A Family Business
There’s more to Mindo Chocolate Makers than meets the eye. Although Barbara Wilson started experimenting with chocolate making in Ecuador back in 2009, the downtown Ann Arbor store didn’t open until 2021. Her daughters help with the business with the sisters running sister stores nearly 3,000 miles apart – Alicia Meza on 4th Street in Ann Arbor and Emily Meza-Wilson in Mindo, Ecuador.
It all started in 2008 when Wilson and her ex-husband went to his birth country of Ecuador looking for a place to retire. They settled in Mindo and everything fell into place from there. They quickly realized the locals needed internet, so they started an internet cafe that served home-roasted and ground coffee. Wilson, a coffee aficionado, had been making her own from scratch for years.
They felt the coffee needed to be paired with a yummy treat and after doing some research, brownies were the clear winner. But, Barbara shares “I wasn’t finding chocolate in [the grocery store] that I liked although I had heard that Ecuador has the best cacao beans in the world.”
Wilson decided to apply her coffee bean skills to cacao beans to make her own chocolate. A local farm provided fermented and dried beans she roasted in her coffee roaster and ground in her mill. Upon taste-testing the powder she thought “this is the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted in my life.”
She said she “got pretty excited about the whole movement of chocolate making” and, thus, a chocolate maker was born.
For the next several months, Wilson honed her craft making cookie sheets of chocolate and breaking it into pieces to sell at the cafe. The customers couldn’t get enough of the chocolate chunks or the homemade brownies.
Small batch chocolate making
That first batch of beans Wilson bought in Ecuador weighed 52 pounds. Last year, 15,000 pounds of fermented and dried cacao beans were shipped from Ecuador to Dexter, where the processing is done.
That may sound like a lot, but they are considered a small–batch chocolate maker. This distinction by definition is one who uses machines with a nominal batch capacity between 22 and 220 pounds.
Wilson further clarifies that they are not chocolatiers.
“We’re a…chocolate maker which means that we buy cacao beans and make it into chocolate. And we’re not chocolatiers because chocolatiers are people who buy chocolate and make it into things like bonbons, etc,” she said.
In fact, they are a true bean-to-bar chocolate maker because they control every stage of the chocolate-making process from the purchase of the beans to the creation of the bar.
Ethical sourcing, meaning all of the supply chain products and services are obtained in an ethical way, is vital to their business model.
For example, they pay the farmers they work with better than market rates for the cacao beans. The laborers are then in turn paid a fair wage and are given decent working conditions.
Their cacao beans are also free from heavy chemicals, unlike most others. The level of cadmium is typically not regulated. The chemical builds up in stagnant soil and is then found in the crops grown in that soil. Wilson assures that the soil from where they source their beans is regularly used for agriculture and is also tested annually as a precaution.
Lead is also prevalent in most cacao beans because the pods are typically dried on asphalt on the side of the road. This is particularly true on the Ivory Coast and in Ghana where 70% of cacao beans are produced and leaded gas is still used. However, Ecuador does not have leaded gas.
In addition, Mindo’s beans are further safeguarded as they are dried on elevated beds in a fully enclosed greenhouse and are even sustainably grown on heirloom variety trees in a cloud forest.
Try It for Yourself
Everything in the store is gluten-free and there are many vegan options as well. Treat yourself or choose from the many options for a unique and special Valentine’s Day gift. You could stick with something edible like Heart Beets, dark chocolate hearts with pearlescent beet root powder, or try an experience like a tour or making your own chocolate. Whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong!
Mindo Chocolate Makers
206 N. 4th Avenue, Ann Arbor
7 a.m. – 7 p.m. Mon.–Sat, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Sun.