RALEIGH — The city is about to get its first chocolate factory, a confectionary workshop that will let visitors watch as raw cacao beans are transformed into gourmet bars and truffles.
The Escazú artisanal chocolate factory, set to open on Blount Street this month, is the culmination of a business dream for Hallot Parson, a chef-turned-chocolatier. Parson became consumed with the idea of mastering traditional chocolate-making techniques after visiting a cacao farm in Costa Rica four years ago.
Now he hopes to ride out the recession on a handcrafted bonbon that is completely discretionary but, to some, absolutely irresistible.
"This will be an entire unique flavor of chocolate, because no one else makes it," Parson said.
The Triangle has a sweet spot for gourmet chocolates. About a half-dozen specialty stores in the area create their own products. But chocolate factories are another matter. Only about a dozen chocolate factories on a commercial scale are estimated to be operating in the country, according the National Confectioners Association in Washington.
The concept fits in with Raleigh's downtown revitalization philosophy of promoting businesses that are local and unique, as a point of differentiation from shopping malls and national chains.
"A lot of what we're trying to do for retail is that authentic experience," said Paul Reimel, economic development manager for the Raleigh Downtown Alliance. "Consumers are looking for great local product that's handcrafted here."
The recession is apparently showing more mercy to handcrafted chocolates than other industries. Parson said his business has expanded in the past two years because chocolates are not a budget-breaking luxury item.
According to Packaged Facts, a Maryland research firm, the future looks better for gourmet chocolate than for the cheaper mass-produced alternative. "Given the present economic climate, for some conventional chocolate makers, their future prospects may be either to premiumize or perish," the research firm wrote in a recent report.
Raising the bar
Parson opened an Escazú chocolate store on Glenwood Avenue in 2007 and sells gourmet bars priced up to $6. The company is named after the Costa Rican town where Parson stayed on the trip that led to his chocolate awakening. Today Escazú chocolates can be found at dozens of locations, including Whole Foods, A Southern Season, Ornamentea and the Umstead Hotel.
But at his retail site, Parson is limited to buying pre-made chocolate slabs, which he melts down to create his signature confections. At his chocolate factory, he will make chocolate from scratch to his specifications, starting with raw beans imported from Costa Rica and Venezuela.
To get from "bean to bar," as Parson describes the refining process, a cacao bean has to be harvested, fermented, dried, imported, roasted, winnowed, milled, aged, tempered, flavored and cooled. The sequence at Escazú will take five days, most of it grinding the beans into a paste.
When Parson opens his chocolate factory on Blount Street near Peace College, he'll close the Glenwood Avenue shop less than a mile away. The factory is still a work-in-progress, with unhinged doors leaning on unpainted walls and equipment lying in disarray in the unfinished front section.
Tools of the trade
Inside, he points to his prized possessions: A cast-iron ball-shape coffee roaster from Spain, circa 1930. Also from Spain: a World War II-era bean grinder that rotates two millstone-like wheels and requires four days of constant motion to turn cacao beans from meat to chip to dust to mush to paste and finally to a smooth, creamy consistency.
There are no replacement parts for these antique machines. If they break, the chocolate-making slows until Parson can get a new part custom-made by a local machinist. Parson keeps a smaller, modern grinder as a backup.
"The more I learned about it, the more difficult I realized it really is," Parson said. He describes his quest for perfection as "very similar to whatever drives a winemaker."
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