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‘For us, it’s about more than chocolate. It’s about the land, the people, the dedication and the interconnected relationships that bind us all.’ Joe Whinney was inspired to found Theo Chocolate in Seattle in 2006, and he continues to champion organic and fair trade practices in his sustainable business. Passionate about both chocolate and changing the world, Theo Chocolate aims to bring the best of the cocoa bean to their chocolate lovers while supporting the local farmers. We catch up with Chief Marketing Officer Debra Music, who created the Theo brand concept and factory along with Joe, to discover the secrets behind their inspiration, success, and delicious chocolate.
Tell us a bit about the story behind Theo and why Joe Whinney founded the company.
In 2006, Joe Whinney combined his passion for chocolate, sustainability and economic justice to found Theo Chocolate, but Joe’s unprecedented vision in the world of cocoa started much before that. In the 1980s, he volunteered for a conservation group that worked in Mayan communities where Joe saw firsthand the negative impact the chocolate industry has historically had on cocoa growers and their land. After learning about the social and environmental consequences of the conventional cocoa industry, Joe was inspired to take action.
In 1994, Joe pioneered the supply chain for organic cocoa into North America, sourcing cocoa beans from farms in Central America for early organic brands including Cascadian Farm and Newman’s Own. Over the next decade, he worked to champion organic and fair trade practices, building lasting relationships and deep trust with farmer groups. Joe’s tireless efforts culminated in the opportunity to launch his own company in Seattle in 2006. Over the last decade, Theo has consistently demonstrated innovation and integrity that is firmly rooted in Joe’s core commitment to ethical sourcing practices, setting a new standard for sustainable businesses.
Have you always been interested in chocolate? Was working in chocolate production something you had dreamed of?
I am a lifetime chocolate lover and have always appreciated the sweetness and satisfaction chocolate can and does bring to so many of life’s moments. I don’t know that I can say I dreamed of working in chocolate production when I was young, but it truly is a dream come true to have the opportunity to work in an industry that brings me and others so much joy. Chocolate is something that we all love and associate with moments of celebration, so it has proved to be the perfect tool to introduce and educate others to the importance and value of fair trade and organic practices.
How would you describe your chocolate?
Our chocolate is clean, packed with flavor and made for everybody to enjoy. Each bite of Theo chocolate connects you with our process and our story — from the farmers who grew the beans to the people who roast, mill, conch, and temper them in our factory. You can taste the rich and complex blend of cocoa beans that gives our chocolate its character, the care and precision that go into making each bar, and the creativity and joy that lead to our unique flavor profiles.
Where do you source your ingredients from?
Right now our beans come primarily from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru and Panama. In 2010, Theo teamed up with Eastern Congo Initiative and export partner Esco Kivu to cultivate cocoa in one of the most unstable parts of the world. As a result, thousands of Congolese farmers have been trained to grow high-quality cocoa, empowering them to emerge from poverty and profound violence to build a stable future. Today, Congolese cocoa represents over half of Theo’s total cocoa supply.
Theo is the first organic and fair trade chocolate manufacturer in America. How important are these ethical values to you? And how do you ensure your chocolate is ethically sourced?
These values are fundamental to our company and our brand. As the first organic and fair trade chocolate factory in the country, our founding principle is that the finest artisan chocolate in the world can (and should) be produced in an entirely ethical, sustainable fashion. All of our ingredients are carefully screened and verified by third parties to ensure they meet our standards for social and environmental responsibility. We purchase cocoa beans from certified organic and fair trade producer groups comprised of small-holder farmers around the world.
Theo provides significant price premiums for cocoa beans based on quality, and these premiums provide meaningful incentives for producers to improve the quality of their cocoa beans. Paying premium prices for high-quality cocoa beans requires full transparency in our entire supply chain, in order to ensure that farmers are benefitting from these premiums and able to invest in their families and communities. All of our farmer co-op and export partners must demonstrate full transparency in their business transactions, and this enables us to verify what every farmer is paid and influence farmer remuneration through our pricing incentives.
You released your first cookbook on September 22, 2015. Can you tell us a bit about the book? What do you like about people being able to replicate your recipes at home?
The new cookbook, Theo Chocolate: Recipes and Sweet Secrets from Seattle’s Favorite Chocolate Maker, includes 75 sweet and savory recipes and tips for cooking with chocolate at home, as well as the story of how Theo became North America’s first organic and fair trade chocolate factory. With our new cookbook, we enable Theo fans and chocolate lovers alike to replicate the artisan treats that were previously available only through Theo in their own home kitchens. We also want to broaden the concept of chocolate for chocolate lovers with lots of savory recipes that incorporate chocolate into breakfast, small plates, and dinner. Chocolate can be intimidating to work with, and we’ve taken extra care to spell out foolproof methods for success.
You also run chocolate-making classes and factory tours. Is this community interaction an important part of your business?
Our factory tours are a core pillar of our business as they are a direct way to educate new friends (and longtime Theo fans) about the importance of sustainable business practices while also introducing them to the delicious products that are made in our factory every day. In the matter of an hour, we’re able to tell the Theo story, walk visitors through the entire bean-to-bar chocolate making process and fill their bellies with as many samples as they can handle. The aim of our Chocolate University classes is to give people a hands-on experience that shows them anybody can create and enjoy chocolate masterpieces in a fun and welcoming environment.
Do you have a signature chocolate recipe you are particularly proud of or a particularly bizarre recipe?
Personally, I especially love our fig, fennel and almond confection and bar. The flavors and textures are unexpected and fantastic. Our dacquoise recipe in the book is inspired by these, and one of my favorite recipes. I think our Walla Walla onion caramel was one of the most surprisingly delicious things to come out of our kitchen.
Do you have any particular influences or role models who you aspire to?
Day to day, people who are true to themselves and have a sense of purpose and integrity in their own lives inspire me — my husband Brad is one of those people. As far as public figures go, I gravitate towards those who shake up conventional ways of thinking and being, and pull us all in the direction of greater compassion. Gloria Steinem and Dr. Jane Goodall are two powerful examples of authentic women who have followed their own unique paths with a deep sense of urgency to affect positive change in the world. We are all capable of so much if our hearts are in the right place, and we can find the right balance of humility and hubris.
What made you move from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Seattle? Has it impacted your philosophy in any way?
I followed Joe Whinney, the CEO and founder of Theo, to Seattle, with our kid in tow so that he could start the company. It was a wild thing to do at the time, but it was the right thing. I love Seattle more than I could ever have imagined. I wouldn’t say it has changed my philosophy, but it has definitely provided me with a place to thrive and grow.
What’s the best-kept secret of Seattle?
Honestly, the weather. Having lived most of my life in the northeastern part of the US, Seattle weather gets a ridiculously bad rap considering how brutal the extremes of weather can be over on the other coast. I love the temperate climate, the fact that it stays green all winter here, the long growing season, and the accessibility of both mountains and ocean. I think it’s one of the most beautiful regions on earth.
Where would you advise culture lovers to go in Seattle?
Any theater, any farmers market, the Olympic Sculpture Park, the Seattle Public Library, a ferry ride to one of the San Juan Islands. Culture for me encompasses all of the things that give a place its unique flavor and personality, and that includes food, the arts and the natural geography.
Where would you advise Seattle visitors to go to experience local cuisine? And what would you tell them to order?
For a quintessentially Seattle food experience, start your morning with a Caffe Vita latte, then hit up any of the farmers markets to take in the bounty that is the organic and locally grown Washington harvest. For lunch, eat pasta at Il Corvo or a meatball sub at Salumi in the ID and have an afternoon snack of cheese or ice cream at Kurtwood Farm shop on the hill. At sunset, head to Westward and sit yourself down in an Adirondack chair beside the fire pit, snuggle up under a woolen blanket, order oysters and a glass of Washington wine and gaze out at the lights of the city and the Space Needle on the other side of Lake Union. That would be a good start!