Meet Your Maker: José Meza of Mindo Chocolate

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I had the good fortune to meet José Meza, one half of the chocolate power couple behind Mindo Chocolate, while I was in Mindo, Ecuador, a month ago. Mindo is located in the Ecuadorian province of Mindo. I was so anxious about talking to him that I spent the whole day trying to get up my courage to do so. However, my efforts were for nothing since he turned out to be a pleasant conversationalist and an uncomplicated interview subject. Over the course of an hour and a half, we discussed how and why he launched Mindo Chocolate as well as his plans for the company’s future.

Together in business are Jose and his partner Barbara. This photograph was provided courtesy of Mindo Chocolate.

How old were you when you first got into chocolate-making and where did you mainly learn— at home or abroad?

José: Recently, in 2009, both my wife and I started participating in the activity. I’m an entrepreneur, not a scientist, so I got started on the chocolate concept a little bit earlier than she did. In all honesty, she was ahead of me at the beginning. It’s not actually chocolate that captivates my interest; rather, it’s the idea of something wonderful. The fact that I read a lot of material on chocolate and how beneficial it is for you, in addition to the fact that this chance presented itself, was what ultimately persuaded me to change my mind. In Mindo, Ecuador, where my wife and I have opened a coffee shop, we came up with the idea to bake brownies. However, she was never satisfied with the brownies, and finally, we came to the conclusion that the only solution was to purchase our own cacao and process it on our own in very tiny amounts. After that, when we presented the brownie, it was completely unique to anything else that we had done in the past since it was so incredibly delicious.

What made you think of the chocolate as the thing that could be changed in the recipe?

J: Well, when we first began, we used chocolate from the area, but then my wife started using Callebeut. Then we had the thinking, “well, this is quite ludicrous to come to a country that has maybe the greatest beans in the world, and we end up bringing in something.” So we laughed about it. When we utilized actual cacao, we saw a significant improvement. Even though it was only an experiment, the findings were rather remarkable. Individuals come in here on a daily basis for the brownies, and I have some really wonderful people working in the kitchen—people who truly want to keep improving things on their own on their own initiative. When you give your employees more responsibility, they become more motivated to come to work. They no longer see it as a burden since they are an integral part of the process rather than just serving as another gear in the machine. They do it in a way that demonstrates ownership of the location, which is of critical significance.

So what year was it that you actually started selling the chocolate as a product?

J: Around March of 2009, here at this location, we started producing it in really small numbers; back then, we utilized the little Champion Juicer. We first began our processing with the Premiere Wonder Grinder, which are fantastic, but we outgrew them very fast. Therefore, around two years ago, we created, with the assistance of one of the engineers in Quito, a ball refiner that used balls made of stainless steel. At this point, the size of the particles has been reduced to somewhere in the low twenties, measured in microns. The fact that I am the type of person who enjoys facing a challenge of this kind is what brought me here in the first place. The amount produced has increased significantly. Now that we’ve gotten into the bean business, we’re really selling (Ecuadorian cacao) to chocolate producers in the United States. We traveled to Ecuador and discovered six distinct varieties of Nacional cacao, each of which has a unique taste profile. We are now exporting these beans, nibs, and a little amount of chocolate liquid to the United States. Even the cacao’s own juice, known as baba, has been used in the production of some of the goods sold in our shop.

Miel de Cacao, or Cocoa Honey, or baba hervida.

Why were you originally in Ecuador, all those years ago?

J: I came all the way back to see you. I was born in Riobamba, which is located in Ecuador. So I decided to go to Riobamba, but I didn’t end up enjoying my time there since the city had changed so drastically. However, as I passed through this area (Mindo), I was taken aback by everything. The weather is really ideal right now. After falling in love with the location, I made the decision to purchase the piece of land, which resulted in the current situation. At 2008, we established [the El Quetzal Chocolate Shop] in this location.

And how is business these days?

J: It seems to have detonated. I had just acquired a fifty percent stake in a chocolate business in Quito that goes by the name Leyenda. Calderón is located in northern Quito and is home to a relatively young business. Following that, I’ll be bringing that container [of Ecuadorian cacao] to the United States in order to participate in the Northwest Chocolate Festival. Currently, I possess a fifty percent stake in a chocolate firm that’s very big. In addition, we are going to travel there to represent Leyenda. Cloud Forest Cacao is the name of the bean business that I’m developing, and another part of our company is called Mindo Chocolate Makers, which is located in the United States. In addition to that, I have this wacky idea that the miel de cacao that I’m preparing may be used to sweeten chocolate. I’m known as one of those individuals that is always willing to share their ideas with others, but I believe you can count on me to really carry it through.

How is your role in the business different from that of your wife’s?

J: People come to me because I’m the one who gets things done. She is creative and has a somewhat better sense of organization than I do. In contrast to me, she strives for excellence in all she does, while I’m not even close. If someone were to say “build this item here,” then I would see to it that it was constructed. I employ local people and make use of materials found in the area. If we are going to launch a bean company, then it falls on me to be the one to run it.

So what is your goal, direction-wise, as a chocolate entrepreneur?

J: To create the finest chocolate that can be made. Constant progress; never ending. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and attempt new things. In order to introduce ourselves to the chocolate business in the United States and establish ourselves as a potential significant bean supplier, we will be attending the Northwest Chocolate Festival. However, we will most definitely be focusing on the needs of extremely small-scale manufacturers.

I love that you have so many different percentages. How did you come up with those?

J: I simply spoke out of the blue there. You should know that the reason the 77% rustic was created was because people in the States called me and said that “all of the machines are broken, all of the grinders are broken.” In response, I told them to “take the Champion juicer and grind it, and just mix it with sugar and then temper it.” This is how the 77% rustic was born. They began producing it using those things, and when I returned back and we acquired additional machines, people wanted to keep going back for the rustic ones despite the fact that we now had more options available.

How big was the operation at its start, compared to its size today?

J: I don’t remember exactly how much we made the first year, but I guess it was somewhere around $12,000; after that, it increased to $35,000; and this year, we’re planning to make $500,000 total. And at this time, we have around 22 individuals working for us here in Ecuador, but in Michigan we have just four or five people working for us, not including my wife and I. The function of a motivator that I play here is to ensure that individuals continue to desire to execute their jobs just as well, if not better, than they did before.

What sets you apart from the other artesanal chocolate makers?

J: The model with whom I have the most fun collaborating. Ninety percent of Ecuador’s cacao is produced on tiny farms. These farms are multi-purpose, and cacao production is only one of their numerous activities. They organize themselves into organizations and request financial support from the government in order to work on enhancing their procedures. The issue with it is that it allows the bureaucracy to get too powerful, which results in the farmer receiving a lesser share of the pie. Therefore, the model that we are leaning toward is that of smaller cooperatives, in which case we would either purchase the whole lot ourselves up front or do the fermenting and drying processes on our own. Our first goal is making sure the money gets to the person who grew the crop. You have a responsibility to the farmers, but at the same time you need to maintain command of the fermenting process. Creating ensuring that the beans are fermented in the appropriate manner is arguably the most important step in the process of making delicious chocolate. There are opportunities for intellectual growth there.

How do you get your inspiration for new products?

J: That’s not difficult at all. Because there is an infinite number of activities that might be done, we have to make a conscious effort to avoid doing more and more. Chocolate is a flavor that complements a wide variety of foods.

Ecuadorean cacao from a small farm north of Quito.

About how much do you pay per metric ton of cacao?

J: Right this moment? Now it’s time to pay (at this point, he gets up out of his chair to get his phone so he can provide me with an exact figure)… $4628.40. This is then dried down to 7% after undergoing fermentation. That is a high price here, but I’ve heard that it has to be closer to $8,000 a metric ton for it to be really beneficial for the farmers, so we have a long way to go, and I’m working in the direction that we need to go in order to get there. I’m working on it.

About what percentage by weight is left of the cacao after it is sorted and winnowed?

J.: The winnower is the essential component. The moisture content of the beans drops from 7% to roughly 1% after they are roasted, which results in a loss of weight; but, if you have a really fine winnower, you may get 80% of the nibs from the bean.

Who makes your favorite single origin bar, other than your own?

J: I believe Patric has a bar from Madagascar that is of a respectable quality. I, too, have enjoyed Rogue’s items, but it’s bad that he’s having trouble keeping up with customer demand. Because of his extraordinary skill and breadth of knowledge, he may have have established a thriving enterprise at this point. The chocolate sold by Dandelion is tasty.

Where is your personal favorite cacao sourced from?

J: In Esmeraldas, there is a cooperative, and the person there creates an exceptionally high-quality bean; we’re going to exhibit it (at Northwest Chocolate Festival). Additionally, we have produced chocolate from beans originating from Vinces, Puerto Quito, and Manab. There’s this other person whose property is incredibly difficult to get to; first, there’s this really awful road, and then you have to take a boat to his home… We have this other guy whose farm is really difficult to get to. However, that one produces a chocolate that isn’t half bad.

Where do you see yourselves in five years?

J: Let’s hope you’re still covered in chocolate. I mean, in five years I’ll be 71 years old, and I suppose that means I won’t be retiring any time soon. My opinion is that you shouldn’t retire just yet. I anticipate that I will continue to find new methods to enhance the quality of this product while I am away, but there will eventually come a point when everything will be completed.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

J: I think there’s never a boring time. There’s simply so much going on. There is constantly something novel on the horizon.

In addition, we are all of the opinion that the chocolate industry, namely on the front of cacao growers, will continue to experience exciting new changes in the near future. When you’ve had the opportunity to speak with people who work with chocolate, how have you responded to them? Do we seem to have a higher level of happiness than the average human being?