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Hands holding a plate of cacao beans. Jill Fannon/Eater

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Meet Four Craft Chocolate Makers Decolonizing the Industry

Chocolate makers Jinji Fraser, Karla McNeil-Rueda, Damaris Ronkanen, and Daniel Maloney on how ancestry informs what they do, and how to eradicate cultural erasure in the industry

Over a perfect omelet brimming with spring ramps and morels, I found myself stunned mid-chew as I listened to the words of my father. Moments earlier, I learned from him that my grandfather’s final bit of travel before he died was to Guyana, where our ancestors had lived, and where he had arranged to meet with a distant family member. Between bites, my dad continued, “there’s a Fraser family land trust outside of Georgetown...”

As a student of geography, I knew the region he’d begun to describe to be a major coastal export hub of Guyanese hinterland treasures, like gold, diamonds, and rice. As a chocolate maker, I knew Georgetown to be just west of cacao-rich rainforest. And right there, as I absently mopped up omelet sweat with a hunk of crusty bread, I felt the dissolution of the intimidation I had often felt while making chocolate in a male, white-dominant landscape. Our family land signified an ancestral connection to the greater sacred cacao story, which I suddenly found myself belonging to, creating a new grounding in my career. No longer was my work a radical dissent from the mainstream. It was now an homage to all who had come before me, passed down from generations ago through my DNA, and into my hands.

Even as my own story continues to unfold — through family lineage research and eventual travel to Guyana to see what has come of our land — I became fascinated with the ethnic diversity of the craft chocolate industry. I began to wonder about the ancestral rites of passage by BIPOCs (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) whose inclusion and celebration as chocolate makers has been marginalized in the media while the contributions of white men are normalized and bolstered. The narrow lens through which craft chocolate is seen is not only to the detriment of Indigenous chocolate makers globally, but also robs consumers of the chance to experience the multitude of ways chocolate is produced. Healing the short-sightedness of our already fragile industry works toward universal fair-trade practices, equitable treatment of women farmers and producers, and the celebration of the work of BIPOC makers worldwide.

I spoke with Karla McNeil-Rueda (Cru Chocolate), who focuses on drinking chocolate, drawing from her own family experience while bringing attention to the undeniable influence of Mesoamerican heritage on the chocolate industry. Damaris Ronkanen (Cultura Craft Chocolate) also brought family nostalgia to our discussion, grounding herself solidly in community activism by educating the youth in chocolate making. Finally, I talked with Daniel Maloney (Sol Cacao), whose Trinidadian roots inspire him to continue his family lineage in cacao, as well as encourage an industrywide commitment to fair-trade practices. Altogether, we investigate how ancestry informs what they do and how they do it, as well as how we might eradicate cultural erasure in chocolate making, creating visibility and opportunity for more diversity.

The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Karla McNeil-Rueda

Co-Founder, Cru Chocolate, Sacramento, California

Eater: Did you find chocolate, or did chocolate find you?

Karla McNeil-Rueda: A bit of both. Chocolate, and cacao to be more specific, has always been here; it’s part of who we are, like corn, like a family member — it’s part of our DNA. Growing up in Honduras, we had many cacao- and chocolate-based drinks in different seasons with as many names as there were flavors, so this is a big part of our diet.

Portrait of smiling woman holding her hand up to her face.
Karla McNeil-Rueda
Keba Konte, courtesy McNeil-Rueda

In the U.S., the chocolate-making space is dominated by white men. How do you find your own way?

Yes, it is true that what most people understand as chocolate making in the U.S. is represented mostly by white men, but we have no interest in fitting into that category. What they call chocolate is different to us; chocolate is our heritage and part of what we are. It is health, pleasure, an everyday ritual, a state of mind and a way of being. So we will never find our way in the chocolate industry; we must remain true to our own way. Chocolate in the U.S. and Europe needs the romance and the exotic appeal of a faraway land. For us, those lands are our homes, and that makes a big difference in our approach.

We also choose to only work with people who think differently, and [who] value the contribution of small and local businesses. These are people who also want to work with us, and don’t need to receive a container full of cacao in order to feel fulfilled — just how I don’t need to have a mega factory in order to find value in my work. It takes more time, more phone calls, more resources, more fun, more humanity, more everything — but that is what I love, that is the joy of freedom.

How does your ancestry inform what you do and the way you do it?

For me, ancestry is made up of the seeds and foods that fed those before us, including the agreements they made and work that they did in keeping each other alive through thousands and thousands of years.

So as we cook, our kitchens can become temples and our pantries can transform into altars, which opens our space for the feelings, emotions, memories and questions that arise. That is why I like to cook with music. It helps me have a sensibility,

This is how I feel my ancestry speaks, through food and especially through cacao. I notice how my thoughts change as the roasting or the grinding changes. We can better accompany our foods by listening as they go through these changes, because in the same way, they have accompanied us as we experience change in our daily lives.

How do we reconcile being chocolate makers when the industry is still entrenched in colonialism?

I think that the industry as a whole is dominated by many people, many colors, and many genders across the supply chain. There are many white women replicating colonial systems here in the U.S., and there are also many brown men enforcing this system at the farm level. The lack of fairness and equal opportunity in the chocolate industry has its roots in extraction, and that thrives in separation and in the erasing of others.

Import and export of crops are entrenched in colonialism, but cacao is an ancient native food, so you can also find many people still growing and making chocolate who are originally from the land in which cacao grows.

Colonialism is real, but so are the Indigenous people of these places. They are alive and thriving even with an imposed system, because they belong there. Colonialism is strong, but I believe our ancestral ways are stronger. We must have faith in the survival of these Indigenous groups; we must look for them, we must awaken a sincere desire for them to thrive.

It requires work, time, relationships, knowing each other’s culture, knowing each other’s languages, and courtship. That’s why colonialism is so appealing to many: You don’t have to know anything in order to participate and make money. A big lie of colonialism is the belief that there are no buying options; there’s only one way, the original people are gone, and what’s left is the colony. This is not true.

How do we create more diversity in the chocolate-making world?

First we must acknowledge the chocolate-making world is very diverse. In any city where you find immigrants from Mesoamerica, I guarantee you they are making chocolate.

That said, why is it easy for people to recognize a white man who had never seen a cacao tree before becoming a chocolate maker? And what makes it so hard to see a woman from Mesoamerica who has been making chocolate for generations as a chocolate maker? Why do people celebrate one and condemn the other?

I think when people rethink chocolate ... things will change. As long as people only chase the industrial candy bar, the craft chocolate bar, or the sugar- and cream-filled bon-bons, chocolate as a way of living among BIPOC will remain invisible. Misrepresenting chocolate creates social, environmental, and cultural problems, which at their core create disease and poverty for farmers and consumers.

Daniel Maloney

Co-Founder, Sol Cacao, the Bronx, New York

Three men standing looking directly at the camera.
Sol Cacao co-founders and brothers Dominic, Nicholas, and Daniel Maloney
Courtesy Sol Cacao

Eater: Did you find chocolate, or did chocolate find you?

Daniel Maloney: At Sol Cacao, we believe chocolate found us. Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, one of our most memorable moments was our grandmother carrying a basket of vegetables in both hands and a bowl of herbs balancing on her head. She would do this ritual everyday, even after turning 99. She would show my brothers and I all the vegetables she would pick, and their nutritional benefits. These early memories would leave a major impression and seed our interest in food security and sustainable and renewable agriculture. Before my brothers and I enrolled in college, our father began telling stories of our grandparents and how they practiced farming for over 35 years. Their favorite crops were sugarcane and the cacao tree. After learning these stories, we saw it in ourselves that we are capable of being cocoa farmers or chocolate makers.

How do you stay grounded in your craft, and navigate the persistent colonialism in the chocolate industry?

When we launched Sol Cacao, there were few people of color in the industry, so we had no choice but to jump into it and learn the process. We would dream about someday being on a cacao farm and picking the beans to make chocolate, a dream our grandparents were never able to fully realize for themselves. For these reasons we viewed chocolate making as a culture and family legacy, which gave us inspiration to pave our own way in the chocolate industry.

As a chocolate maker in the 21st century, we carry the responsibility to correct some of the historical injustices which have taken place in the cacao industry. One way chocolate makers are doing this is through traceability and transparency in their chocolate-making process. It starts with where and how the cacao beans are grown and harvested by sourcing organic or fair-trade cacao. Through purchasing fair-trade cacao, we ensure the cacao farmers get the correct compensation to have a livable wage to make change back in their local communities, to global effect.

Damaris Ronkanen

Founder, Cultura Craft Chocolate, Denver, Colorado

Eater: What family memories have informed your perception of chocolate?

Damaris Ronkanen: My abuelita would always have fresh tortillas and atole in the morning. She would get up early and take her nixtamal [cooked corn] to the molino, where they would grind the corn into fresh masa. When she came back she would make tortillas by hand and use a little bit of the masa to make a fresh batch of atole. Whenever I was there she always made sure to make champurrado (a chocolate atole) since she knew it was my favorite. She would toast cacao beans on her comal and grind them by hand using her metate. She would then blend the chocolate into the steaming hot atole and use her molinillo to whisk it until it was super frothy. The process was mesmerizing.

Black and white photo of smiling woman wearing an apron, standing behind a mixer containing chocolate.
Damaris Ronkanen
Juan Fuentes, courtesy Ronkanen

Unfortunately, I could never replicate this to be quite the same when I was back in the U.S. There weren’t molinos to grind your corn, and people didn’t make their own nixtamal, and there definitely weren’t cacao beans freshly toasted and ground by hand.

How has your business model evolved since its inception?

When we started out making chocolate, the big guys of the chocolate-making industry defined what craft chocolate was, so we felt the pressure to make bars in order to succeed. Still, I was pulled by my Mexican roots, and the memories of market visits and fresh champurrado with my grandmother.

There was a huge difference between my grandmother’s texture and European texture. When we officially started Cultura, I wanted to get back to my heritage, so we introduced drinking chocolate. I knew in order to honor my grandmother, and to move my business forward, I would need to define what I was doing on my own terms and decide what impact my business could have on my community. As successful as the bars were at the wholesale level, they weren’t speaking to my soul.

What is your approach in how you communicate about chocolate in your work?

After experiencing such a pivotal moment in 2018, opening Cultura, connecting with my roots helped define not only what I wanted to create, but how I talk about chocolate too. Our local community in Westwood is composed largely of Mexican immigrants, and we made it part of our mission to create a non-intimidating space where families could feel at home with familiar flavors. They might not immediately connect with the single-origin bars we offer, but they definitely get excited about the drinking chocolate, which opens a door to educate about origin, terroir, and processing.

Even in the way we designed our logo, and chose a mural for the outside of our building, people in the community feel welcome. It becomes a true form of empowerment for our community when they take part in hands-on classes, teaching everything from where the cacao originates to making beverages to explaining what the molinillos they may have seen around their grandparents’ houses are actually used for.

How have you been able to find success while avoiding the elitist mentality around chocolate making?

We focus on culturally relevant chocolates. I’ve learned to not try and emulate the style of chocolates other companies were making, but instead to make chocolate that our community appreciates, and that highlights my heritage. Without having real experience, these other companies construct their narratives around their sourcing, creating a false reality of how much impact they really have on the groups of people they feature on their social media feeds. These stories are used for marketing and to drive up pricing. There’s a certain elitism in craft-chocolate making that fetishizes authenticity through communication and packaging in order to make their product accessible for white people.

We don’t have the influence and reach of these other companies, but that isn’t the goal either. It has taken a lot of effort for people to understand why we do things the way we do, but I’ve always known there was so much more my business is capable of in terms of making chocolate accessible and engaging our community.

How can we leave the door open to create more diversity in the chocolate making world?

The question we’ve always asked of ourselves is: What impact can our company have? A conversation I would like to see happen is of the limited entrepreneurial spirit and access in America. In Mexico, the opportunity is available to everyone to continue family traditions in business. Here, there is a lot of intimidation and difficulty in making your own path. So in order to positively influence this issue, we exclusively hire women from within the community. We offer classes to youth who otherwise don’t have access to craft chocolate — this is their space too. We are bilingual, so there aren’t any language barriers to learning or curiosity.

Smiling woman wearing overalls half in shadow.
Jinji Fraser
Jill Fannon/Eater
Woman in shadow reaching for a plant. Jill Fannon/Eater

The lingering question is: What actionable steps might we take to inspire a new generation of BIPOC chocolate makers, and how can they feel justified in exploring the craft of chocolate making in their own ways without intimidation or judgment?

“BIPOC makers need to organize and create their own BIPOC chocolate makers association, in which we spend time and resources educating, supporting, and uplifting each other, and where many ways of expressing chocolate can coexist,” McNeil-Rueda says. As for me, my earliest experience in chocolate making was at the International Chocolate Show in Paris in 2012. I learned then, and have known through my career, that an impeccable bar is one whose texture is smooth and melt is indiscernible from one’s own body temperature. Perfection and accolades are both sought through thousands of dollars of stainless-steel equipment and, importantly, an agreement and an eidetic memory of European technique.

My most recent experience of chocolate making in Guatemala was categorically different, and wildly more satiating: Indigenous women slow-roasting beans over an open flame, then hulling them using friction and the wind, before using a molcajete to grind the beans into a paste heavy with grit and fragments of all the cacao ever to pass that stone bowl, ready for drinking. In that moment of awed observation, I felt that this technique and experience should be allowed to live in those Highlands, and with their descendants; respected without appropriation, lauded with curiosity and intrigue. I knew it was upon me to discover what methods and practices are innate to me, and then to educate my community on a broader vision of good chocolate.

As it relates to chocolate, one should be able to choose their pleasure. However, this is not a journey that can be void of education. There must be support for the idea that chocolate takes on many different forms, and freedom for each form to exist means respect for all who make it. “Positions of leadership in craft chocolate companies should be held by Black and brown people in order to heal the whitewashing of our cultural roots,” says Ronkanen. Indeed, that would be a collective effort to decolonize chocolate and acknowledge the ancestral pathways critical to making the industry whole.

Jinji Fraser is a Baltimore-based writer and chocolate-maker at Pure Chocolate by Jinji.


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