An Interview with Deb Music of Theo Chocolate Factory, Part I

May 9, 2011

Deb Music

If you’re lucky enough to live near a chocolate factory, you’re lucky enough, some might say. And as luck would have it, to those of us who live in Seattle, it doesn’t take a golden ticket to step inside the wonderful world of Theo Chocolate Factory. Tours are offered four times a day, seven days a week, though reservations are advised for what has become as much a popular tourist attraction as a local pastime. And unlike Wonkaland, where samples of the everlasting gobstopper were strictly limited to one per child, and a stolen taste inevitably led to a ghastly end, at Theo’s some of the finest chocolate in the world is literally yours for the taking. From platters of samples that are passed among guests like two-bite meals at a royal wedding reception, to the mounds of broken bits piled high beside each of the dozens of varieties of chocolate bars that the nation’s first bean to bar, organic, fair trade chocolate maker produces each day, a tour of the Theo Chocolate Factory is a chocoholic’s dream come true.

And it was on just such a tour that my own passion for chocolate was ignited far from the standard “of course I like chocolate” delight in the occasional truffle, to a daily fixation on letting the rich taste of cacoa melt on my tongue while reading, writing and producing my own molded chocolates in a crazed obsessive compulsion to master my temper and perfect my ganache and ramble on about my calamities in my blog The Chocolate Covered Kitchen. There’s something about the delirious aroma of melting chocolate, the taste of a rich piece of chocolate handcrafted from a hefty burlap sack of beans, and the joyous contagion of the staff at the Theo Chocolate Factory that gives chocolate an entirely new meaning and turns ordinary consumers into extraordinary connoisseurs.

And that new meaning is precisely what has made a small business in the Fremont District of Seattle a rising star and model for not only for all chocolate makers in the U.S., but for food producers throughout the nation. Because Theo is not just about chocolate, it is also about relationships – relationships not only between producers and consumers, but among growers, distributors, educators and families in the developing world, and those in the over-developed world who buy and crush and conch and consume cacoa – a crop, an agricultural product, an export, an import, a commodity and a food, shifting identity and meaning as it moves from the fields of the tropics – where growers earn on average a dollar a day – to the mouth-watering palates of those who are able to pay three to five dollars just to taste a single bar of the final, exquisite product.

I thought I knew about chocolate before taking my first public tour of the Theo Chocolate Factory, but I discovered a whole new world far more enchanting than even the paradise of Wonkaland and far more quizzical than the sing-along servitude of the Oompa Loompas. And I thought I understood the feel-good rhetoric of fair trade principles in a world gone mad with global capitalism run amuck, but in my first private tour of the Chocolate Factory, and a recent interview with Debra Music, co-founder and Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Theo, I discovered an earnest and thoughtful response to the intricate complexity of international development, fair trade and organic agricultural production.

We met in a backroom of the Chocolate Factory, where we were able to find a small space and a couple of chairs amidst stacks of packaging, labels, and cartons readied for packing and shipping. The loud and steady noise of machinery crushing beans or grinding paste served as a cacophonous backdrop to the busy pace of the factory as workers in disposable hairnets and canvas aprons enrobed, patched, painted and molded chocolates with the care of skilled restoration artists in the backrooms of museums.

After a warm introduction that made me feel as if I were a friend she hadn’t seen in ages, Deb (as she introduced herself) placed a teak bowl filled with caramels (and a chocolate-covered s’more confection that seemed to me to be the size of a hamburger) beside us, showed me how to work my own digital voice recorder (believe me, it was welcome, I have the technological know-how of a Flintstone), then with the scent of chocolate wafting through the air so strong we could practically see it, dove right into a conversation about the world of Theo Chocolate.

Of course if I were to start at the beginning, chronology might clutter up the story. So let us begin smack dab in the middle, where I recall my own past experience of living in the midst of cocoa country in Madagascar. I recall that if I had told an impoverished farmer that the chocolate bar I nibbled on at night would cost a farmer three days’ wages, they would have had good reason to feed me to the crocodiles just to tidy up the gene pool. And so it was I asked Deb whether or not she’d ever actually told one of the cacoa farmers what a prized Theo chocolate bar goes for in the States.

“You know, that’s an interesting question. I’ve never had that specific conversation,” she answered, “but I’ve certainly had the amazing experience of showing farmers what a finished chocolate bar tastes like and sharing it with them, and showing them this is what we do with your cocoa beans. It’s really interesting; the response I’ve seen in Tanzania has been that the dark chocolate is really bitter. But it was amazing, it was this completely foreign object [to them]; it was something they’d never tasted and they studied the labels, not necessarily understanding the English, but it was fascinating to them. It was as if an alien came and handed us some food object that we’ve never tasted.”

For many who have grown up on Hershey’s and Nestles, the first rich taste of a true chocolate bar is similarly alien. The waxy taste and sugary sweetness absent, a Theo chocolate bar tastes like a good meal – elegant, complex, textured and fulfilling.

“To me it’s really fascinating the disconnect,” Deb continues as the chocolate machinery turns beans to bars in the next room, “because in the same way that consumers here are completely disconnected from where their food comes from, farmers at the other end are just as disconnected from what the finished product is that results from the fruits of their labor. And it’s all emblematic of everything that’s wrong with our food system.”

Debra Music’s understanding of international development, global food systems and local struggles to farm cacoa fields while contending with extreme poverty, high rates of infectious and water-borne diseases, limited access to key resources and education is impressive, and her enthusiasm for treating her company’s product as a critical feature of these socioeconomic processes reflects a thoughtful approach to the social marketing directions she has pursued at Theo.

“And all of this connects, all the way along the supply chain, not just for them [the cacoa farmers] but for us as well, and that’s very much what this company is about. It’s about really, really wanting to unveil the interconnectedness of everything. The supply chain for cocoa products is just one example of that. I mean, we’re all so disconnected from one another. From our human relationships, from our relationship to the planet, our relationship to the food that we eat, what we put into our bodies, and the real impact that has on our health, all of it. So Theo is very much about peeling back those layers and educating people about our fundamental connectedness to one another. “

I respond that it’s a great mission for the company, and she agrees.

“Yeah, it is a great mission, and then it’s in the context of a chocolate factory, so it’s like Whinney Wonka.”

Deb is referring to her former husband and current business partner, Theo Founder Joe Whinney, who launched Theo in 2006 amidst a business world of doubters and naysayers. How did he do it, what brought his ex-wife on board, and what precisely do all these interconnected webs of meaning really mean when it comes to cacoa beans and an unforgettable chocolate bar? Stay tuned for Part II.

Photo credit: Debra Music, photo by Janice Harper, 2011