In 1876 a Swiss confectioner named Daniel Peter figured out how to mix dehydrated milk with chocolate and sugar and mold it into bars. The result was sweet and cheap and wildly popular. Peter and his neighbor, Henri Nestlé, kept their formula a closely guarded secret and set out to conquer the world candy market.

Naturally, the Americans tried to make their own approximation of milk chocolate. Milton Hershey's version came the closest to the original, but his milk was slightly sour. Most people still preferred it to the more bitter dark variety. From 1905, when he opened his first factory in Pennsylvania, Hershey's chocolate dominated in the United States, home to more chocoholics than any country in the world.


Askinosie Chocolate occupies a 115-year-old rehabbed building on Springfield's East Commercial Street. On Tuesday afternoons, Shawn Askinosie opens his factory to the public for tours.

After giving up a career as a trial lawyer, Shawn Askinosie threw himself into making chocolate.
Edward Biamonte
After giving up a career as a trial lawyer, Shawn Askinosie threw himself into making chocolate.
Alan McClure pours liquid chocolate into molds.
Nick Schnelle
Alan McClure pours liquid chocolate into molds.

Location Info

Map

Harvest

1059 S. Big Bend Blvd.
Richmond Heights, MO 63117

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Richmond Heights

Northwest Coffee Roasting Company

4251 Laclede Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63108

Category: Restaurant > Cafe

Region: St. Louis - Central West End

Whole Foods Market-Galleria

1601 S. Brentwood Blvd.
Brentwood, MO 63144

Category: Retail

Region: Brentwood

Straub's

302 N. Kingshighway
St. Louis, MO 63108

Category: Grocery Stores

Region: St. Louis - Central West End

Winslow's Home

7213 Delmar Blvd.
University City, MO 63130

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: University City

Details

Visitors can admire the shiny metal machines and the network of ceiling pipes that carries the molten chocolate from one room to another. At a small counter at the very front, they can buy chocolate bars wrapped in Askinosie's distinctive brown paper packaging. The truly smitten purchase the "C-Ration," a box that contains a month's supply of chocolate: three squares a day, plus four extra for emergencies.

The factory is bright, clean, modern — and completely out of place on Commercial Street. The only other signs of life on the block are an Ace Hardware and a pair of rainbow-painted storefronts that house a social-service agency for gays. Across the street is an empty lot, and beyond that, railroad tracks. Once upon a time, Commercial was Springfield's main street. The grand old Missouri Hotel, a block away, is now a homeless shelter.

"This is a blighted area," says Askinosie. "It's starting a revitalization. It's important for us to be on this street. Eighty kids a night sleep at the Missouri Hotel. They come here for parties. They help us make chocolate truffles and dip strawberries."

Most of the kids are part of Chocolate University, Askinosie's community-education program funded, in part, by proceeds from the factory tours. Fifth graders at Boyd Elementary School incorporate chocolate into all of their classes: When they study machines, they visit the factory, and during geography, Askinosie comes to the classroom to tell them about countries he's visited to buy cacao beans.

Meanwhile, the student council at Pipkin Middle School, with Askinosie's help, is raising money to buy a computer so they can Skype with kids in Davao, Philippines, near one of the farms where Askinosie Chocolate buys its cacao. A group of students from Central High School consults with Askinosie twice a week about where in Africa he should source his next batch of beans. This summer, if they're able to raise the necessary funds, they will all travel to either Liberia or Tanzania on a buying expedition.

"Chocolate University is a very big part of what we do," Askinosie explains. "Obviously, I want to make a profit and be successful, but part of what age gives me — other than a lack of hair — is perspective. Having a connection to the community makes me obligated to be a part of it and involve it in what I'm doing."

Askinosie is 48 years old. He has a compact build, silver hair and beard, and eyes the color of chocolate. For twenty years, he was a criminal-defense lawyer specializing in murder cases, a few of which were featured on America's Most Wanted. It was, he says, a very stressful job. He started cooking to relax. First he tried grilling and then switched to baking cupcakes "because I liked tasting the outcome."

For five years, he prayed for guidance about what he should do if he gave up law. He considered buying a bakery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One day in May of 2005, driving to a great-aunt's funeral an hour outside of Springfield, he had an epiphany: He should make chocolate.

"I didn't even know chocolate came from a bean," he remembers.­

Nonetheless, he started experimenting with roasting and grinding cocoa beans, first at home, and then, after his wife, Caron, kicked him out because he made such a mess, in his law office kitchen. In the mornings he would go to court, and then in the afternoons he made chocolate with the assistance of the paralegals.

He traveled to Ecuador to work for a week in a chocolate factory to find out how the process worked on a larger scale. He befriended agricultural anthropologists and American commercial chocolate manufacturers, including one who worked for Mars, who could give him leads on finding cacao farmers who grew beans with the flavors he wanted.

Like grapes and coffee beans, cacao absorbs the chemical components of the soil in which it's grown, what wine experts call terroir. "Flavor profiles of beans from Madagascar have red berry notes, like strawberry or raspberry," explains Alexandra Leaf, a culinary educator who runs Chocolate Tours of New York City. "Beans from Ghana tend to be fudgy and chocolatey. Cocoa beans are 50 percent fat. They're susceptible to sucking up flavor. Beans from Indonesia taste smoky because they're dried next to the fire."

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