For millennia, humans have been making delicious chocolate creations from the seeds of the cacao tree.
It was first sampled as a bitter drink created by ancient peoples in Mesoamerica. Later, it was a luxury brought back by explorers for European royals to enjoy.
It has been used as medicine, a currency, a token of love, and as a way to sustain warriors at battle.
It’s touted these days by some for its health benefits as an antioxidant, to lower blood pressure, and to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, among other things.
And now, chocolate is made right here in Fayetteville, thanks to a new local company called Hello Cocoa.
Out of Africa
Hello Cocoa sprung out of another company from co-founder Charles Davidson, a non-profit that creates self-sustainable and reproducible businesses in war-torn countries called Forgotten Song.
The organization is currently active in Iraq, Uganda, and Burundi, helping orphans and widows by creating farms and businesses to help meet basic needs of education, vocation and nutrition. In Uganda, for example, the company partnered with the Blessed Hope Orphanage and Academy in Kampala to start a farm of 500 chicks to feed 380 children. Since then, the farm has now grown to over 1,000 chickens while providing a sustainable income for the orphanage and staff.
During visits to Uganda with the organization, Davidson’s encounters with the cacao farmers of the region inspired him to get into the chocolate business.
“We realized there are very few chocolatiers within a few hundreds of miles of Fayetteville,” Davidson said. “We thought, ‘Let’s give it a shot.'”
Davidson and his wife Abby partnered with friends Laruen and Mark Blanco and Preston and Abby Stewart to start the company, and Hello Cocoa was born.
Hello Chocolate sold its first bar of chocolate in August, when Mim Wynne of local gourmet foods and home goods store Handmade Market agreed to be the first retailer to carry their products.
Things have progressed rapidly since then, however.
“We started out with about five clients buying roughly 100 bars a month but we have really grown quickly since then,” Davidson said. “We now produce about 500 bars a week.”
They create their two core products – a 57 percent dark chocolate bar made from beans imported from Uganda, and a 74 percent dark chocolate bar from Venezuela – at their kitchen at 4170 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
In addition, they also create a few seasonal bars at different times throughout the year. This spring, for example, they unveiled their Spring Fever bar, which is a combination of their 57 percent dark cocoa with dried apricots and basil.
Hello Cocoa bars cost about $6 each.
Their chocolates are single-source, meaning they don’t mix varieties of beans (the percentages represent the amount of cocoa in the bar versus other ingredients).
The simplicity of the product is somewhat of a signature for Hello Cocoa.
“We don’t like a huge range of chocolates,” he said. “We don’t have anything with peanuts in it. We want something that is a little more artisanal.”
Whatever they’re doing, it’s working.
Kayla Milner, an employee at Handmade Market, said the product has been a top seller at the store.
“People have really embraced the idea of a Fayetteville-based chocolate company,” Milner said. “Over the holidays especially, we couldn’t keep it in stock.”
Continuing to grow
Hello Cocoa has had quite a bit of success in a short amount of time, but talking with Davidson, the sense is that the best is yet to come for the young company.
Davidson said he hopes to continue to expand by adding retailers to carry his chocolate, with a focus on larger stores with multiple locations to help speed that process along. Fresh Market stores in Rogers and Little Rock have recently started carrying Hello Cocoa, and additional locations could be added in the future.
The company has experimented with hosting events at their facility, which have so far been successful. For Valentine’s Day this year, a couple hundred locals packed the place for a chocolate and champagne tasting event.
Finding restaurants that want to use Hello Cocoa in their desserts, he said, is another way the company will grow in the future.
This week, Davidson is traveling in Uganda to get a first-hand look, and tour the farms that supply the cocoa that eventually makes its way into a Hello Cocoa bar, and to help form a better relationship with the farmers that harvest it.
That kind of passion and attention to detail is evident when talking to Davidson, who clearly takes the art of chocolate making very seriously.
“It’s not just about getting a chocolate fix, and we don’t call our chocolate ‘candy,'” he said.
“It’s not candy. It’s chocolate.”