"When I started," says McClure, "there weren't many other people using Madagascar beans. Now there are, and it's annoying. My chocolate's unique, but I can't prove it's because of the machine and the way I'm using it. Some part of the flavor profile is due to that, but when you're dealing with flavor, you make your best guesses. Even scientists don't know why chocolate tastes the way it does."


"Chocolate making is one of those professions that's almost a calling," muses Clay Gordon. "Making money at it is a lot harder than people think. It's a hard business. It's not like, if you make it, people will buy it, and you will be successful."

The profit margin on premium chocolate is slim. Still, three years in, Askinosie Chocolate has started to turn a small profit. It produces fourteen tons of chocolate per year. Patric produces just two tons. "This is quite literally less than what most chocolate manufacturers do in an hour," McClure writes in an e-mail.

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.

International sales represent a high percentage of Askinosie's gross revenue, which he says is a great help in an economic climate where the euro is worth more than the U.S. dollar. But one of the main reasons for his success is his talent for marketing.

"Shawn's great at marketing," says McClure. "I have more respect for him as a marketer than for anyone else in the business. His vision is clear: to tell the story of the farmers. People feel good about buying his chocolate."

The packaging of each bar of Askinosie Chocolate features a picture of the actual farmer who grew the cacao. It also has a "choc-o-lot" number one can enter on the company's website to find out more about the cacao plantation and the production process in Springfield.

Unlike McClure and many other producers of fine chocolate, Askinosie sells white chocolate (made from cocoa butter, pressed from the same beans he uses for his dark chocolate bars) and a blend he calls "dark milk." He's also collaborated with Zingerman's on a bar called El Rústico that contains chopped-up vanilla beans.

Askinosie admits to being more inspired by other industries than he is by chocolate. One of his chief mentors was Springfield businessman Jack Stack whose book A Stake in the Outcome recommends that owners keep open books and share the profits with their employees. Askinosie takes this one step further by sharing his profits with the cacao farmers, too.

McClure, on the other hand, keeps close tabs on the industry. Next to his file cabinet of scientific papers is a shelf of rival chocolate bars, which he encourages his employees to sample. Chocolate production, for him, is a form of self-expression.

"Steve DeVries is an incredible chocolate maker," he says, "very detail-oriented. He's not as into food as I am. He's in it for the love of the game. His goal is to make the best chocolate in the world because he has a love of the process. I love the process because I love the product."

He breaks off a square of a bar from a small California chocolate company and pops it in his mouth. "This is nutty, roasty and flat," he announces. "This is a 75 percent bar. It should be like a shot of espresso: It should be bright and wake you up and make you pay attention. If it doesn't make your taste buds pay attention, something's wrong."

These days, says Gordon, chocolate does approximately $16 billion in annual sales in the United States. Of that, $1.6 to $2 billion is premium chocolate, though that number also includes confectioners like See's Candies, Godiva and Ghirardelli. He expects the gourmet market will only continue to grow.

"Every community large enough to support a craft brewer is large enough to support a craft chocolate maker," he declares.

Askinosie, recalling the difficulties he had obtaining his machinery, is dubious. McClure thinks it's not such a far-off possibility. "Some people get too excited too quickly, before they realize what they're getting into," he says.

"Is now, especially with the recession, the best time [to start a chocolate company]?" McClure asks. "No. Five years ago was the best time. But people will find a way to get the equipment, and the more people who find a way, that will prove there is a way."

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