Art Pollard is the founder/owner of a bean-to-bar chocolate company, Amano Chocolate. I recently reviewed Amano Chocolate on Cupcake Project and was excited for the opportunity to interview Art. From Monday to Friday, we'll journey with Art from chocolate epiphany to chocolate company. Along the way, we'll travel with him to Europe to learn about chocolate and to remote tropical areas to source beans. We'll learn about the long hours of hard work in the factory to make Amano a success and the downtime Art spends with his family building model rockets.
Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments. Art will be available to comment on anything you have to say. Even better - Art will give away one of each of his Amano chocolate bars to five random commenters - one winner per post. All winners will be drawn on Saturday morning, July 12. All comments are eligible up until the time the winners are posted. While you may leave multiple comments on a post, only one comment per person per post is eligible to win. Sorry, but only U.S. residents are eligible to win.
How did you become interested in chocolate?
I’ve always been interested in cooking - especially things that are difficult. I was working in the physics department at the university. I designed and built equipment for them for quite a few years. One day, I made an offhand comment to a friend of mine, "Hey - it would be cool to make my own chocolate!" They said that you can't do that without millions of dollars of equipment and so forth and so on. I said, “Well gee, that sounds like it must be really interesting.”
I just filed that away with a lot of other projects that deserved looking into at some point - things to build and things to do. Then, a few years later, I got married and we were out in Hawaii (I used to live in Hawaii for a bit) and we found an outlet for a Belgian confectionery company. It was one of only two in the United States. The lady there convinced me after quite a bit of prodding to spend two dollars on a truffle. Now, keep in mind that I had just gotten out of school so two dollars was two dollars – especially when you are on your honeymoon and every penny counts.
She convinced me to buy one of these truffles. I'd had plenty of chocolate from overseas before and it was good, but it wasn't really spectacular. Of course, these were the days when it was a lot harder to get the good quality chocolate from Europe. I had one of these things and it was an epiphany: “This is what chocolate is supposed to be!"
When I got back from my honeymoon, I immediately called my former boss in the physics department and said, “Hey, I'm going to go ahead and start making my own chocolate and I’m looking for some machinery I can adapt." I gave him a list of some machinery that I was looking for.
My former boss found what I was looking for and it didn't work. For a while, I just kept buying and adapting various machines. Some things worked and some things didn't. There were some that I decided to design and build on my own like the refiner and conche and so forth. I have fairly extensive machine shop skills. I designed and built a lot of machines for the physics department. However, I actually had a software company at that time.
You worked in a physics lab and you also did software design?
I do anything that's interesting! I write search engines. I design the underlying search technology and write the code. I license the code out to larger companies that integrate it into their products or websites. I have code running on a good portion of the computers around the world at this point in one form or another. It's all part of other people's projects and nobody ever really sees who wrote it. It's on a pretty sizable percentage of everybody's computers.
We'd all be coding in one room and you could hear the chocolate refiner going in the other room. The really great thing about doing it this way rather than having all the information handed to you is that you learn why things are the way they are and it's a really great learning experience. All of a sudden, you see that there are certain reasons why things are done a certain way and you start to get a real understanding of the flavor development process that you wouldn't otherwise have if you just went out and bought a machine to do it. A lot of the nuances would be totally lost.
Eventually, I ended up creating some great chocolate. My business partner [in the software business] started to encourage me to commercialize it and I told him that it was foolish.
You weren't selling it?
I was giving it to my friends and neighbors.
It wasn't altruism. I had to do something with all this chocolate. At that point, I was giving it to friends and some local chefs. Everybody started clamoring for it. Clark, my business partner, said we had to commercialize it. I thought it was a really bad idea because making really fine quality chocolate (which was really what I was interested in) is a terribly difficult proposition. Doing it on a commercial scale is exponentially more difficult than that, but people kept hammering on me, and Clark kept pestering me to do it.
Eventually ideas just grow on you, and so we decided to go ahead and do it. If it worked, that would be great - and if it didn't, we'd have one heck of a story to tell at the end.
I started traveling to Europe and studying chocolate manufacturing there and visiting factories around Europe and getting to know people. A couple of people took me under their wing and started teaching me the things that I was missing. I started hunting down equipment and running test batches on the various machines I was looking at buying and finding out how to import them into the U.S.
A lot of the things we have are antiques dating from the 1930's and 40's. We're always on the hunt for great old machinery. The more modern machines don't have the same sort of quality characteristics, but there are some things that you can do better with a more modern machine. It's a matter of keeping everything in prospective and choosing the right machine for the job. It's easy to get caught up in the nostalgia, but in the end, it's all about making great chocolate so it’s really important to choose the best machine for each job and to use it to its fullest potential.
We'd be coding in the day and over in the factory painting the walls and refurbishing the machinery at night. Clark's wife and my wife were incredibly patient because we weren't home much and when we were home, we were completely and totally exhausted. I’d go home and sit down on the couch and take a breather and six or seven minutes later I’d be totally out and I’d wake up in the morning still on the couch - maybe my wife would have thrown a blanket over me in the meantime.
How much time went by from when you started making chocolate until you had a commercial product?
It was a full ten year process. After we got all the machinery refurbished, we started firing things up. Then, you find all the things that were wrong with the machines that you didn't detect the first time. You get to tear them apart again and some things only show up once you're in full production. Once we got all the machinery working, we were at least on our way, but every day is really, truly an adventure.