Collaboration and Experimentation: Eric Parkes of Somerville Chocolate

Interview by L. Valena; Photography by Canyon Twin

Eric Parkes is the founder of bean-to-bar chocolate company Somerville Chocolate. Here we talk about how he started and runs this super cool operation, how he negotiates work-life balance, and the subtle power of a mythical singing frog.

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How did you get into this business?

It all began for me in 2011 or 2010. We were down in Costa Rica, staying in this EcoLodge. Actually, it all began because I've always loved chocolate and had a fascination with it. But we were down in this place in the flat area of Costa Rica, and unbeknownst to us, when you stay there you have all these daytime package options. This was right when I was on the edge between being a cool backpacking traveler and a boring parent of kids, so we said okay, we'll go on the tours with the crocodiles and things. One day we had the option of a pineapple plantation or a cacao plantation. We went for the cacao plantation thinking that it would be hokey- like there would be a display where the kids could pick chocolate bars from a tree, or something. It was a half hour trip through the jungle, and at the end of that you're at somebody's hut in a research cacao grove. They show you how it grows, how it's harvested, fermented, roasted and refined, and they do it all by hand with no electricity. So, I was kind of smitten by that- finding out that you can make chocolate without a factory at your disposal. That was the start. And then when I came back to the US I started researching online and found that people were indeed making their own chocolate.. At that point chocolate-making was, I wouldn't say it was in its infancy, but it was early on. There were forums and things you could join, and people were doing this kind of stuff all over the country. I started collecting my equipment and just trying stuff out. After about a year of that, I decided to make a chocolate CSA.

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Why did you want to make a chocolate CSA?

Well, three reasons. One was that I was making a lot of chocolate and I had no one to share it with me- that's a lot of calories to eat. I needed an excuse to make more chocolate and kind of dabble with it- it's not like a batch of brownies where you can make a little tray, and that's that. You make pounds at a time. And I also wanted to test the waters with getting into it in a commercial sense. Make some money at it without completely throwing the towel in with my regular job. And I also like the idea of collecting a community- I know that word is so overused nowadays. I liked the idea of a group of people who are into the same thing, and in it for the ride- into the mistakes, and the good and the bad, all that stuff. So those are the three reasons that I started the chocolate CSA, and that was in 2012.

What was the first step?

There was a website called Chocolate Alchemy- he's still kind of the grandfather of home chocolate making. I was researching this stuff, and there's a little bit of a price point to get into it- it's not huge, but you're going to pay 500-800 dollars, and for me that was kind of a big chunk of change to just get into a hobby. I read a lot of nights- these wonky forums, people had been getting into it, and slowly collecting equipment. I had to get a refiner- found one on eBay. And using some instructions from Chocolate Alchemy I learned how to hack it so it could have more ventilation. A better belt, improved ventilation, things like that. I got a cracker off that site, I think. And you could get little packages of beans. Normally you buy cacao by the bag- about 150 pounds or so. But the beauty of Chocolate Alchemy is you can buy a pound of this or a pound of that- it’s a smorgasbord. After I got my equipment in, I ordered a box of two pounds each of a whole bunch of different origins- it was like a shopping spree. I was roasting in my kitchen oven, and winnowing with a hair dryer, and doing all this kind of basic stuff. In retrospect it was pretty crappy chocolate. Have you ever seen that Warner Brothers cartoon with the guy who finds the singing frog?


And there's that scene when he sees it, and the dollar signs are coming up. You have this moment when you make your first successful chocolate bar- you think "wow, no one's ever done this before- surely this is a money-making opportunity!". You still see that out there in the chocolate-making world. That scene where he tucks the frog under his arm and marches off - there's a lifetime of learning in that.

The difference between your story and the singing frog cartoon is that other people actually like your chocolate. It's not like the singing frog, where the guy tries to show other people and the frog is just sitting there saying 'ribbit ribbit'.

The first moments were just... not knowing what I was doing right or wrong. The feedback was weird, but it was good; you know pretty quickly if you burn cacao or way under roast it.. I was doing it as a hobby  for about a year before I started the CSA.

At the time I belonged to a veggie CSA. It was a time when you were just beginning to see CSA's expanded to include everything- there was a fish CSA, a meat CSA, and stuff like that. I remember I was driving up to see my sister in Portland, and I was thinking about how I could get some kind of business out of this without having to be so huevos-y as to just make bars and try to sell them in stores. And the CSA thing popped into my head. That's how the CSA started. I was very meek about it, just kind of put fliers up at the ice cream shops, and the gourmet markets and coffee houses, and I probably got a few dozen people at first.

And you've always done this while also working as an architect. Can you talk about that?

I was working out of my house as an architect, because I had been laid off from my previous job a few years earlier, and I had been riding the recession out on small jobs. At first the chocolate just overlaid with that. I would be in my office, and I would go downstairs to work on a batch. Chocolate making is a lot of drawn-out processes. You spend a couple hours doing something and then it refines for a day or two, and then you come back. At that point there was also a lot of "Gee, it's 2am, I'd better finish this up"- the show must go on”, at weird hours. That's suitable for architecture because we tend to be night-ish people. But the two careers do compete a lot.

Chocolate making can be a lot more fun, so you begin to kind of resent the other career in a way. No disrespect to architecture; I spent a lot of time studying that and getting licensed, and there are fun things about it. But I often find myself thinking "I wish I didn't have to do this stupid set of drawings right now, because I really want to make this batch of chocolate."

Before I was doing this, I was at a high-end residential firm downtown, and it was fun, with projects with splashier budgets. As an architect, it's also fun doing teeny tiny projects with real people who have smaller budgets. That money has to go a long long way for them. You can't just pick out a hugely expensive tile and make a vanity kitchen, you have to make it really count. I like that aspect. But it's been a little torturous keeping up two careers, and I find that the clients I go after now are the ones who are extremely patient. I don't know how to put that on a marketing brochure, though. 'Architecture for the discerning, patient person"?

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You also have kids! You have a really busy life.

Yeah, the kids thing was part of all that. That's why I went on my own as an architect. My wife is a software person, and she worked in an office in a 50-hour a week job, and I was doing that as an architect. It just kind of made sense- it was easier for me to slide into a freelancer than her. The kids are kind of like a third career, in a way, too

Can you talk about that balance?

It's tough, because you find yourself wanting to complain about it, but there's always someone out there who has a hell of a lot more complicated situation. I have a house, and we're a two-income family. There are people out there - single parents with three kids, like my mom was, for example. I'm not going to complain that I sometimes have to leave work early, especially when some people are screwed because of, for example, a snow day. But in the end, it is a complication. It's the unexpectedness of it, where you all of a sudden have some reason that you just can't work that day. And also, now the issue is the chocolate side wants me to spend more time in the evenings, with traveling etc to promote the business, but that time from 5-9 at night is a dead zone. I can't be gone at that time. So that's a little bit of a problem. When looking at Instagram accounts from other chocolate makers I am occasionally overcome by jealousy at their ability to tromp around the chocolate-world, seemingly without financial / schedule / child care concerns. Yeah, I'd love to go canoeing up a river to find cacao, but I'd come home broke and divorced.

Anyway, what's interesting, and a little unsettling, about having concurrent architecture and chocolate careers, is the pace of the two is very different. The architecture tends to have more drawn out processes,with very long deadlines, while the chocolate has all these manic little deadline. It's hard to compare the two. If I miss an architecture deadline, someone misses their special permit application and the project is set back by a month. If I miss a chocolate deadline, someone just doesn't get their order until next week. But oddly it feels like it's the same level of failure in both cases.

Tell me more about the daily operations of your business.

I tend to collect a list of all the most important things to do for that day in the morning, while I'm eating breakfast.. Then I'll get my kids to school. There's not really a strong structure throughout my week- some makers have things really well structured - e.g. Mondays are roast days, and Wednesdays are this day, and all that. Good for them. For me it's all about putting out fires, so it all comes down to making what I need the most, what special projects are looming, etc... There isn't really a regular order to my week.. There are certain chocolate making processes that have downtime  between or during them- like when you're incorporating nibs into the refiner or waiting for bars to cool – those are points where you can collect and reflect, or slip in other tasks. It's kind of like parenting in a way- when your kids are napping, you get your stuff done, and multitasking happens that way.

What does the future hold?

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I would just like to grow this little by little. I'm obviously confined here in this little production space, and I don't have the intention to get super capitalized and conquer the world. I am in the market for an employee to take up some slack. Also, part of me just feels like the world is going to go to hell, and how ahead of myself should I get? I know there's a lot of optimism about the economy and,, but I'm trying to think about the lean times, and what would I do if suddenly sales dried up?

It's hard, because we can't strategize what we don't know.

Yeah, I guess I'm not going to put my money under my mattress and sleep on it.

Do you think of your business as a creative expression? What does it reflect about you?

Yeah. The bars are what I want to do, and I'm not trying to conquer the world from a business standpoint. I do what I want to do, and it stops there. In terms of my preferred bars: I'm not a big fan of  high inclusion bars. The trend now is to sprinkle things on the backs- like it's a bit of meadow or forest., I'm not into that, but am grudgingly jumping on that bandwagon.. I haven't done a 100% bar yet. To me there's a little bit of puffery in there, but I intend to offer one soon- some people like it. I think the CSA is the main creative outlet for me, because it's more of an expression of curiosity. Always doing new stuff, and experimenting with ideas, exploring variations.

I think experimentation is a huge part of your business. Didn't you recently do a collaboration with Aeronaut?

Yes! For Valentine's Day we did a pairing. I gave them some nibs, and they made beer with them, and then they gave them back, and I dried them out, and put them in a white chocolate with nibs bar. So, it has a little bit of beer flavor that comes in later. And I also used something that Tasting Counter made. A few weeks ago, they gave me this vat of really smelly (interesting smelly) stuff- it was fermented yuzu, garlic and chili with salt. It was a byproduct from making something else, I believe. I ended up drying it out, powdering it, and sprinkling it over the back of a bar. It's a really fun contrast. Collaboration is one of the most rewarding things.

Somerville Chocolate is located at 14 Tyler Street in Somerville, MA.