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THOMAS AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY

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THOMAS AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY By Allyson Marrs

tom has a sweet tooth. Tom is also surrounded by chocolate. It's the perfect formula. Or perhaps, a perpetual temptation. But when prepared with careful attention to detail, chocolate doesn't always have to be an indulgence.

It can simply be delicious—and even nutritious.

"Chocolate means a lot of things," Tom said. "It's very healthy and all about antioxidants."

Tom is the Vice President of TCHO chocolate (pronounced cho) based in San Francisco. The company even offers factory tours—no golden ticket required.

Three to four days a week Tom shuttles between Bellevue and San Francisco's Pier 17. Yeah, the chocolate is just that good.

5 REFLECTIONSThe reason? TCHO nurses its product—from bean to bar. Tom has an analogy for this concept. "If you have a child, you do everything from prenatal care to postnatal care, to infant feeding. Then it comes to kindergarten and you pick the best school and go from there. The other people say they don't care about anything until kindergarten."

Tom says that most chocolate companies are re-melters—very Mr. Slugworth-esque. This means that they buy liquor from other companies to mix and melt with their own formula.

TCHO starts at the origin.

A velvety-chocolate bar is the product of a thorough process. TCHO grows the bean, ferments the bean, dries the bean, roasts the bean and then makes the chocolate couverture. Most companies start where TCHO ends.

It's similar to Starbucks' process, which helped the small company of about 40 people catch the attention of the multibillion-dollar company, where Tom worked for 10 years. "(Starbucks) said 'you're punching above your weight class,'" Tom said, referring to their extensive eye for detail. But for the last two years, TCHO has partnered with the giant, providing Starbucks with their milk and dark chocolate bars and the sweet treats in their food trays.

Tom's only been on the TCHO team since August 2011, but he has already used his previous experience from Starbucks—where he signed deals to put the chain in grocery stores, the packaged coffee on the shelves and Tazo tea under Starbucks' name—to propel TCHO forward.

"My job is to help them take this great product and blow it out in the marketplace," he said. "I take small, really great programs and help blow them up."

For him, it's a project and mission he enjoys pushing—both for the taste and the farming process.

From Madagascar to Peru to Ghana to Ecuador, TCHO sets up sustainable factories with dedicated growers, who help roast at origin, which keeps the product organic and fair trade.

With this practice, the growers have an opportunity they rarely get: they taste the chocolate made from their beans, thanks to TCHO flavor labs. "It tastes so good to them. Sixty percent of the world's chocolate comes from there, but they don't usually taste it," Tom said.

And each bar contains the pure essence of the bean without additives, which is depicted in TCHO's flavor wheel (chocolatey, citrus, fruity, floral, nutty and earthy). These are the natural notes in chocolate, depending on how the bean is roasted.

From classic bars to chocolate-covered treats, TCHO is continually looking to update its list of goodies. "You have to innovate or die," Tom said. "But you have to make sure an innovator doesn't give too much," Tom said, meaning that change doesn't happen too quickly or drastically. "But instead, that he gives us enough that we continue to be interesting and new."

So before TCHO mass-markets a new product, they beta test it on customers who receive a sample in the mail and then share their tasting notes with the company. "We have educated customers. They give us feedback, and we'll keep tweaking until we get the final formulation," Tom said. "Most consumers aren't coached on what they're tasting, so they'll know if they really like what they're tasting."

Much like a fine Scotch, the taste of some forms of chocolate can take some getting used to. Recently, TCHO unveiled the 99%. These little bites are 99 percent cacao, without sugar to curb the bitterness. But Tom eats chocolate every day, so his palate has adapted to the chocolate punch, and he prefers these above anything else.

"When I was young, I used to drink Scotch. I only drank Scotch because when I went to a cocktail party, I could hold one cocktail the entire night," he laughed. "It was so strong that I couldn't drink it. Eventually, I started to enjoy it. Now, if I'm going to snack, I'll snack on the 99%."

That one drop is strong and leaves a lingering taste long after it melts. It just takes some getting used to. Since there's no sugar, it's filled purely with antioxidant goodness. "We tell people that chocolate doesn't have to be an indulgence. In fact, we think it should be a daily part of what you do," Tom said.

"Just one dark bar a day and you'll get all those health benefits, and it tastes pretty darn good."

But, of course, there's a technique. Tom recommends that when tasting a new chocolate to take it, bite it then chew it, or take a small piece and let it melt on the tongue, which helps release the real flavor essence.

He has a lot of reasons to love his job — he begins each day with a chocolate tasting. "In addition to loving to taste chocolate all the time, which I get to do, it's working with these people who are so passionate and have such a great story. It's a lot of fun," he said.

His wife Jane, 19-year-old daughter Rebecca and 14-year-old son Charlie get to enjoy the benefits as well, with their home never lacking in the sweet stuff.

While TCHO keeps Tom traveling from home to San Francisco constantly (nothing new to the former "military brat" who attended six elementary schools in six years) his family and the Club—particularly, the tennis program—keep him anchored in Bellevue.

Tom says that TCHO has big plans for expansion, currently focusing on key marketing places such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and yes, Seattle. No word yet on a chocolate waterfall.


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