Here’s the thing about chocolate factories: it’s impossible to visit one without wanting to draw comparisons to the kooky world of Wonka. The Theo Chocolate Factory in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood certainly shares similarities with Mr. Dahl’s imaginative and magical emporium. For starters, both turn out a plethora of tasty choco treats, and factory workers have devoted themselves to being the finest chocolatiers in all the land. (Theo’s aren’t as orange, but a quick spray tan can fix that.)
The building Charlie and his grandpa toured was marvelous, and Theo gets to call the beautiful brick, former Redhook Brewery home. And, like Wonka, Theo isn’t afraid to try out new and unusual confections. (Bread and chocolate bar, anyone?) But, as long as the list of similarities is, there’s one difference that sets Theo’s Chocolate apart: While Mr. Wonka allowed only a select few beyond the walls of his coveted chocolate factory, Theo treats its company like a soaring great glass elevator that opens for about 60,000-plus people a year who come to see (and smell) cocoa beans transformed into chocolate bars.
Transparency is a driving force behind the Theo Chocolate brand in more ways than one. When Theo’s founder Joe Whinney researched and began working with cocoa farmers in Central America and Africa, he knew he wanted to shed light on some of the unethical ways the world’s chocolate industry conducted business.
He decided the best way to make a positive impact on the lives of cocoa-bean farmers was for him to launch his own fair-trade and organic line of chocolate bars. And to teach people why it is important.
To make that happen, Whinney had to convince his ex-wife and Theo’s co-founder and chief marketing officer Debra Music to move from the East Coast to the best coast with their son so they could create his dream chocolate factory.
Before agreeing to move across the country, and move back in with her ex-husband, Music needed to visit Washington first. “There was a confluence of factors, including an investor who owned the building we are currently in,” Music said. “The West Coast has a forward-thinking spirit and Washington is an agricultural state with a longer growing season than the East Coast, making it easier for us to source organic ingredients locally.”
Sitting on a park bench enjoying the lush, green view around her with a “Seattle-sized” cup of coffee in hand, Music decided she was ready to say goodbye to New England winters, and two years later, in February 2006, Theo Chocolate produced the first fair-trade-certified and organic chocolate bars in the nation. “We want to have as big an impact as we can as a small business in the industry,” Music said.
The small chocolate factory started to garner attention for its good cocoa ethics, and in 2010 partnered with Ben Affleck (yes, the Hollywood one) and his Eastern Congo Initiative to help train thousands of Democratic Republic of the Congo farmers to establish a stable income through farming quality cocoa. The women and men of the war-torn Congo were, and still are, in dire need of help.
Democratic Republic of the Congo has been described as, “The rape capital of the world.” The partnership between the Eastern Congo Initiative and Theo means some Congolese farmers, many of them women, are able to provide for themselves with a product that is considered “militia-proof” because its value is recognized only once it’s been processed into chocolate.
“We want to provide a stable livelihood to cocoa farmers, and connecting the dots is fundamental to what we do. Farmers are able to earn more and have a basic understanding of the economics of cocoa,” Music said.
For the upcoming cocoa harvest, Theo is contracting more than 800 metric tons of Congolese cocoa, which will impact more than 3,000 farmers and their families. “All of us as consumers have to be aware of the choices we make with our dollars, and what direction we want the world to go in,” Music said. Along with the Eastern Congo Initiative, Theo also partners with the Jane Goodall Institute, World Bicycle Relief Organization, and PCC Farmland Trust.
The latest collaboration for Theo is its first cookbook. The cookbook, which was largely written and complied by Music, is another veil of cocoa secrecy Theo has lifted, and is excited to share.
Inside the scrumptious-looking book is a plethora of recipes inspired, of course, by Theo chocolate products. To help her with the project, Music called on top Northwest chefs, including Tom Douglas, Naomi Pomeroy, and Trophy Cupcakes’ Jennifer Shea to create an array of chocolate-inclusive recipes. “The recipes range from really simple, like our brownies, which are so good, to more challenging. Once when I made our brownies, I forgot to add the flour, but that didn’t stop me from eating them. They were just as good — just that much more chocolatey,” Music said.
Music also made sure to balance sweet recipes with savory ones that use chocolate and cocoa nibs, which are bits of cocoa before milk or sugar are added to create what our taste buds know as chocolate. In the book, the honey and saffron-braised chicken with cocoa nib couscous is a hit — Music has made it more times than she can count.
The Theo Chocolate cookbook is another step in uniting chocolate consumers with their favorite treats, and another reason to go out and purchase chocolate with a conscience. Who knew simply buying a chocolate bar could be the golden ticket for helping make the world a better place?
Tours are seven days a week at 3400 Phinney Ave. N., Seattle. Hairnets are required, as it is a working food factory. Call ahead to reserve a spot. Tours are $10.
Get chocolate bars, the cookbook, and more online, at the factory retail store, and at retailers such as Whole Foods Market and Metropolitan Market. The book is $25.
Staying true to its transparent ways, the Theo Chocolate team gave us permission to share a few chocolate-inspired recipes from its book.
A Sweet One: Dark Chocolate Stout Bundt Cake
Tender and moist, this cake is very, very chocolaty and not overly sweet. When you take a bite, the beer’s malty roasted flavor comes through at the start, and then the chocolate takes over. Although you only need one cup of beer for the cake, before you drink the rest of the bottle, please note that you’ll need to save two tablespoons for the glaze.
- ¼ cup (¾ ounce) plus 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, divided
- 2 cups (9 ounces) plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided
- 1 cup stout, chocolate stout, or porter beer
- 6 ounces Theo 85 percent dark chocolate, chopped
- 2 cups packed (14 ounces) light brown sugar
- 1 (8-ounce) container sour cream
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the glaze:
- 5 ounces Theo 45 percent milk chocolate
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons stout, chocolate stout, or porter beer
- Generous 1 teaspoon honey
- ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
Instructions (Makes one 10-inch Bundt cake)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, stir together 1 tablespoon of the cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon of the flour. Lightly coat the inside of a 12-cup Bundt pan with nonstick cooking spray, then dust with the cocoa mixture. Tap the pan upside down to remove the excess, and set aside.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining ¼ cup cocoa powder, the beer, and chocolate, and whisk gently over medium heat until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove the pan from the heat, then whisk in the brown sugar, sour cream, eggs, vegetable oil, and vanilla — one ingredient at a time.
- Sift the remaining 2 cups flour, the baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the liquid ingredients and whisk well to blend. Make sure there are no lumps.
- Pour the batter (it will be very liquid) into the prepared pan, and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn it out of the pan onto the wire rack, and let it cool completely before glazing.
Make the Glaze
To make the glaze, put the chocolate, cream, beer, and honey in a double boiler. When the chocolate starts to melt, whisk the mixture until it’s perfectly smooth. Remove the glaze from the heat, and whisk in the butter. Let the glaze cool slightly at room temperature until it begins to thicken, whisking it occasionally. When it’s thick enough to leave a trail when you lift the whisk, slowly pour it over the cake, letting it run down the sides in an aesthetically pleasing way.
A Savory One: Roasted Baby Carrots with Balsamic-Bitter Chocolate Syrup
Real baby carrots, the kind with lacy green tops and delicate skins (as opposed to the factory-shaped cylindrical ones that come in a bag), are tender, sweet, and practically worth the trip to the farmers’ market. They’re so delicious they don’t really need anything at all. But hey, sometimes we like to gild the lily, and as much as we honor the perfection that is the real baby carrot, this surprisingly simple syrup steals the show here, elevating an already perfect vegetable into an elegant, dramatic, delectable side dish. The syrup goes equally well with roasted beets, and it’s also sublime drizzled over a well-seasoned grilled steak. Let your imagination run wild with this sauce — it will enliven a wide range of dishes.
- 3 pounds baby carrots (about finger-width thick), green tops trimmed to about 1 inch
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 5 or 6 (4-inch) sprigs fresh thyme
- ½ cup aged balsamic vinegar (5- or 10-year-aged is fine)
- ½ ounce Theo 85 percent dark chocolate, chopped
- ½ teaspoon honey
- Generous pinch kosher salt
Instructions (Makes 6 to 8 side-dish servings)
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
- Put the carrots on a sheet pan, drizzle with the olive oil, and spread in a single layer. Sprinkle salt evenly over the carrots, and lay the thyme sprigs on top. Roast until the carrots are tender and brown in spots, shaking the pan and turning once or twice — about 35 minutes total.
- While the carrots are cooking, make the syrup. Put the vinegar in the smallest saucepan you have, and simmer over medium-low heat until reduced to ¼ cup. Remove the pan from the heat, and add the chocolate. Let the chocolate melt for 30 seconds, than use a small spatula to gently stir the syrup until the chocolate has melted completely, and the syrup is smooth. Add the honey, salt, and mix well. Cover the pan to keep the sauce warm until you’re ready to serve the carrots.
- To serve, discard the thyme, and arrange carrots on a serving dish. Drizzle generously with the syrup, and serve immediately.