A Conversation with Mark Gerrits of Óbolo Chocolate
Mark Gerrits is a connector. After two decades living and working in South America, he launched Óbolo Chocolate as a way to bring the flavor of cacao from the Peruvian Amazon to his adopted home of Chile. I caught up with him on a call as he took a break from the Christmas preparations in his chocolate factory and shop in Santiago, Chile.
Talking to Mark, what stands out is his sincerity. Whether he is describing how he works with the Pangoa Cooperative to source cacao, or how he and his team have weathered this year’s pandemic, he talks about making the right decision – not the decision that will boost his company’s bottom line, but the decision that will benefit the people and environment he works with.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why chocolate? How did you decide to start a bean-to-bar chocolate company?
I came down to South America after college, around 1994. I lived in Chile for five years, then travelled around the continent for a year, visiting the Amazon. Then I decided that I wasn’t going to move back to the US.
In Ecuador, I met Douglas McMeekin, and he wanted to start a project on cacao and chocolate. He was working with communities in the Napo region of the Amazon. They would sell their cacao to middlemen in the local market, and no value stayed within the communities. We built this project called Yachana Jungle Chocolate. It was a kind of trail mix made from cacao nibs.
We would buy fresh cacao from farmers in Napo, and then ferment it, dry it, roast it and winnow it. Then we’d send the nibs up to Quito, where we’d combine them with organic cane syrup and add dried fruits like pineapple. We sold it mostly in Ecuador, and all the profits went back into the projects with the communities.
I was there for three years, and I learned a ton. Robert Steinberg of Scharffen Berger Chocolate visited, and we went on trips together sourcing. He taught me a lot about chocolate, and most importantly about cacao.
I left that all behind in 2003. I took a job with the Nature Conservancy, and moved back to Chile to work on a project in the Patagonian rainforest. I ended up working for them for 10 years, on conservation in the Bolivian Amazon, in Peru, in Argentine Patagonia. I loved it.
In 2013, my daughter Emma was born. In Chile they say, “When babies are born they come with a piece of bread under their arm.” It means they bring gifts into your life. Emma’s gift to me was the inspiration to get back into chocolate.
One evening, I was relaxing with a bottle of wine, thinking about how happy I was with the family we were forming. I asked myself, “When was the last time you felt so good about everything you were doing?” And the answer came to me immediately, “When I was working with cacao.”
I realized that time working with cacao in Ecuador meant a lot to me. I said to myself, “Chocolate is something special in my life, and I need to give it some space to figure out where it will go.” When you do that, doors start to open.
What was Chile’s chocolate culture like at the time?
I saw there was a chocolate festival here in Santiago, so I went to get a feel for it. I met several well-known chocolatiers, and they all told me, “We’ve got the best chocolate in the world, it comes from Belgium, or France,” …or some European country.
I said, “Look, maybe you’re using good European couverture, even if that’s true, cacao is native to South America, it grows just next to Chile. Why don’t you make your own chocolate? You could easily source your own beans, you speak the same language. You could have your own flavor profiles, and you’d definitely reduce your carbon footprint.”
They all said it was impossible, “You can’t make your own chocolate in Chile, you can’t get the machinery here.” They told me it was illegal to import beans. All these excuses. I walked out of the show that day thinking, “I like a good challenge; I’m going to prove that you can make chocolate in Chile.”
How did you go about starting to make chocolate?
I needed to get some cacao beans. So two weeks later, I flew to the Salon de Cacao in Lima. I met people in the industry, farmers, and I got a couple kilos of cacao samples.
I found a lot of information on John Nanci’s Chocolate Alchemy website. For my work, I was still travelling to the US frequently, so I picked up a melanger and a Behmor roaster on one of my trips.
For two years I made chocolate as a hobby at home. In 2015, it was my ten-year anniversary with the Nature Conservancy. I told my wife Annie, “I think I’m going to quit and make chocolate full-time.” She said go for it. My last day of work was maybe September 24th, and two days later, I was on a plane to Seattle to attend the Northwest Chocolate Festival.
I called Todd [Masonis] from Dandelion to get his advice before I booked my tickets. We met at the Salon de Cacao in Peru, and kept in touch. He generously offered me space at the Dandelion booth to try and sell my bars on the Sunday afternoon of the show. So I came with a few hundred bars, and that was the World Launch of Óbolo Chocolate, in September 2015.
How did you grow and scale up over time?
After that launch in Seattle, I hunkered down here in Santiago to work on building the business. I was making chocolate in a small workshop that I had put together in my home, selling bars to local coffee shops and wineries.
I realized I needed a bigger space and a storefront, to really educate customers, so we refurbished an old house in a trendy part of the city called Barrio Italia. It took us a year. The house was in really bad condition. We would take down a door frame, and everything else would fall down with it!
We finally opened our factory and shop in November 2017. It’s a great location, lots of foot traffic. Customers walk in the door and there’s a big window at the end of the store where they can see chocolate being made in the factory.
We do a lot of education. Everyone still thinks European chocolate is the best chocolate, and they don’t even know where cacao comes from. That’s why we invested in the shop, to educate and build the long-term market here in Chile.
At Óbolo you really celebrate the varied geography of Chile with the flavored bars. How did you develop those?
Last year we launched the Endemic Flavors of Chile collection. I knew I wanted to work with ingredients unique to Chile. I had a long list of ingredients to try, having travelled around the country a lot, working and living with communities in the Atacama Desert, and in Patagonia.
We spent almost a year developing these bars. To pair with the ingredients, we have our three different chocolate bases, the dark chocolate, dark milk, and white chocolate. We source all our cacao and cocoa butter from the Pangoa Cooperative in the Peruvian Amazon. So the chocolate has its own single-origin flavor, even the white chocolate. My goal was a pairing where the cacao flavor profile and the ingredient work together without overpowering each other.
For ingredients from the Atacama Desert, I worked with Patricia Pérez, of the Toconao indigenous community. She is the fourth generation of her family foraging medicinal herbs from the desert. We tried a lot of combinations, and two herbs jumped out as really good with chocolate.
One was called Muña muña, it’s like a native peppermint, with a fresh light minty-ness, and we infused that into our 66% dark chocolate. The cacao beans that we get from Pangoa have a very fruity profile, red fruit, cherry, raspberry, so this tastes like fruit salad with mint on top. It’s not anything like artificial mint flavor, it’s really elegant, and it lingers in the mouth.
Another herb Patricia forages, a really rare herb, is called Rica rica. It only grows in the desert in certain spots, and it won’t grow if you try to transplant it. The flavor it creates is a unique warm herbal spice. We mix it with our dark milk chocolate, so it turns out to be a really soothing, warm, comforting chocolate. It’s especially good for cold winter evenings.
Moving away from the Atacama towards southern Chile, we developed the Merken Smoked Chili bar. The chilies are hand-smoked, so some are spicier and some are sweeter. We had to learn how to tell them apart visually. We include a certain ratio of the skin of the peppers to the flesh inside. So when you taste the bar, you get the sweetness of the dark chocolate, the smokiness from the outside of the pepper, and then the heat from the seeds.
Working with cacao, we learn about the seasonality and variability of agricultural products, but the same thing is true with spices – everything varies, and you have to learn how to adapt and control the process. We want it to be unique, but within a range of consistency.
Speaking of agricultural products, how do you approach sustainability in cacao? Given your experience working in conservation, I can see that this is an issue that goes beyond just selecting a label for you.
It starts with building real relationships. For me this where the whole meaning of my work begins.
We source all our cacao from the Pangoa Cooperative in the Peruvian Amazon. In a normal year (unlike 2020), I travel up to the Amazon during harvest to select all the beans we use.
We try to go above and beyond that supplier-buyer relationship. I paid for members of the cooperative to come to Chile, so they could see how we work with their beans, who buys the chocolate, and have a more complete understanding of the whole chain. We did a longer training program in chocolate-making with one young man, so that the cooperative could have the capacity to make their own chocolate in Peru.
I also brought a friend who is a Chilean expert in biodynamic agriculture to Pangoa. He gave a week-long workshop, and we left two pilot projects on cacao farms.
I admire that, since you’re sourcing all your cacao from one cooperative, you have an opportunity to go a lot deeper in this relationship, and do projects that don’t directly boost your bottom line, but are important to the relationship.
It’s important to the relationship, and just important to life. I want to give my kids examples of how to make the world a bit better, to learn how the world is connected.
We’re still a small company. This year we’re hoping to process 5 metric tons of cacao. You know, on the global scale 5 tons of cacao isn’t going to move the needle very much. If we spread our sourcing across many coops, it would dilute the potential impact that I could have. We’re focusing on how we can make an impact by working with one cooperative.
This summer I watched an online conference where the leader of Pangoa, Esperanza Dionisio, spoke about how the cooperative was dealing with the pandemic. And she mentioned that biodynamic agriculture had helped farmers have greater food security, because they had more diversified farms.
Esperanza is amazing! She is a great leader – the first female leader of any coop in Peru – and I’ve learned so much from her leadership style. The first time Esperanza visited me in Chile, I took her to visit a biodynamic vineyard. We spent the day with Arturo, my biodynamic expert friend, and she came away completely convinced of its benefits.
Since then we’ve done our best to help her and Pangoa learn more, including the week-long biodynamic workshop that we did with Arturo in Peru. It’s special to hear she’s talking about biodynamic agriculture to other people, and to know that started with our one-day visit. That’s what relationships are all about – connecting people and making the world smaller.
How else does Pangoa encourage their farmers to pursue sustainable practices and conservation?
Pangoa is focused on agroforestry – keeping biodiversity on the farms, maintaining native forests and keeping native trees within their cacao. They are also making a concerted effort to fend off the introduction of the cacao variety CCN51 to the area. They are working with other organizations to identify the genetics of their local cacao, so that they can focus on growing the native fine flavor cacao varieties.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected Óbolo? I know it’s been challenging for small companies everywhere.
It was tough. We were closed from April to August, in full lockdown. We made the decision to keep everyone on full salaries. Even though they weren’t working, just staying home and staying safe, we felt it was the right thing to do. If we can’t make the right decisions during difficult times, then what are we doing this for?
In August restrictions started to lift here, and we’ve been getting back to full production. We re-opened the storefront in September, and now we’re set up for Christmas, so two people can enter at a time, and only into the first six feet of the store. It’s very cautious, but we’ve been making a lot of chocolate and selling a lot, which is good.
Even in the darkest months, I never thought that Óbolo was in jeopardy. We put too much into it. More important than any question of cash flow, we had enough energy to get through it. That’s what I focused on – maintaining that energy.
I think the pandemic experience has brought us together as a team, it’s made us reflect on why we’re doing this, and everyone’s come out of it with the decision that this is where they want to be, and where they see themselves in the future.
Is your team mostly for the shopfront or for production?
The team is mostly production. Our shop is managed by the first employee who joined the company, Geraldine. She knows everything we do, and she’s very personable, so she’s perfect. In production, Brayan is our head chocolate maker now, and I move between production and the shop wherever I’m needed. I do all the roasting, which is a full day every week.
In the long-term, what future visions do you have for Óbolo Chocolate?
Our main focus is creating a culture of craft chocolate in Chile, and growing the Chilean market. At the same time, I don’t just want to be a good chocolate in Chile, I want to be a good chocolate in the world. Exporting our chocolate keeps us honest. We need to have high quality and consistency at every step, from sourcing, to craftsmanship, packaging, and sustainability.
The other benefit of the international market is seasonal. The main season people eat chocolate here is our winter, from April to September. There’s a bump for Christmas, but then by January and February it’s low, because the weather is so hot. So exporting enables us to buy beans from Pangoa and keep the team fully employed year round.
What’s your favorite Óbolo Chocolate bar?
I always come back to the Muña muña bar. You can really appreciate the flavor of the Pangoa cacao, paired with this uniquely Chilean herb. So it’s a blend of two flavors from two regions of Latin America that mean a lot to me.