: What were the most helpful aspects of the FCI courses you took?
Karla & Eddie: One of the things that we found helpful about the course is the feeling of support. When we see Ally smiling we know that her heart is in helping us and other small food producers and to know that there are people like her that inspire us to keep going.
Q: What do you envision the next year will bring for Cru? The next 5 years?
Karla & Eddie: We are currently manufacturing chocolate at home licensed as a Cottage Food Operation. While this is a great way to start, we see the need within the next year to move out it out of our home and into a larger space that will help us continue our growth. We are excited about the opportunities in the next five years and see a trend towards more equity and transparency in the supply chain. We appreciates and promote the value of the work of farmers in Latin America and the cultural richness of the foods that we consume. We also see Cru getting more involved with facilitating chocolate making at origin. We are excited about the continued focus on sustainable and ethically sourced chocolate ingredients and chocolate that is made with the intention of deepening peoples’ connection with their food.
Q: What have been the biggest obstacles you’ve encountered (before & after FCI)?
Karla & Eddie: Before taking the FCI course we did not have clarity on all that it took to have a food business and before the FCI course we had some indecision about the type of business that we wanted. We knew that we wanted the independence, freedom and creative outlet of having our own business. FCI helped us to focus and to know that our stories have value and that there are others out there that also value food and FCI helped connect us with that movement. After taking the FCI courses our biggest obstacle is how to keep balance in all that we do, learning patience and that it takes time, education and repetition. As a small food maker we are sharing our passion and educating our community about the rich history and depth that exists in chocolate and attempting to somewhat untangle the obstacle of centuries of a food system that was formed by colonization and oppression.
Q: What advice do you have for new food entrepreneurs starting out?
Karla & Eddie: The advice we would give ourselves a year ago is to keep your costs low, start as small as you can. Advice for new makers in addition to persistence would be that the world doesn’t just need more chocolate or more coffee or more food. We don’t need more businesses, but we do need more meaningful businesses, more meaningful foods and a more meaningful life. So it is about making it different and doing business differently and not to fall into the ocean of sameness.
Look out for Cru Chocolate in independent cafes and stores in the greater Sacramento area or order directly through their website.
If you’re interested in attending Chocolate and Confectionery, you’re in luck! Our upcoming course is August 20 – 23. Check the website or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.