These Guys Make a Living With a Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Company
Imagine walking into your office each morning and smelling something so sweet it makes your stomach churn with joy.
It reminds you of campfire s’mores. Your mother’s brownies. The inside of your Christmas stocking.
You slip a hairnet on and walk into the small factory where cocoa beans await their transformation into chocolate.
This is real life for brothers Addam and Cody Vessa, co-founders of Pinellas Chocolate Company.
How Does One Become a Real-Life Willy Wonka?
Around 2011, the Vessa brothers relocated to Largo, Florida, to help out with their folks’ family-owned business, Bottom Line Process Technologies, which produces Cacao Cucina small-batch chocolate equipment.
Addam, 36, has a degree and experience in graphic communications, so he helped with marketing and customer service. Cody, 29, has a degree in land surveying and worked in fabrication and assembly.
Three years after the brothers joined in, the family wondered: What can we do next?
The duo had experience making chocolate. Not only did Cody know the ins and outs of the machinery, Addam often performed demonstrations for potential customers. So branching out and dipping into the craft chocolate industry just felt natural.
With their parents’ help — and their parents’ machinery — the brothers created their own chocolate business.
The Bean-to-Bar Process at Pinellas Chocolate Company
Like money, chocolate doesn’t just grow on trees. Or does it…?
Cody makes up the one-man production team at Pinellas Chocolate Company and suspects he spends about 40 hours a week in the kitchen producing up to 150 pounds of chocolate.
Here’s how it works:
- Take 30 pounds of cocoa beans and roast ’em. The company sources its beans from a distributor in Miami. On the particular day I visited, the beans hailed from trees in Honduras.
Winnow those beans. Cocoa beans are like nuts: Their tough fibrous husks have to be cracked. The winnowing machine crushes the bean and sucks the lighter pieces of the shell away while sorting out the heavier cocoa nibs.
Note: Pinellas Chocolate Company provides local craft brewers with cocoa nibs to flavor their beers.
- Grinding is next. A pasty form of the bean is created.This is called cocoa liquor.
- Other ingredients such as sugar and cocoa butter are added to the mix. This step is called refining and where the chocolate becomes, well, more like chocolate.
- OK, this part makes my mouth water: sifting. On my visit, Cody was sifting the chocolate, which is where he basically pushes the warm, melty mixture through a screen to sort out any unrefined particles (like a piece of shell hanging out).Basically, it’s a huge fondue machine.
- Tempering, a heat treatment, is next. To be considered real chocolate, cocoa butter is the only fat the bar can contain. The heat rids the mixture of that excess fat. Once the mix cools, the chocolate will have its shine, mouth-feel and “snap.”
- Cody then pours the substances into molds and stores it in a giant cooler to harden.
The whole process takes about 14 to 16 hours.
What’s So Special About Locally-Sourced Craft Chocolates?
The bean-to-bar process can be equated to any of the other craft movements: beer, coffee, even cheese. It’s just that: hand-crafted.
“There’s a lot of control over the process, and there’s more invested and more care going into each bar,” Addam says, contrasting it to something that’s mass produced and mass distributed. “You can have more local roots.”
At the end of the day, it’s the company’s founders who are wrapping the labels on the bars.
“We’re both actively doing the very manual labor parts of the process,” Addam says.
The brothers also make an effort to source ingredients from Florida-grown companies — like the prototype machines from their parents’ company.
And the ingredients, for the most part, are also sourced locally. There’s a salted lime bar, which I highly recommend; the cold-press flavors were produced in Bradenton. Same for the orange-flavored bar, too. There’s also a Datil pepper bar, which is flavored with peppers from the St. Augustine area.
The two are also up for experimenting. They tried a grapefruit bar once, but that didn’t turn out so great, Cody admits.
Facing the Sweet Challenges of Opening a Small Business
The brothers are pretty set in terms of the production side of the business.
Cody knows the machinery, so he can repair it as needed — often a huge expense for other production companies.
“But we face challenges everyday,” Addam says.
A major one includes marketing and convincing people they should spend $7 to $8 on a chocolate bar.
“It’s one thing to come in here and see the whole kit and caboodle, but if you have your shopping cart at Locale Market or a grocery store and see it next to a mass-produced product, it’s harder to understand,” Addam says.
Plus, it’s dark chocolate. You eat it at a slower rate, savor it. Of course, Addam laughs and says he’d like people to eat it faster.
Unwrapping the Future at Pinellas Chocolate Company
The brothers are tackling the business one step at a time.
“We’re still not doing gangbusters,” Addams says, as he calculates some numbers for me.
However, he does conclude that 2016 sales were 2.5 times higher than 2015.
In terms of goals for this coming year, Addam jokes and says he hopes to sell to Hershey’s for $1 million.
But really, the two just want to continue to branch out in the Tampa Bay region. With a new distribution partner, they’re focusing on growing sales.
They have no desire to go national.
The two-man team would love to hire a few people, too, and get a few jobs going in the area. And they’d appreciate the help — especially Cody, who’s a student at the University of South Florida.
As for advice for starting a small business, Cody says it best: “If it’s a passion, you think of the enjoyment. But, for all that [enjoyment], there’s always going to be that sacrifice of time and money and problems.
“I’d compare it to having a child. There are those moments you’re watching them play T-Ball or whatever, but you’ve had to deal with them crying in the night and diapers. Just be prepared.”
Just like Addam and Cody, you’ve got to stick with it — even when moments aren’t so melt-in-your-mouth sweet.
Your Turn: What’s your Willy Wonka-sized dream business?
Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at Codetic. After recently completing graduate school, she focuses on saving money — and surviving the move back in with her parents.