SYKESVILLE, Md. (AP) — Salazon Chocolate Co. produces 350,000 chocolate bars a year, said owner Pete Truby, and as of March, will be available in Whole Foods Markets nearly nationwide, in addition to all Wegmans and regional health food stores.
The cocoa beans in the chocolate come exclusively from the Dominican Republic, and the chocolate is manufactured at a chocolate factory outside Pittsburgh, but Truby and his company are based in Carroll County.
"I just recently got a new office in downtown Sykesville and I'm really excited about it," Truby said.
Truby is an Annapolis native, and after college, he got a job with Bethesda-based Honest Tea, a beverage company that was founded in the late 1990s to create drinks with organic ingredients that were minimally processed and created in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.
"Part my job in the industry was that I was always in grocery stores," Truby said. "It got to the point that the only part of the grocery store that I would ever look forward to was the chocolate aisle."
As an avid fan of dark chocolate, Truby would look for new products and was constantly sampling them, developing his taste and ability to discriminate between different qualities and characteristics of the bars.
Truby read up on dark chocolate and started looking at it as less of a treat and more as food with health benefits.
"To me, dark chocolate — when it's good dark chocolate and has the simple and decent ingredients — if you look at it, it's almost like the perfect energy food," Truby said. "I know there's sugar in it, but there's sugar in Cliff bars and there's sugar in all the other energy bars, and when you combine that with some of the antioxidants and some of the healthy fats, the one thing dark chocolate has proven is that it's pretty good for your heart."
He took dark chocolate with him on camping and hiking trips and told his friends about why he was such a proponent of it. Some retorted that they preferred the sweet and salty combinations that they could get from trail mix and other more traditional hiking snacks, and Truby admitted he enjoyed salty and sweet as well. And that's when he started thinking about sea salt.
"Why isn't there a good, organic dark chocolate with sea salt on it?" Truby wondered. "And at the time, that didn't exist. I became obsessed with the idea, and I just started working on it."
And so Truby set out on a quest to develop the Salazon Chocolate Co. "Salazon" is Spanish for salted.
In 2009, Truby started researching chocolate and sources of cocoa beans, reaching out to contacts he had in the natural foods industry from his days at Honest Tea.
"I knew I wanted to do organic, and if I hadn't wanted to do organic, it probably would have opened up a whole other world for me," he said. "But because I wanted to do organic and fair trade and stick within that world, it really narrowed down my learning curve."
In his opinion, the top two sources for organic, fair-trade cocoa beans are the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, he said. Truby even visited the Dominican Republic so he could meet the farmers and the co-op participants in person.
"There were brands out on the market that were made with both, and I tried them, and talked to people about the different countries and the different beans, because each country has its own sense of taste and style, it's almost like wine in that way," Truby said.
Most chocolates are made with blends of different beans, he said, much like coffee is often blended with a variety of sources to get a milder flavor. But Truby wanted a bold, straightforward flavor to his dark chocolate, and going against the recommendations of the chocolate experts he had consulted, decided to make his chocolate with 100 percent Hispanola beans from the Dominican Republic.
All that left was finding a way to produce the chocolate. As a start-up, he didn't want to invest in building a chocolate factory, so he focused instead on finding an existing company that would produce it for him. While he lives in Sykesville, his match ended up being near Pittsburgh.
"I found a partner who would help me make it out of the beans that I chose and the way that I wanted it, which was a really weird way they thought, because I wanted all the bars hand-sprinkled with sea salt," Truby said. "Because if you put the salt in it, it just didn't have the texture or the consistency because it melts into the chocolate when you put it in it.
"They helped me develop, even though I kind of did my own thing," he said.
The first batch was produced in 2009, and started getting it in stores in 2010. He started with three varieties: organic dark chocolate with natural sea salt, organic dark chocolate with sea salt and turbinado cane sugar and organic dark chocolate with sea salt and organic cracked black pepper. Since then, he has added organic dark chocolate with sea salt and crushed organic coffee and organic dark chocolate with sea salt and a touch of organic caramel.
"2013 is going to be a big year for Salazon because we're getting into all those new Whole Foods regions," Truby said.
He's hoping the new contracts will really help his business take off, though admits that it is difficult, considering all of the competition within the market.
"The main thing we do is try to get people to try it, because there's a lot of chocolate out there, and even though I believe in mind and I think it's different, there's still a lot of chocolate out there and consumers have a lot to choose from," he said. "Even if I was big in my industry, which I'm working on trying to be big in the organic industry, organic is still only (about) 5 percent of the grocery industry. So I'm niche within a niche."
The company is too small to do much marketing, he said, so rather than advertising, he works on getting company representatives in the stores to give out samples and coupons, hoping to convince them to buy a Salazon bar.
"I'm trying to make the best salted chocolate I can," he said.
When friends in Carroll County ask him where they can find his chocolate in local stores, Truby usually refers them to the Wegmans stores in Hunt Valley or Frederick County, Roots Market in Clarksville, The Common Market in Frederick and MOM's Organic Market in Frederick.
"Unfortunately, we're just not in a whole lot of places in Carroll County because there aren't a whole lot of natural food stores in Carroll County," he said.
Information from: Carroll County Times of Westminster, Md., http://www.carrollcounty.com/