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Chocolatiers Bring Latin American Flavor to Elmwood

After Southern California proved "too hot" for chocolate, the founder of Casa De Chocolates found success in a commercial kitchen in Berkeley. The chocolatier will open a store in Elmwood mid-February.

On a recent Saturday, a steady stream of customers munched on samples as they made their way around , a weekend-only chocolate shop on Ashby Avenue in Elmwood. 

Customers asked questions in both Spanish and English to the Mexican American owners Amelia Gonzalez and Arcelia Gallardo, who seemed eager to explain their business concept. Casa de Chocolates combines dark chocolate, which has a hearty but not overpowering 61 percent cocoa, with traditional Latin flavors, using sustainably sourced and organic ingredients whenever possible.

After a couple of years of success functioning mainly in a catering capacity from a commercial kitchen on Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley, Casa de Chocolates plans to go full time at its Elmwood store in mid-February. The chocolatier has been providing chocolates for private parties as well as selling products at local events like Oakland’s monthly Art Murmur and Day of the Dead festival.  

“The community has been very receptive,” said Arcelia Gallardo, co-owner of Casa de Chocolates. “Everybody is very excited to see us open [the new store]."

With first hand knowledge of farming and the importance of fair trade, Gallardo said that sustainable sourcing and making sure farmers are taken care of are paramount in the Casa De Chocolates business model. “I’m animate that we use only organic dairy,” said Gallardo, whose parents also own a farm near Fresno growing peaches, plums and squash.

Gallardo, who cites local restaurant owner and slow food pioneer Alice Waters as her hero, is working on establishing relationships with farmers in Latin America where she said the best cocoa comes from. Most cocoa beans are grown in Africa from plants originally sourced from Mexico, she explained. These beans are much heartier and easier to grow but less complex in flavor compared to the cocoa that their farmers in Mexico yield.

Mexican cocoa has a yeastier and fruitier taste, Gallardo said, adding that the flavors in chocolate are even more complex then that of wine and varies just as much from region to region. Eventually Gallardo hopes to source the business's cocoa from small independent farms in Belize, Mexico and perhaps Peru.

Gallardo came to Berkeley from Los Angeles in the late '90s to attend UC Berkeley, pursuing a degree in business communication with a minor in Latin American literature. By studying Latin American history through literature, Gallardo learned that the origin of the cocoa bean — the main component of chocolate — lay in Mexico, just like her family’s roots, said Gallardo.

After graduating from Berkeley, Gallardo returned to Los Angeles to work in the marketing department of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. Gallardo was immediately drawn to the pastry arts and the French and Belgian style of chocolate making, which focuses on the bonbon and truffle.

While attending classes, Gallardo said she was surprised how few people were aware of Latin America’s role in chocolate. “To hear chefs talk about chocolate without talking about how it came from Latin America made me want to share the true story of the origins of chocolate,” said Gallardo.

So, Gallardo combined her knowledge of the history of Latin American cocoa and her love of chocolate and started Casa De Chocolates, with its first location in Los Angeles. “My whole life has prepared me to do what I am doing now,” said Gallardo.

By adding traditional Mexican and Latin flavors like mole, hot sauce and tequila to chocolate, Gallardo invites a unique cultural exploration into chocolate. “The idea is to dive into the indigenous flavors of Mexico and Latin America,” said Gallardo.

Latin American motifs are prevalent at Casa De Chocolates, with truffles shaped like skulls and chocolate bars sculpted like Mayan kings. The store even sells a three-pound chocolate bar in the shape of an Aztec calendar.

After running Casa de Chocolates in Los Angeles for five years, Gallardo moved the business to Berkeley two years ago. “Its literally better weather here for Chocolate because it sets better here," said Gallardo. "It's too hot in Southern California for chocolate."

Gallardo and Gonzalez were brought together through mutual friends while Gallardo was looking for angel investors — someone with a big heart and wallet to financially sponsor the business. “I used to think I could do this alone,” said Gallardo. “No way could I have done this alone,” she added laughing as she looked at Gonzalez.

Between Gallardo making chocolates and Gonzalez navigating the permit processes within the City of Berkeley, both women have been very busy lately. 

“We are two Chicanas trying to a make a business thrive here and the community has been really gracious in supporting us,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, who primarily handles the infrastructure aspects of running a business — such as helping with marketing and dealing with city permit processes — decided to join forces with Gallardo after retiring from KPFA where she worked for over 20 years as a program manager.

“Arcelia has such enthusiasm and passion that I decided to help her make her dream come true,” said Gonzalez.

Currently, the chocolate from Casa De Chocolates is made by Gallardo herself in a commercial kitchen on Piedmont Avenue at Durant in Berkeley. Once construction of the kitchen in the back of the Elmwood storefront is completed, the Casa De Chocolates products will be created on site where customers can actually watch the chocolate being made through a window.

Augie Arteaga, of San Ramon, brought his wife and two children to Casa De Chocolates recently after hearing about the Latin inspired chocolate from friends. Arteaga, who emigrated from Mexico City to the United States when he was 7, said that the Casa De Chocolates Mexican hot chocolate reminded him of his favorite hot chocolate shop in Mexico City.

In addition to the hot chocolate, Arteaga said, the flavors at Casa De Chocolates make for an intriguing concept. With cajeta, which is similar to dulce de leche but made with goats milk, along with the tamarind and tapatio filling for truffles and bonbons, “they are definitely taking it to a new level,” Arteaga said.

Viviana Ruiz, of Oakland, was in the area doing some shopping when she stopped into Casa De Chocolates. “I think it’s an original idea," she said. "It’s combining something authentic with more typical flavors."

Ruiz is originally from Columbia where she said most of the chocolate is milk chocolate as opposed to the predominately darker chocolate variety available at Casa De Chocolates. “I can taste it in the flavors that they are nailing it," said Ruiz. "It's obvious that they are passionate about this business."

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