Jody Hayden and Jenny Samaniego met in 2010 in Ecuador. Hayden was leading a cacao harvest tour for her friend, Mimi Wheeler, founder of Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate in Empire. At the time Hayden was working for Peace Coffee, a fair-trade coffee company in Minneapolis.
Samaniego, a native of Ecuador, was living in New York City and working for a chocolate maker in New Jersey. The two immediately hit it off, finding they shared a passion for sustainability and social justice (and, of course, chocolate). Little did either of them know then that less than eight years later they would both be the owners of award-winning chocolate companies, spearheading a new ethical business model in the chocolate industry.
Samaniego grew up in Quito, Ecuador’s bustling capital city, but both of her parents are from small rural villages where most families are subsistence farmers who also grow bananas, oranges, potatoes, beans or cacao for export to make their living. She grew up climbing on the cacao trees in her mother’s hometown of La Mana—trees that grow some of the finest cacao in the world, the aromatic Arriba Nacional cacao beans. She recalls eating the fresh cacao pulp straight from the pod while playing in the trees as a child.
With this experience, she has witnessed firsthand how cacao farmers do the grueling work of growing and harvesting cacao, but see little of the profit. Because cacao is a commodity crop, it is a volatile market. If there is a good harvest the price can drop dramatically, and the farmers are the one who suffer the loss. This can mean going from little profit to no profit at all for their months of hard work.
After moving to New York in 2005, Samaniego started working in food and eventually in the chocolate industry, where she began to understand that Ecuadorian cacao, especially the Arriba Nacional variety, was in high demand for its nutty and aromatic floral properties. She remembered fondly her childhood playing among the cacao trees, and knew she had found her passion. She recalls thinking, “These are my roots, my people, my country.” She began to dream that she could one day bring chocolate to the market made with Ecuador’s famed Arriba Nacional cacao, sourced directly from the farmers, at a price that reflected the hard work of growers and that supported sustainable farming practices. Samaniego shared her dream of owning a direct trade chocolate company with Hayden during the trip to Ecuador in 2010.
In 2013, Hayden moved back to her native Northern Michigan and she and her husband, DC, purchased Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate from Mimi Wheeler. Upon taking over the business, Hayden knew exactly where she wanted to source her chocolate.
Samaniego had already been experimenting with creating the perfect couvertures (high-quality chocolate) from Arriba Nacional cacao. While it was difficult to break into the field as a woman and an immigrant, with the help of a friend she was able to introduce her chocolate to important, well-respected chefs who went on to help her formulate the couverture through many rounds of tasting with technical feedback.
Her big break came, however, in 2013 when Jody Hayden contacted her, and Grocer’s Daughter became her first customer. A few months later, the company that eventually became Conexion Chocolate was born. Samaniego says that “‘sustainable’ and ‘direct trade’ are not lines we offer in a vast catalog—they are all we do!”
There is a big difference between the “craft” chocolate created by Conexion and “commodity” chocolate, according to Hayden. Most chocolate consumed today is best described as candy—largely sugar with a small amount of cocoa added. For example, a Hershey bar is made up of only 11% cocoa. The rest is almost all sugar.
Unlike commodity chocolate, Conexion’s couverture is 60% to 85% cocoa, and made from cacao that is carefully selected for its nuanced flavors. Samaniego explains that “just like wine or coffee, nuanced differences are brought on by climate, elevation, soil type, rainfall and average temperature.” There are no additives, only the intense flavors provided by these differences in terroir. There are “strong floral notes” of Arriba Nacional from Manabi, according to Samaniego, in contrast to the “more nutty notes” of cacao grown in Esmeraldas, 400 kilometers north.
As for the quality of her chocolate, Samaniego says, “Sometimes it is better to let the chocolate speak for itself.” Conexion Chocolate won six awards in 2017 from the Academy of Chocolate, the International Chocolate Awards and the Ecuador Chocolate Awards.
In addition to its superior quality, the Conexion couverture Grocer’s Daughter uses is sourced through a direct-trade model. This means that Conexion is buying directly from farmers, which has two primary benefits: increased quality of the finished product, and increased quality of life for the farmers. By working with the farmers, Conexion Chocolate is able to control critical parts of the growth, harvest and fermentation processes. They are also able to ensure that the price premium that is paid is going to the farmers and not middlemen.
“This model not only keeps more of the profits in the country of origin, which needs the economic boost, but also helps improve quality because more people at origin are tasting the end product and getting trained in quality control,” says Hayden.
This high standard is continued at Grocer’s Daughter’s quaint shop in Empire, Michigan, where high-quality local ingredients such as cream from Shetler’s dairy, honey from Sleeping Bear Farms and dried cherries from North Star Organics are used in the final preparation of its truffles and other creations.
The direct-trade model allows for chocolate makers and chocolatiers to pay attention to the impact their industry has on the lives of the people in the supply chain, as well as the health of the land where the chocolate is grown. That is key, for Hayden and Samaniego.
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