Meet Toronto’s most passionate chocolatiers, who are on a mission to tantalize your taste buds and, possibly, save the world in the process.
Tucked away in an otherwise nondescript industrial mall at Dufferin and Dupont are the production facility and headquarters of Chocosol (225 Geary Ave.), the Oaxaca-meets-Toronto intercultural brainchild of Michael Sacco. But there’s a lot more going on here than just making chocolate.
How it got started: “I brought a version of a solar concentrator down to Mexico as part of a Master’s in environmental-studies research project in 2002,” Sacco begins. “Quickly, I realized there was more to this than technology or research and development—I realized it was about community, it was about conviviality, it was about civil society. It was about people being involved in food movements and people involved in equitable energy movements, about the commons, about indigenous versions of the commons—the comunalidad as they call it in Mexico.”
As for the move into producing chocolate, Sacco’s initial exposure came about through a social aside, rather than as a part of his formal studies. “In 2003, an indigenous woman—who is the 76-year-old mother and grandmother of very good Zapotec friends of mine from a little village in San Pablo Etla—asked me to make her grandmother’s traditional drinking chocolate for a Christmas event,” says Sacco. The labour intensive-process immediately captivated him. “My experience in Mexico was transformative,” he says. “It was an intercultural transformative experience.”
Sacco saw that chocolate could be used as a way of funding future environmental projects. “I came up with the idea that we could start Chocosol and we could stop depending on government grants to do our research into technologies and communities and we could share the fruits of our hard labour” he says. “Because I had been learning that making good chocolate was a very serious undertaking, I had also realized that, if you made good chocolate, people would buy it. It always would find a home.”
How Chocosol came to Toronto: “I started with two barrels—I could carry one in each hand—that I brought back on the plane from Mexico, with the name Chocosol, in the spring of 2005,” says Sacco.
Upon returning to Toronto, Sacco began grinding chocolate on his front porch, selling his product at Riverdale Farm and Dufferin Grove Market. “I swear to you, in one year I put about 3,000 hours into hand-grinding chocolate,” he says. “Then, in 2006, after an eight-month research project that brought a solar concentrator to a cacao-growing community in the remotest part of the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas and really seeing that through and spending 40 days living and working there, I came back here and started chocolate production in September or October of 2006.”
Why good taste matters: No matter the ethical backstory, people wouldn’t buy Chocosol’s product if it didn’t taste good. “Well, they did,” laughs Sacco. “People have bought our product because they saw us behind the table working really hard to peddle it. And so, while we were learning, a lot of people supported us—and I’m sure a lot of them never came and supported us again because the product wasn’t as good.”
When chocolatier Chrystal Porter joined Chocosol, she helped refine the chocolate to its current standard. “I’ve been a pastry chef for quite a long time and I met Michael through Sorauren Market,” Porter recounts. “My mind was blown. This isn’t a chocolate for just anyone, but it was just magic for me—I instantly fell in love with it. You can taste the soil, you can taste the amount of work. Michael started making the chocolate and he learned from a 76-year-old Zapatista woman. There, it’s very artisinal and rustic; the sugar is very granular. So I took over the production after I apprenticed—I put in about a year and half’s worth of volunteer hours and then he kind of let me go and do my own thing, just developing my own techniques on how to make it taste better. All these recipes have been through so many different evolutions: changing sugars, changing grinders, changing techniques, changing varieties of beans.”
And it seems to be working. “There was one customer who said to me, ‘We supported the idea [behind it]—it wasn’t always about the taste, but I’m glad we stuck with it, because it keeps getting better,’” says Porter. So much better, in fact, that Chococol is having trouble keeping up with the demand from chocolate-obsessed Toronto. “We can’t package it fast enough,” says Sacco. “We couldn’t even supply enough chocolate for Fiesta Farms with the amount of chocolate that Torontonians consume.”
Their sales strategy: As one might expect, Chocosol puts a premium on being unique. This extends to their marketing strategy—which essentially amounts to not doing any marketing. “We don’t believe in promotions and sales—we’ve never taken that approach,” says Sacco, “We don’t sell, persuade, or convince. We peddle. We’re peddlars.
“We believe in something called commotion and contagion. When moving together—that’s that learning-community thing—sometimes you have to really struggle. Sometimes there’s some friction. And sometimes it’s fun: ‘What’s all the commotion about?’ But when it starts rolling, the square idea gets a little rounded—you’ve got some commotion that translates into locomotion and, in our case, cocommotion. The contagion happens when the irresistibleness of the good idea and the good food and the good hearts comes together to spread through that word of mouth. And that’s the flowering heart that produces the flowering word that produces the flowering mind that bears the fruit of community and good mind and good heart—and that’s a very indigenous idea and understanding. And the chocolate is a perfect vehicle, because it warms the heart and the body and the mind.”
Their secret ingredient: At the heart of Chocosol’s product is a sense of idealism. “We’re producing a chocolate that is a symbolic nexus and bridge and crossing point for inter-culturality,” Sacco says. “We’re trying to bring together some of those European aesthetics of tempering and grinding and technology in sustainable, artisinal, ecological, replicable, open-sourced ways with the highest quality of permaculture, and agrological growth with tools that are good for the same growing communities that we are ourselves utilize in a horizontal and reciprocal and solidarity fashion. Our chocolate isn’t going to be a panacea and solve the problem; we’re using it as an expression of the way that we are bringing two traditions together in a new way for a new era. And we’re part of a regeneration and a rediscovery. It’s an open-source franchise model.”
However, being an idealist doesn’t mean that Sacco isn’t self-aware. “There’s a certain degree of quixoticness to this level of idealism—you try to be a purist, you’re too serious, and everyone laughs at you instead of laughing with you,” he says. “We have this beautiful idea and it’s crazy and we’re doing it. If I were to have approached it with a pure economic lens and a business plan, it would have never happened.”