Toronto Local: Mathieu McFadden of ChocoSol Traders discusses horizontal trade, running a storefront

ChocoSol Traders is a bean-to-bar chocolate shop that has been around for nearly twenty years. The chocolate is made in Toronto from scratch, using only simple, whole-food ingredients. ChocoSol celebrated their 15 year anniversary in late 2019. Their roots in Toronto began with ChocoSol’s founder, Michael Sacco. Michael brought organically grown, forest garden cacao back from Mexico and ground chocolate on his front porch to sell at Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market and the Riverdale Farm Farmers’ Market.

The story of bringing organically grown and bean-to-bar cacao in Toronto begins in 2002. Michael had taken a drive down to Mexico with a solar concentrator as part of his Master’s in Environmental Studies. He was energized by the community and conviviality in Mexico. During his trip, he was introduced to chocolate making by an elder who asked him to make traditional drinking chocolate with her. The aha moment happened!

Michael realized that chocolate could be a vehicle to fund future environmental projects and research.

Today, ChocoSol represents the creative vehicle of numerous ChocoSolistas who believe healthy, meaningful, and respectful food systems are possible. In the Lacandon jungle of Mexico, ChocoSol works with the communities of San Felipe Jatate, Agua Perla, and a few others to directly source cacao.  

In 2006, Michael was invited to the region to share a solar technology used for roasting cacao and to give workshops on how to make the chocolate. The environmental aspect of chocolate making and supporting farmers through horizontal trade, while bringing real food to customers, is near and dear to the ChocoSol team's heart and mission.

Mathieu McFadden, the co-owner and General Manager of ChocoSol takes us through the different aspects of their company, their work with the farmers, and what it takes to operate a storefront in Toronto.

What is the difference between Fair Trade and direct trade? How does your work impact the farmers and partner communities you work with?

We prefer the term horizontal trade, which is reciprocity-based relationship based on direct trade. The horizontal trade that ChocoSol practices is about embodying best practices at home and abroad, and striving to do our best with the resources and the vision that we have in partnership with our growers and farmers.

Prior to our relationship with the farmers, the regional price for cacao was less than twenty pesos per kilogram of cacao. For the past three years we have paid between fifty and sixty-five pesos per kilogram directly to our cacao growers.

Additionally, part of our reciprocity in this particular region in Mexico has included bringing theobromae bicoloris cacao trees from another region of Mexico. In this region, we partner with Chinantec elders to share with the Lacandon Indigenous farmers. These trees help to diversify and strengthen the forest gardens and the food subsistence of the ecological growers.

Finally, the white cacao seedlings were funded by ChocoSol. This helps us to go beyond mere currency exchange and renews our commitment to our reciprocal relationship.

What are some challenges ChocoSol has faced with certifying farmers as organic?

In the past we have attempted to certify the growers, and Michael has personally engaged in walking more than 100 acres of forest gardens with the growers, but in the end the certification process broke down on a few occasions. One of the primary reasons is that the small farmers are not motivated to take on a bureaucratic fee structure to certify their cacao when there is so little of it to be sold by each individual grower. Essentially, the process is more work than it is worth.

We have continued to work directly with the growers we have come to know since 2006. We are willing to vouch for their ecology and ethics based on our annual visits to their farms.

Michael Sacco holding cacao pods

What has been the most exciting milestone achieved by ChocoSol so far?

Moving out of a rental situations and owning the land and building that we do our work in was a huge game changer. We no longer have to justify our creative use of space. Investing in our future has given us the next level of resiliency we need. Plus, the capacity to grow un-hindered from the landlord-tenant juxtaposition which can be precarious at best and adversarial at worse. 

This year, we’ve bought our own warehouse which has given us the luxury of safely receiving our cacao and coffee on our own terms, all with our high food and safety standards in mind. In this new warehouse we’ve also built our primary production, which includes storing, cleaning, blending, roasting, winnowing and grinding cacao. This takes some of the production off-site to better physically distance our production staff during COVID and to refine and evolve our chocolate making techniques at the same time. We always want to figure out multiple problems at once when when we are investing in our equipment and facility.

What is cacao and how is it different from cocoa?

Cacao is the traditional word for cocoa - it can be chopped down to semantics and context but they represent the same thing.

When people say cocoa they generally think of cocoa powder - the defatted and chemically alkalized bi-product that is so lucrative to the chocolate industry but void of most of the goodness that a whole cacao bean has to offer.

We use the term cacao intentionally to emphasize the root of the word and the root of the product. Which is rooted in forest gardens traditions of Meso-America a millennia in the making. Our farmer’s in Meso-America call it the seed cacao, therefore we should as well.

When we say that ChocoSol works with cacao, we’re not referring to melting industrialized fine chocolate or cocoa powder. Working with cacao, for us, means starting from a whole food - the densely packed complex seed that is packed with flavours and nutrients.

What does your business look like when it’s achieved all goals and dreams for it?

The journey is part of the destination, our goal is to produce the most ecological and delicious chocolate foods in North America.  This is only attainable if we continue to renew the land that we stand on here in Ontario.  This means growing ingredients, techniques and hope here locally.   This means having farmland and creating forest gardens here in Canada as well.  It means continuing to bridge Southern ontario with Southern.  Our future valentine’s day truffles aren’t made up of heavy ganaches but are fragrant bites with local dehydrated fruits, herbs and berries.

Our team is happy and fulfilled and finding meaning in the work, we’ve set an example for the next generation demonstrating that good business is possible, and necessary for us to continue.  That joy and and relationships are worth 

What advice would you give to someone launching their own food business?

Trends will come and go.  Authenticity, commitment to your values and good hospitality will take you much further. Do it for the love of the food you are creating - passion is a must in this competitive space where margins are thin and quality is expected. Please take the environment into consideration as you grow, evolve and scale your business.

Chocosol co-owner Michael Sacco at tradeshow

How can someone run an ethical food business? What’s involved?

Transparency and not being afraid to ask the hard questions is a must.  You will make mistakes, try to learn from them.  Make space for discussion around ethics to happen but be clear about your mission and value - there is enough injustice to go around - you can’t be the saviour of every cause.

Nurture a team that will champion the values that you present, and continue to renew and celebrate those values.  You want people who will shoulder the entrepreneurial responsibility of being successful and ethical.  It’s not easy.

Don’t cut corners when it comes to quality ingredients - those who care about the quality are more likely to respect those involved in producing said quality.

Make real relationships to your suppliers.  There should be joy in working with the company you keep, it doesn’t always work out with everyone and that’s ok. Understand that you will never please everyone but that your heart should be full of gratitude at the end of the day.

What does a day look like at the ChocoSol storefront?

ChocoSol's day starts at 6AM when the first few production staff get in to start their morning routine. They’ll make a coffee or hot chocolate for themselves, get suited up, and jump into chocolate making in the kitchen.

Most weekdays, Diego Gonsalez who is our supply chain retail manager, arrives to review yesterday's online orders. This past year in the pandemic, we’ve seen a 500% increase in online orders versus online orders at ChocoSol in 2019That momentum has continued into 2021 so far. We've been using our boutique more as a fulfillment centre than as an actual boutique.

By noon, we are caught up on packing and mailing out orders and we open our doors to the public. The phone rings consistently at a reasonable interval while customers arrive to pick up their pre-orders. New customers pop in with returning customers. We hope to curate an experience for new and returning customers alike and we let them know. These days we are obsessively washing our hands and wiping down doors and surfaces with sanitizer between customers and orders.

On weekends, we have a busy drink service in our storefront with parents and kids dropping by to get cacao hot chocolate after their dance and other classes.

What is the must-have cacao bar Torontonians love?

The Mon Cherry D’amour bar has become a decadent treat that has become a favourite here in Toronto. The cherries are high quality apple-juice infused organic sour cherries from Québec. Our supplier has recently discontinued them, though. We let our customers know that bars will be more limited this year and there has been a bit of a frenzy to get stocked up on these while they can.

Mon Cherry D'Amour cacao bar from local Toronto business, ChocoSol

What is your favourite cacao-based recipe that always impresses?

Iced drinking chocolate is definitely something that blows people away when done right. It’s a cacao-based recipe that's refreshing and luxurious. There’s no better way to generate a proper cacao butter espuma, or the foam or froth that comes without the use of an emulsifying agent such as eggs, than the iced drinking cacao. In my opinion, it's the most lovely way to experience cacao.

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As a cacao-obsessed person, I can't tell you how excited I was to discover a local business like ChocoSol making bars and coffee around the raw pods with a bean-to-bar mentality. Thank you to Mathieu McFadden and the ChocoSol team for this wonderful insight into horizontal trade, running an environmentally-conscious business, and what it's like to run a storefront in Toronto. See what ChocoSol and other incredible local shops are doing for Valentine's Day in Toronto and keep up with ChocoSol on their Instagram. If you come up with any cacao-based recipes - send them to me!

Samantha Lloyd

Samantha Lloyd is the co-founder and CEO of Metaranx.