Plains to PeaksChocolate Co.
Interview: Julie Benoit
Photos: Mat Bobby
A few weeks ago Jeff and Sunni Sylvester were kind enough to invite us to see their in home bean-to-bar chocolate factory, aka their kitchen. They showed us the ins and outs of making craft chocolate and talked to us about what it is like running their business. Prior to this I had zero idea as to what goes into the production of chocolate. Who knew there was so much equipment needed to make a chocolate bar! It was really fascinating to see all of the careful and meticulous steps that took place along the way. We were able to see the chocolate go through some serious transformations; from a bean – to a nib – to a big solid hunk – to a thick, gooey liquid and then back to a solid again, in the form of a chocolate bar. Somehow through the process of making more than one hundred bars that day it still felt really intimate and the final product felt very hand-crafted. After each bar was popped out of its handmade mold Jeff and Sunni then hand wrapped each individual bar in its super precise packaging. It was so satisfying to see packaging line up and wrap perfectly around each bar.
It was really sweet watching Jeff and Sunni work together and interact with one another. I admire how they manage their business relationship, and was in awe of how it perfectly fits into their marriage and also into their everyday lives. They treat Plains to Peaks as an extension of themselves and it is really hard for me to not to liken it to how people care for and love their children and pets. While we were watching them work they had a plate of assorted chocolate for us to sample and it was hard for me to keep my hands away from that plate. I am not sure which was my favorite, but I couldn’t stop going back for more ( and more and more ) of the sea salt and also the curry chocolate bar. Stop by the Longmont farmers market next weekend, meet Jeff and Sunni and grab a few Plains to Peaks bars to taste for yourself.
JB: Where you guys are from? How did you meet one another? How did you guys end up in Longmont?
J: We grew up going to school three miles apart, but never met until a decade later after we both moved to the front range. We are originally from Western Nebraska. I’m from a small town called Lyman and Sunni grew up in a little town called Mitchell about 10 miles down the road. I had heard of Sunni through friends and seeing her name in the newspaper but somehow we never met in person in high school. We even attended the same college for about three years with several mutual friends… still never met.
S: People we grew up with have a hard time believing that we never crossed paths, but it’s true. After college I moved to Boise, ID where I lived for about 6 years and then I was in Missoula, MT for a couple of years. In 2012 I decided to move to Denver to get closer to family. I was there for about 3 weeks when I got a Facebook message from a handsome guy named Jeff I recalled from Nebraska. We eventually met up for a beer and we’ve been together ever since.
JB: What do you guys do for your other jobs?
S: I’ve been a Registered Nurse for about 11 years and currently I’m a surgical nurse at Boulder Surgery Center.
J: I work for St. Vrain Valley Schools in the Communications Department doing graphic design and communications.
JB: How long has Plains to Peaks been around? How did you guys decide to start making chocolate? Whose idea was it? How did it all unfold?
J: We always played the game where you ask what would you do if time or money or education wasn’t a factor. Sunni always said that she would make chocolate. I said that I would become a bootmaker. I haven’t made any boots yet…
S: I’ve always loved chocolate. It’s my favorite sweet. As I began enjoying higher quality chocolate I would pick up a bar, flip it over and see a list of stuff I couldn’t feel good about eating. Even a lot of the really expensive, “top shelf” chocolate has added emulsifiers and additives. So I thought I should try to make it myself. Jeff had a subscription to Skillshare and happened to see a video made by Raaka Chocolate on how to make bean-to-bar chocolate at home. We watched the video and thought it really didn’t look all that difficult. So we hopped on Amazon and bought the basic equipment necessary to make our first batch: a small rice grinder, a scale and a 5lb bag of cacao nibs. As soon as the order arrived on our doorstep we got to work. We would come up against all sorts of little problems, and research solutions online using a few websites and forums for craft chocolate makers. We made tons of mistakes, learned from them, and every batch we made got better. We slowly acquired equipment necessary to make bigger and more efficient batches. We received a lot of positive feedback from our friends and family and decided that we should try to sell it. The Longmont Farmers Market seemed like a great opportunity to get our product out there and we feel incredibly fortunate that we were accepted to be a vendor there this year.
JB: I loved seeing your entire process. And I admire that you guys are both so involved in every single part of the process. I mean really both of your hands are in every aspect of it. It is such meticulous and an intimate process. Can you guys talk a bit about this?
S: There is a ton of hands on time for our process and it may look quite tedious to an outsider but this level of attention makes a person truly connect to the product. We begin by hand sorting the beans to ensure that only the good ones get through. Then we keep a steady watch while our beans roast to the perfect temperatures bringing out our favorite attributes to each bean origin. We then crack the beans and pass the mixture of husk and nibs through our winnower 2 to 3 times to get a nice clean bowl of nibs. Then we pre-grind the nibs to get a smooth cacao paste which we add incrementally to our melangers. The melangers have big granite stone wheels that refine the cacao into a thick liquid over the course of about 36 to 48 hours. During this time we add a pre-determined amount of coconut sugar that corresponds with the final cacao percentage. Once the chocolate is refined to our liking, we pour it into storage containers where it rests until we are ready to temper and mold it. Tempering involves heating and cooling the chocolate to specific temperatures that coax crystals in the cacao butter to form in a precise manner creating perfect snap at room temperature. After a year of hand tempering our chocolate, we finally invested in a tempering machine, which has been a tremendous advancement in our process. Once the chocolate is in temper, we pour it into our custom molds (made by us, with our vacuum former that we built) and chill until the chocolate is set. The final step of our process is hand wrapping the bars in confectioner’s foil and then in our custom packaging. While some steps of our process are similar to what other bean to bar makers do, much of it is truly unique to us. We constantly adapt our process and equipment to make it work for us.
JB: A little more about the hand in it all stuff… the mold maker that you made? Jeff tell us about that awesome looking machine!!! I was peeking around your social media accounts and it looks like the mold maker is relatively new. It seems like you guys decided this year is the year to really have things take off. Tell us a bit about that!
J: We used simple molds that we purchased online for a while and they worked great. When we got the idea that we might try to sell some of our chocolate I decided that the plain bar design would not have much of an impact on our customers when they opened up the package. We wanted a better experience. So I did some research and custom molds were way out of our price range at that time. I figured if I could model the bar and print them out on a 3d printer I could use a vacuum form machine to create my own custom molds. Most of these ideas were just things that I had seen online. I had no experience with 3d printing or vacuum forming. So I bought a 3d printer and some plans for a vacuum form machine, and over the course of a few months I was able to learn enough to create some viable custom chocolate molds. When we found out we had been accepted to be a vendor at the Longmont Farmer’s Market I had to kick it into high gear to complete all the research/tinkering/fabrication that I started. In the end it was only marginally cheaper than purchasing custom molds, but now I can make 100 custom molds just as easily as I can create one. Plus we have more knowledge and the satisfaction of being that much closer to the end product.
JB: You guys seem to have a really strong relationship and work so incredibly well together. It was really pretty amazing to watch you guys working with one another. Has the business changed your relationship in anyway? Have you guys discovered new things about one another?
S: We do make a great team. We balance each other very well with our interests, our personalities and the skills we each bring to the business. Of course we bicker about things most days but we always just figure it out and to keep moving forward together. Communication is huge. We have daily conversations about what we’re doing, how we feel about it, what we could do differently, and compromising to make decisions. I’d actually say that starting a small business has made our relationship stronger. We are also rooted on the principle that our marriage and our health comes first. If the chocolate making business is troubling either of those things, we walk away.
JB: What is it like to work together?
S: Really, I love working with Jeff. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else. I’m also so proud of the work he does for Plains to Peaks. He designed our logo, packaging, and website, built our vacuum former, our roaster and about a million other things. Thankfully he loves spreadsheets, dotes over our books and takes on a lot of the stuff I don’t want to do. We balance each other in the way we handle stress, too. Our joke is that Jeff is generally at a 9 and I need him at a 2, I am generally at a 1 and Jeff needs me at a 3.
J: It is the same for me. Sunni is the perfect compliment to the design and fabrication work that I do. She develops the flavors of the bars and is constantly looking for new and innovative things to try. In the end we can make the finest packaging in the world, but if the chocolate doesn’t taste good we are sunk. All credit on that front goes to Sunni.
JB: I loved when Jeff was telling us about how you guys sit down at night and unwind over a part of the business (( packaging, making, planning, etc )) and I thought that was one of the most amazing things ever. I loved seeing you guys work together…you all are such a strong force! What if one one of you just isnt feeling it one night? Are there ever times where it is not a fun part of the day? What do you do if/when that happens?
S: We are very respectful of each other’s time and energy level. If I have a long day of work and don’t want to do anything with the chocolate when I get home, Jeff is cool with that. We are also on the same page that when we need to get something done, even if we have to stay up half the night wrapping bars, we do it. We check in all the time to make sure the other person is still on board. Neither of us could do this alone. There are some super stressful days, too. Things are always coming up that set us back and it’s easy to start getting anxious and upset. Then I just think, we are doing something really awesome! We make killer craft chocolate! We make our own molds for Pete’s sake! When we remind ourselves of how far we’ve come, our setbacks seem pretty insignificant.
JB: You guys both work full time during the week, the market on Saturdays and production on Sunday. How do you do it? How do you guys manage your time with work, lives, social things and chocolate making? Is it ever hard to find a balance with it all? Are there ever times where it is un-fun? What happens when you go on vacation!!!!
S: I compare it to running or cycling. There are days that I do not feel like running or getting on the bike. But once I get going, I’m totally happy and I’m glad I did it when it’s over. It’s the exact same feeling with chocolate making. I doesn’t always sound fun but then I throw on a favorite podcast or Spotify playlist and get in the chocolate making zone! That’s my happy place for sure. There is such immense satisfaction in creating something we love, the way we want to and then sharing it with others who enjoy it as much as we do. Each week at the market we see repeat customers, retailers inquiring about selling it in their stores, and people who just want to visit with us about chocolate. We’ve already met so many awesome people in our community who inspire us to keep at it. As far as vacation, we have a few trips scheduled for the summer doing some camping, hiking and biking. The chocolate production will shut down while we’re gone but I’m sure we’ll cover lots of miles talking Plains to Peaks.
JB: Can you tell us a bit about the branding and the packaging? The process? Was it hard for you Jeff to design everything for your own company? How was it being both the designer and the client?
J: It is more difficult to complete a design when it is my own company. I follow the same process as any design project… develop concepts, refine the design, gather feedback and repeat as many times as necessary. The problem is finding that ending point. I want it to be perfect so I find myself in an endless loop of iterations. It seems I have had to constantly revisit our mission and vision to ensure that our design fits in with what we are trying to accomplish. Great chocolate with few and simple ingredients. I think we have struck a balance with our branding that tells our story while also showcasing exactly what is (and what isn’t) in our bars. Sunni provides great feedback too and we are completely honest with each other when one of us does not think a design idea will work. So we talk about it and redesign and work till we get it right. It has been one of my favorite projects and I can trace the evolution of our brand and packaging all the way back to when we were wrapping our bars in tin foil and securing home printed labels with scotch tape.
JB: Where do your beans come from? What kind of relationship do you have with distributer? How important is all of this to you guys?
S: We purchase our beans from a couple of distributors, both based in Oregon. We really appreciate their practice of direct trade and their efforts in supporting the farmers that put so much hard work into the cacao production. Much of the craft chocolate industry is really working on improving environmental and social responsibility throughout the cacao supply process. As a consumer, it’s easy to walk into a grocery store, buy a bar of chocolate and never even think about where it actually originates and what it actually takes to get a chocolate bar into your hands. It all starts with the cacao farmers and supporting them is our responsibility as craft chocolate makers. There is so much more to this topic and I encourage any chocolate enthusiast to learn more about ethical and sustainable cacao production and how your favorite chocolate companies are (or are not) involved.
JB: How do you guys identify a good craft chocolate? What do you look for?
S: I look for bars made with just cacao and sugar, minimal additions and thoughtful inclusions. From there, it is all very subjective. Each bean origin has different flavor profiles. For example, beans from Madagascar tend to have quite fruity notes that I like, but someone else may not. Additionally, every chocolate maker will put their own twist on how the same beans are roasted, conched or tempered which all affect the final flavor. And while a beautifully wrapped chocolate bar is always a fun gift, It’s nearly impossible to tell what chocolate will taste like from the packaging. You just have to try different bars and different brands and see what tastes good to you. I highly recommend having tasting parties with your friends and if you’re really into it buy a chocolate tasting guide to help you decipher the flavors you experience. Keep it fun and don’t worry about what you are “supposed” to taste. Just try it and if you think it tastes good, then it’s good!
JB: Do you think you guys will always work out of the house? Do you ever see things any other way?
S: In order for us to sell in any stores, we have to move it out of our home. While it is nice right now to be able to keep our day jobs and share our chocolate with people at the Saturday market, we are definitely looking at options to expand. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from our customers and local retailers already so that is encouraging for us to continue building the plan to do so. Longmont (and Boulder County) is so supportive of small businesses with tons of resources, organizations and networks that we’ve already tapped into to help guide the growth and development of Plains to Peaks. Colony is a great example of this because it connects makers in Longmont so we can share our passions and encourage each other along the way. That sense of community is invaluable for us.
JB: What is the craft chocolate community like? Is there even such thing as this?
S: The craft chocolate community is definitely a thing both on a state level and national level. Craft chocolate can probably be compared to the craft beer industry when it began catching on. There are several chocolate makers across Colorado making amazing chocolate. I hope that people begin to make the connection as they travel the state and the country and look for the local craft chocolate, just as you would look for the local brewery. We are slowly getting to know some other chocolate makers both locally and nationally and hope to continue building relationships within the craft chocolate community as we grow.
JB: I am sure you have learned a ton doing this, but what would you say is the most valuable thing you have learned from Plains to Peaks?
S: Making bean to bar chocolate requires a tremendous amount of patience. We can never be in a hurry to finish any step of the process because one mistake or one overlooked detail can derail hours of work we’ve already put in. Sometimes our equipment malfunctions. Sometimes our chocolate is difficult to work with. We have had innumerable failures and it sucks because at the time it just feels like wasted time and money. But these setbacks have always resulted in improvements to our process and our product. Also, learning how to start and operate a small business has been incredibly challenging but immensely rewarding. I really have shifted the way I think about the places I shop, the things I buy and I can hardly walk past a pop up vendor at the grocery store without buying their product because now I totally get it!
JB: What is next for you guys?
S: Plains to Peaks is still young and we’re constantly talking about what’s next. Next week, next month, next year and beyond. We’re working on bringing in new beans and new bar inclusions. We’re always looking at how, when and where we continue to grow our business. We’re working on building relationships with other local businesses to use their products in our bars, do collaborations and tastings, and really just integrate ourselves into our community as much as we can.
JB: What is your vision for Longmont?
S: We love Longmont. It’s not just “a town close to Boulder.” It’s a wonderful, vibrant community and we have a lot of pride in being a small business here, making our product here and focusing the majority our sales here. We hope our presence at the Farmer’s Market is just the beginning. Our vision is much bigger than just making craft chocolate. It’s that we are connecting Plains to Peaks to our community while supporting other local businesses and encouraging other creative people with new and innovative ideas.