Why Does Seattle Have Such A Large Local Chocolate Industry?

Jan 24, 2016

Listener Beth Ann Johnson asked Local Wonder about Seattle's chocolate industry, and reporter Ruby de Luna agreed to report. (We know. Tough assignment.)

First stop: Bartell Drugs on University Way. Kristy Leissle, who got her Ph.D studying chocolate, met me there. She teaches global studies at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus.

In the candy aisle, she pointed out familiar brands: Mars, Nestle, Cadbury, Hershey and Ferrero. The Big Five, she called them, the companies that dominate the chocolate market globally.

“Most of us would have grown up knowing these brands first, and this would have been our introduction to chocolate,” Leissle said. She called these the chocolate of our youth.

But there was another aisle – one with fancier fare.

“We have Ghirardelli, which of course is San Francisco-based, and if we move a little bit closer to Oregon, Moonstruck is represented here,” she said. 

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Also represented was the home team: Seattle Chocolates, Dilettante, Theo and Fran's.

Fran’s Chocolates was one of Seattle’s early chocolate pioneers. Leissle said that Fran Bigelow, the woman behind the confections, was a key innovator with her sea salted caramels.

Chocolates on display at Forte Chocolates in Mount Vernon, Washington.
Credit KUOW Photo/Mike Kane

“When I first tasted the sea salted caramel, I was very trepidatious,” Leissle said. “I didn’t know if salt and chocolate would be fine. And of course, that’s what you see everywhere, because it’s such a tremendous complementary set of tastes.”

These chocolate makers introduced Seattle to craft chocolate and to a world bigger than the candy of our childhood. 

When Theo chocolate came to Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood in 2006, it did something no other company had done before: The company vowed to make chocolate from scratch, a bean-to-bar chocolatier. They have relationships with cacao bean farmers abroad. It’s like a baker who buys grains to grind them into flour – as opposed to buying bags of flour. Theo opened its factory to the public with educational tours.

Fran’s, Dilettante and Theo put Seattle on the map when it comes to chocolate. Leissle said they established themselves around the time of the local food movement, when consumers started becoming curious about their food.

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“On the Theo bars, I can see pictures of all the ingredients,” Leissle says. “In the Pacific Northwest, we really value that intimacy with our food.”

That movement has fueled support for more chocolate makers in the area.

Scroll down to see our map of local chocolate makers.

I drove to Mount Vernon, Washington, about an hour north of Seattle, to meet one of those chocolatiers.

Heather Roberts, an employee at Forte Chocolates, packages finished confections at the company's production shop in Mount Vernon.
Credit KUOW Photo/Mike Kane

Karen Neugebauer was heating up a bowl of melted chocolate in her commercial kitchen. The chocolate would soon coat a sheet of caramel squares waiting on the counter.

“I don’t use any thermometers whatsoever,” Neugebauer said. “I think it’s a crutch. It gives you one of the three things you need: You need time, temperature and motion.”

Neugebauer started Forte Chocolates in 2006. Last year two of her creations took home silver and bronze at the International Chocolate Awards.

“Both the Orange Jazz and Cherry Almond, which are very traditional, old flavors, took world titles,” she said. “We’re so ecstatic.”

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Neugebauer is part of a growing number of artisan chocolate makers in the Puget Sound region. What makes this community stand out is that the makers help and support each other, she said.

“There’s a lot of sharing because we want to see everyone succeed,” she said.

Another key ingredient for the region’s strong chocolate culture is the consumer. The Northwest Chocolate Festival draws hundreds of people to the Seattle Bell Harbor Conference Center each year.

At the festival in October, Shirley Dujardin and her daughter Cece Dickens came to sample and learn. The festival is a place for consumers to meet the makers and give feedback.

Forte Chocolates employee Lindsey Woolbert pours melted chocolate into a truffle mold in the company's production shop in Mount Vernon. Hand making a batch of truffles is a labor intensive, multistep process.
Credit KUOW Photo/Mike Kane

“It’s kind of like wine,” Dickens said, “you get to be a connoisseur.”

So why does our region have a large local chocolate industry? Because it has a community of artisans that continues to grow and a consumer base that knows its chocolates – and a public venue for aficionados to share and geek out.

“I’m odd for a Seattleite,” Dujardin says chuckling. “I’m not really a coffee drinker, so I double up on the chocolates.” 

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