When Andal Balu was a young girl in southern India, chocolate was a luxury. If a friend or relative brought a Five Star bar home, the kids would split it into small pieces for a few blissful moments of sweetness.
Approaching 30 years living in metro Atlanta, Ms. Balu still knows how to savor chocolate, but now it’s by technique, not necessity.
“It has to be treated like a dessert, not like a candy,” says Ms. Balu, owner of Roswell-based Cocoatown, which sells all the equipment necessary for craft chocolate makers to go from “bean to bar.”
There’s a specific routine that’s lost on most Americans, even those who relish fine wines or gourmet coffee. Some forget to smell it, or they ignore the crucial steps of breaking the bar to feel and listen for the way it cracks.
But the fatal mistake is biting into the chocolate too quickly, releasing the favors too close to the bitter receptors of the tongue. It’s better, Ms. Balu says, to let it rest, melt, and then coat the palate, inhaling a bit of air in the process.
“You take that one piece and you eat it for five minutes,” she says.
In a roundabout way through its equipment, Cocoatown is bringing this experience more people around the world. But Ms. Balu and her husband and business partner, Balu Balasubramanian, didn’t start out with the ambition of becoming ambassadors of confection.
As with most good entrepreneurial stories, the transition came by necessity. When the recession hit in 2007, the couple’s company, Inno Concepts LLC, was left holding an unsold shipping container full of wet grinders commonly used in Indian households to pulverize nuts, rice and pulses.
The couple got a rare loan from a friend to cover the shortfall as they sought to diversify away from the grinders. Amazon.com was looming as a competitor, and they could see the dynamics changing in Indian kitchen, where the younger generations were looking to save time.
Their big idea came from customers who’d hacked the wet grinders to make them suitable for grinding cocoa nibs, which must be taken down to “liquor,” a wet mixture with particles of 15 microns, one sixth the width of a human hair.
“They had to be MacGyvers to be in the chocolate business — not just chefs,” she said, referencing the late 1980s action hero who could get himself out of any jam using only knowledge and the materials at hand.
“So we said, ‘OK, you be the chef, we will be the MacGyver, and we will give you the machine.’”
The Tinkering Chemist and the Botanist
Dr. Balasubramanian, a chemist who did his post-doctoral work at Georgia Tech, had made his living helping pharmaceutical companies incorporate polymers into their medications, but he was always a tinkerer at heart.
He created his first machine after noticing how long it took in the lab to mix adjuvants, liquids that help vaccines work better. For him, pushing oil and water back and forth through syringes was just too slow.
“They were getting the carpal tunnel syndrome, and they were complaining,” he said of the lab researchers, so he cobbled together a device with auto parts and created what came to be called the “Balu-sifier”, which mixed the emulsion automatically.
The instance recalls the Indian term “jugaad,” the concept of frugal innovation that’s easily observable across Indian society, from cost-effective health care solutions to improvised modes of transportation.
While they didn’t use the term — the Tamil Nadu natives speak Tamil, not Hindi — Cocoatown has been developed with a similar commitment to keeping costs down, creating a new solution by adapting readily available parts and developing some of their own. They now source from India and China as well as the U.S., fabricating most of the machines here.
It started with transforming a simple wet grinder into a cocoa-grinding beast. Dr. Balasubramanian overrode the timer function and introduced cooling mechanisms that allowed the motor to run for hours. He went to parts suppliers and developed new components to replace those that would wear down on the traditional machines. Now, the Cocoatown melanger is available for $600.
Mostly for hobbyists, the product was a gateway machine for Cocoatown, which has expanded its line to serve larger customers, earning multiple patents in the process. An all-stainless-steel system costing about $4,000 will net customers a drum roaster, a cracker, which opens the beans; a winnower, which separates the skin and husk from the nibs, and a patented grinder in multiple sizes.
Creating Global Entrepreneurs
With its staff of seven people, Ms. Balu says the company is creating entrepreneurs, especially in places where cocoa is produced but chocolate is literally a foreign concept. Even with a somewhat reactive sales model, Cocoatown has shipped product to 100 countries across the globe.
“They say coffee growers have never had coffee because they couldn’t afford it, but we are changing it,” Ms. Balu said. “Now the people who make cocoa beans — they don’t have to sell us cocoa — they can sell us chocolate.”
Co-ops are sprouting up around the world, and nonprofits are buying Cocoatown machines as they help improve the livelihoods of farmers. The Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana, a huge cocoa-producing country that handles sales through a government cooperative, has some of the company’s machines, Ms. Balu said.
And even when chocolate it is made in the U.S. or Europe, craft producers generally pay more for the fermented cocoa beans than huge trading houses, so the industry benefits even the disenfranchised farmer at the bottom of the supply chain, she said.
That’s key for Ms. Balu, who seems to genuinely care more about impact than lining her pockets. A botanist by training who is intimately interested in the agricultural aspect of cocoa (or cacao, or cacau) production, she adheres to a tradition that sees food as integral to health.
“Our philosophy is that food is medicine and medicine is food. If you eat the right food, you won’t need medicine,” she said.
A Growing Niche
She concedes that the company’s marketing and e-commerce could be improved, and she’s hoping to build partnerships with aid organizations trying to reduce poverty among farmers in the developing world.
In the short term, help is coming from local resources. The Small Business Development Center is helping improve operations, while Inno Concepts recently took home an Atlanta Metro Export Challenge grant of $5,000 to improve its global outreach. The company will soon compete with 27 other companies to win an additional $20,000 through the challenge, enabled by JPMorgan Chase.
It’s also entertaining switching to a Paypal global sellers’ platform that will allow it to take payments in multiple currencies and handle logistics through a third party.
Cocoatown is soon hosting a three-day training session for chocolatiers around the world, repeating a program it has done for customers from Bolivia, Argentina and Taiwan.
in one of four office suites it has adapted for that purpose. Eventually, the plan is to offer shorter, more casual chocolate-making experiences for local residents.
All this should lead to greater sales, but that’s not Ms. Balu’s main goal.
“For us, money is not the thing. How many people’s lives we touch is more important.”
Learn more at https://cocoatown.com.