Kristen Hard compares the craft of bean-to-bar chocolate making to clothing design. "There are so many new bean-to-bar makers out there now, but it's just like anything else," she says, sipping tea from a white porcelain cup that seems very much her taste — minimalist, gleaming. "There are a lot of great clothing designers. Some of them choose to make the clothes themselves, some make the choice to hire an amazing atelier to make the clothes, some go to China or Vietnam. The same difference exists in bean-to-bar. You can either choose top tier or go down from there. We're always choosing the top tier — the best of the best. We don't sacrifice that."
She smiles, adding, "We sacrifice our time and our sanity, but we don't sacrifice quality."
Hard and her partners at Cacao Atlanta Chocolate Company spent the majority of 2011 testing the lengths of their sanity. Besides agonizing over the actual production of their confections — a process that begins by sourcing cacao beans from South America — they opened two stores, in Buckhead and Virginia-Highland, to join their flagship storefront/factory in Inman Park; maintained relationships with retailers who carry their products in New York, Chicago, and California; and negotiated a deal to sell their chocolates through Williams-Sonoma. The result was greater accessibility to a very local product.
Which remains the theme for Hard in 2012. She acknowledges there is something almost esoteric about the chocolate cacao produces. It's darker, more complex than the sugary — and, let's be frank, crappy — milk chocolate most Americans are accustomed to. "You have to have a refined palate to get [our chocolate]," she says. "Sometimes people don't get it, but our product is so accredited that they feel stupid for not getting it. We don't want to make people feel stupid." In January, Cacao is launching a line of truffles that Hard says is "more relaxed" than flavor combinations they'd dreamt up in the past (and even though they'll incorporate heirloom Southern fruits like muscadines and scuppernongs). "We're going to try to re-create the brand so there are different tiers and people who are just starting out on the chocolate world don't feel ... I mean, it took me a while to get to where I am," Hard says.
Hard got where she is by way of a gig as a chef on a private yacht. During a visit to the Caribbean, she was first exposed to cacao growing on trees. "When that happened, there was a kind of connecting of the dots. Like, wow, the chocolate that I've been eating is made from this, and everything started to fall into place. Then, I was obsessed with the nutritional analysis of it, the benefits — pretty much everything chocolate, I became obsessed with." After attempting to get a job with a chocolatier in Europe and then declining a job with a famous chocolatier in Connecticut, she decided to start her own company.
Because of her company's expansion — with the opening of the new stores, Hard says their staff quadrupled last year — it has essentially outgrown its 3,000-square-foot production space in Inman Park. In May, Hard plans to move Cacao into a 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot factory; one she envisions will itself become an attraction. "Atlanta doesn't have a chocolate factory besides ours," she says, "and we want to give Atlanta that."