SPRINGFIELD, Mo. | No one would mistake Shawn Askinosie for Willy Wonka.
But in two short years he has built a chocolate factory and started selling his namesake single-origin, bean-to-bar chocolate to boutique customers scattered from San Francisco to Sweden.
Askinosie’s transformation from criminal defense lawyer to artisan chocolate maker has been every bit as trying as the series of high-profile murder cases that landed him on “Dateline NBC” and sparked death threats against his family.
For stress relief, Askinosie started grilling. Over the next few years he moved to baking, eventually becoming obsessed with cupcakes and chocolate desserts. Then, on his way to a funeral in 2005, he was struck by the idea of making chocolate from scratch.
“It was almost a desperate prayer to God that he would give me a passion for something else,” he says. “I loved law, and I did it for a long, long time, but I got to the point that I couldn’t feel it anymore.”
Walk through the doors of Askinosie Chocolate and you can feel the earthy, slightly musty smell of cocoa tickle your nostrils. The modern, streamlined factory is nestled in a rehabbed warehouse, just 100 yards from a homeless shelter.
Up and running for less than a year, the fledgling factory is already encouraging others on the block to shake off the slumber of urban blight. And the economic ripples are reaching far beyond Springfield — to poor farmers in Mexico and Ecuador who now share in the profits Askinosie makes from their crops.
Unlike large industrial chocolate manufacturers that source huge quantities of beans grown from around the world on the commodity market, Askinosie hires farmers to grow small batches of beans for which he pays above Fair Trade market prices.
When the beans have been turned into a bar, the chocolate is wrapped in distressed brown parchment paper. The wrapper includes a photo of the lead farmer, his name, the bean’s origin, the variety of bean, the cocoa content, the process used to make the bar, a “choc-o-lot” number and the Web address (askinosie.com). Enter the choc-o-lot number online and you can retrace the journey.
The 70 percent cocoa bar was made from Arriba beans grown by Vitaliano Saravia in San Jose Del Tambo, Ecuador, a region at the foot of the Andes. The 75 percent cocoa bar was made from Trinitario beans grown by Jorge Marroquin from Soconusco, Mexico, a historical cacao-growing region that has been largely dormant for the last century.
In much the way a winemaker must consider how climate, growing conditions, grape varietal and vintage affect a wine’s flavor, Askinosie weighs how fermenting, roasting and processing will affect the chocolate’s flavor. Online reviewers use many of the same terms once reserved exclusively for wine tasting, describing the chocolate as “musty,” “tannic” and “floral” with a “buttery” texture, the acidity of “red fruits” and the “sweet smell of tobacco.”
The tempering heartache
As a steady stream of liquid chocolate pours out of a gleaming stainless steel spigot, employees in snowy white lab coats pump the warm elixir from the $35,000 German tempering machine into square molds from Belgium.
From fermenting to molding, capturing the nuances of a cacao bean in a bar requires no fewer than 70 steps. But for Askinosie, tempering was the most difficult step to master.
Chocolate contains cocoa butter, a fat that forms crystals after the chocolate has been melted and cooled. If the crystals are not stabilized, they will form dull gray streaks called bloom. By contrast, properly tempered chocolate is malleable and glossy, but if the temperature is off one-tenth of a degree, the batch is ruined.
Askinosie and Kyle Malone, his production manager and son-in-law, started out using an Ecuadorian-made machine that resembled an insulated water tank. But the simple water jacket design failed to keep the chocolate at the proper temperature.
Next a “superhighway” of red and blue tubes hooked to microprocessors was hooked up so the machine’s water jacket could be maintained at a constant temperature. When that didn’t work, they moved on to a temperature-controlled stainless steel tank purchased from a Chicago-based company.
When they continued to encounter trouble, Askinosie contacted the machine’s manufacturer, who advised him to contact the chocolate manufacturer. “They had never dealt with anyone who makes chocolate from the bean,” Askinosie recalls.
Askinosie’s chocolate contains just cacao beans, cocoa butter and pure cane sugar. Period. Most large chocolate manufacturers add lecithin, a fatty substance that comes from egg whites and legumes that is used to emulsify foods; they might also add vanilla. Such additions enhance the ability to manipulate the chocolate.
After months of frustration, Askinosie hit on the solution. About 2,500 members of a retail confectioner’s trade group were in town for a convention and wanted to tour the factory. That’s when Ed Seguine, vice president of research and development for Guittard Chocolate, a California-based chocolate maker, suggested that Askinosie invest in the German tempering machine.
“It worked from the moment it came out of the box. If a person can love an inanimate object, well, I have hugged it,” Askinosie admits. “It’s why BMW and Mercedes are where they are today. The machine is spot-on.”
Malone admits frustration but adds, “Looking back, if we hadn’t had so much trouble, we wouldn’t have learned as much about chocolate or ourselves.”
A sustainable story
Lawyer jokes are a standard. But have you heard the one about the unscrupulous chocolate maker?
“The chocolate world is very secretive, and it’s more dishonest than the legal community. Why is that? Because there are no rules. Almost all the lawyer jokes are true, but in 50 years there are going to be chocolate jokes,” Askinosie says.
When it comes to regulations, Askinosie says many artisan food makers are flying under the radar. “We’ve spent thousands of dollars to batch track our chocolate because the FDA requires it, but I don’t think everyone is doing it ... I can tell you when it was packaged, which batch it came from, when it became a bar of chocolate.”
Stamped on the back of each Askinosie bar is a guarantee that farmers will share “A Stake in the Outcome,” a concept trademarked by Springfield entrepreneur Jack Stack. And last month Askinosie returned to Ecuador and Mexico to pass profits on to the farmers.
“No doubt, my two best days in the chocolate business were when I gave money to those farmers. No question about it,” he says.
But the cost of producing single-origin chocolate isn’t cheap: a 3-ounce Askinosie bar retails for $7.50, cocoa nibs for $10 and a 1-kilo molded bar (2.2 pounds) is $65.
“I want to be sustainable in the real sense of the word, not the bumper sticker sense,” he says.
So when he renovated the factory, he reused many of the materials from the original structure. He uses home compostable wood-pulp based cellophane packaging to wrap the bars. The shells winnowed from the cacoa nibs are sold at the local farmers market as mulch. Even the strands of jute that decorate the bars are separated from the original bean bag by workers at a local women’s shelter.
“Customers come first for the taste, but they keep coming back for the story,” Askinosie says.
Askinosie Chocolate products are available in bars, nibs, nibble bars (bars studded with roasted nibs), cocoa powder (unsweetened and non-alkalized for baking), sipping chocolate and the clever C-rations, a month’s supply of three chocolate squares per day.
The product line is sold at 60 locations in 30 states. Kansas City area purveyors include Halls, Dean & DeLuca and Whole Foods. Nearly half of Askinosie’s customers find him by searching online and going to askinosie.com.
Shawn Askinosie proudly points to a poster-size picture of smiling kids that hangs from the ceiling in the molding room.
The fourth-grade students from Boyd Elementary are part of the Chocolate University program designed to provide lessons in geography, history, culture, business and natural resources.
Many of the children who attend Boyd Elementary live at the Missouri Hotel, Springfield’s largest homeless shelter, located 100 yards from the factory. Students from nearby Drury University will serve as teachers and mentors.
Tours of the factory are available at 3 p.m. every Tuesday. Money charged goes directly to support the program.
•San Jose Del Tambo, Ecuador: The Quechua Indians used this village, situated in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, as a resting place before journeying deeper into the Andes. The bars made from these beans contain 70 percent cocoa.
•Soconusco, Mexico: In 1502 the Soconusco region in Mexico near the Guatemalan border had a reputation for producing some of the finest cacao in the Aztec empire. Although the sleepy hamlet is no longer the center of cacao production, Shawn Askinosie is the first person outside Mexico to make chocolate from the beans of this historic region in the last 100 years.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Springfield resident Kim Handy and her daughters Grace, 12, and Schuyler, 14, stopped by the factory for Swedish pancakes drizzled in chocolate to celebrate the first international shipment of Askinosie Chocolate.
To the tunes of ABBA, Handy and other chocolate lovers autographed a box included in the 1-ton pallet of chocolate headed for Sweden.
“I grew up in Holland, and it’s as good as any chocolate there. It’s incredible,” Handy said.
@ To see a photo gallery, go to