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Inside the B.T. McElrath chocolate empire

The staff takes it for granted, but there may not be a better-smelling building in Northeast Minneapolis than the tiny warehouse that houses the 19–year-old B.T. McElrath Chocolatier empire, which last year cranked out 70,000 pounds of chocolate retail items in the form of 190,429 chocolate bars.

The main office, two small kitchens and storage rooms are positively lusty with the smell of cocoa beans, butter, sugar, salt and chocolate, which probably accounts for the work force’s Willie Wonka-ish smiles all around. 

“These bars right here, we made 95,000 last year, and Phung Do touched every one of them,” said lead chocolatier Peter Maccaroni, a co-partner in B.T. McElrath with founder and CEO Brian McElrath, during a recent tour of the facility. “It’s impressive, because we can’t replicate what these guys do. We have machines, but it’s gotta take a person to touch it.” 

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

“I take them like this, fold this, and put them in just like that, every single one of them, and then…,” the bars go out into the world, said Do, a McElrath employee of 11 years. She doesn’t have time to chat: The company recently partnered with the American Refugee Committee International and Dunn Bros Coffee to create the “Changemaker” charity candy bar, and this time of year is always the busiest, what with the holidays coming, December’s darkness and the hungry reward centers of chocoholics’ brains kicking in, and pre-Valentine’s Day pre-orders coming in.

As the four-person production team made, melted, molded, salted, and packed a recent batch of dark chocolate bars, Maccaroni talked all things chocolate with MinnPost.

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

MinnPost: You were trained as a chef and had a successful run at places like The Sample Room and Kings Wine Bar in Minneapolis. How did you become a chocolatier?

Peter Maccaroni: I’d been a chef for ten years and toward the end of my time at Kings, I was totally disillusioned with restaurants. My heart wasn’t in it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I have a kid I want to spend time with, and I was going to be 60 years old cooking in a kitchen? So I was talking with my fiancée, Alexa, and I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, because I’m only trained in food.’

I started looking around, and oddly enough there was an ad on Craigslist from Brian and he was looking for a chocolatier. I was like, ‘I can totally do that.’ And I had no idea what I was doing. I came in, and he was a chef, too, and we hit it off as two chefs would.

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

MP: What did you know about chocolate going in?

PM: Very little. I’d worked as a pastry chef and I’d worked with chocolate before, But working with five pounds of chocolate for truffles in a restaurant on a dessert menu is different than running 500 to a thousand pounds of chocolate that we run in a day. So I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this no problem’ and Brian saw something in me and I got the job and the first day I was like, ‘What the [hell] did I just do?’

It was so foreign to me. Nobody was cursing, nobody was drunk, nobody was angry, nobody was hung-over, there was no drama, and it was just a regular job. Brian gave me the job and I just bluffed, and fake it ‘til you make it, and kept going at it and picked it up quickly, learning on the job. 

I was a lot like most Americans, I knew Hershey’s and Snickers. I had learned a little about fine chocolate from being a pastry chef, but when you start working with it every day, you start to understand the molecular make-up and you pay attention to the humidity, because the humidity effects how the chocolate behaves. All of those things are such a fundamental part of making chocolate that I had to completely readjust, because this is not a batch of soup where you can throw salt into it. If you mess it up, that’s it. You’ve got to start over. 

MP: What’s the difference between fine chocolate and, say, Hershey’s?

PM: Like with anything with food, it’s subjective. I can tell you it’s fine chocolate, but if somebody says Hershey’s is fine chocolate, there’s nothing I can say that can change their mind. I can tell you facts about fine chocolate: Fine chocolate is not diluted; it’s pure ingredients that come from the cocoa plant. So you’ve got your cocoa liquor, which is all the dark, bitter stuff that’s in chocolate; you’ve got cocoa butter which gives it it’s fluidity, and then you’ve got sugar, vanilla, and another fat — in our case we use butter — and that gives it the sweetness and taste that we associate with chocolate.

The last time I checked, Hershey’s has the legal minimum, 11 percent of any derivative of the cocoa plant, that they have to have and can still call it a chocolate product. And ours has 70 percent.

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

MP: How does it feel making it, knowing that you’re contributing to all these festivities and very personal celebrations? And do you know for a fact that people crave chocolate especially around this time of year?

PM: Yes, you’re right on the mark. There’s something really cool about it. People all over the country are eating our chocolate and I think about that on occasion. We don’t do great sales during the summer; I think it adds something to the freezing cold or maybe it helps you deal with your family, or whatever, but it does have all sorts of properties and it effects everybody differently. We start ramping up for Christmas in September, and right now we’re at the tail end of getting stuff out for Valentine’s Day. From September until the end of February, people are really into chocolate for some reason. You don’t have to have an excuse you just have to get it.

MP: You’re immersed in chocolate. What do you know about chocolate in terms of pop culture?

PM: A lot of what Americans think and feel about chocolate has to do with the Hershey’s and Mars guys. They had all sorts of crafty ideas. We only get chocolate on Valentine’s Day because they suggested it 80 years ago, and they pushed it so heavily and it just became part of the culture and we accept that. It’s been proven that human beings, once we figured out about chocolate — I mean, the Mayans traded it as currency, it was that valuable — and then the Spaniards picked it up and it was a totally different thing: It was a bitter, sour drink, and then, leave it to the Dutch, they added sugar to it and made it more palatable and it just exploded.

That was 120 years ago, and in terms of food and how we eat, that’s still really new. We’re still in the middle of the trend that’s chocolate and it’s constantly evolving. A couple years ago they released that information about dark chocolate being good for you as long as it’s 70 percent or above, and you reap the health benefits, and that adds a whole other segment of people who want to eat chocolate. It’s a wonderful, wonderful plant that does a lot of things for a lot of people. Chocolate is special, and it’s catching on all over the world – China and India are huge into chocolate now, and this is primarily something that they never ate before.

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/23/2014 - 12:33 pm.

    not in Northeast

    It’s great to see the McElrath chocolates highlighted in a local news story like this. But Jim Walsh has been around Minneapolis enough to know that the business’s kitchens are in Southeast Minneapolis, not Northeast (everything on the south side of East Hennepin Ave. is Southeast). In the Southeast Como neighborhood, actually.

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