Metropolitan Pavilion | October 11 - 13, 2019

The virgin chocolate company disrupting the norm

The NYCF Team
27 July 2018


 



It all started couch-surfing in Brooklyn. Nathan Hodge was unemployed, beer-making, pickling and roasting coffee whilst crashing at a friend's place. The now co-founder of pioneering chocolate brand Raaka was, in his own words, the 2009 cliché.  

Whilst Hodge still calls Brooklyn home, much has changed. Raaka, which he founded with Ryan Cheney, has taken off and together they are spearheading the world of craft chocolate in New York City, creating standards and challenging perceptions.

Hodge met Cheney through a Craigslist ad that year. “I thought I was joining a fully-fledged company,” he says. “Instead, it was one guy making chocolate out of tiny machines. We were in similar situations; we had both graduated during the recession.” You remember it. Business was bad, risks were riskier and becoming a doctor or teacher was the safe route.

Instead of waiting for a stable climate, the duo took a risk and Raaka was born in 2010. One year later, the business had grown enough to move into a 1000sq foot industrial lot in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Nestled in the creative heart of New York, Raaka set out to become a business that benefited everyone involved. With their finger on the pulse of the creative scene and a serious transparency policy, they’ve done just that.
 


 


SPEARHEADING A NEW ERA OF FLAVOR

Most chocolate is roasted, but Raaka specialises in raw, virgin chocolate. “Our chocolate tastes bright,” says Hodge, “whereas roasted chocolate is more nutty. We want to showcase the acidity that natural cacao can have, and capture a different taste in the chocolate experience. One that’s based on the natural flavors of the bean.

Raaka is pedalling a new era of craft chocolate in New York City. Citing flavor profiles ranging from raisins, to fresh mushroom, pine needle and grapefruit peel, it’s clear there is a lot to discover. “We take our inspiration from the bean at origin, enhancing the bar with other complimentary flavors. Our bourbon bar is made with cacao beans that have notes of cherry. Then we pushed it even further and made a bar inspired by the Manhattan cocktail.”
 

TAKING SUSTAINABILITY SERIOUSLY

In 2018 the question of sustainability is on everyone’s lips, so what is Raaka’s stance?

“Stable marketplaces are lacking in many certifications in the commodities industry,” says Hodge. “We want to build long term relationships with our suppliers so that we can provide consistent pricing, allowing our suppliers to have the funds to grow with us.”

It’s all about transparency; tear off the Raaka packaging come September and you’ll see their transparent trade message on the inside, listing all of their pricings and commitments to farmers.

“It’s about us always doing things in a way that we are proud of. We want to challenge consumers to dig a little deeper and pay more for quality. There are a lot of middle men in the traditional supply chain that make transparency difficult. Our aim is to cut as many of those out as possible so that we know what’s happening at farm level.”

LEARNING FROM CRAFT COFFEE

The synergy between craft coffee and chocolate can only be rivalled by tea, and that’s not just because of the similar tasting profiles. Only in this world can you bump into peers from the New York coffee scene during a trip to Peru, as Hodge did last month.

Craft chocolate, according to him, is 10 to 15 years behind coffee. “Specialty coffee is a global phenomenon, and we’re experiencing the same kinds of challenges they had a decade ago.  Coffee roasters have some really helpful learnings for us, especially in educating people to pay more for quality.”

It’s from coffee that Raaka takes inspiration for developing farming processes and solving the largely uncontrolled fermentation process. “We want to set the standard for cacao fermentation that can move the industry forward and get farms more money for a much higher-quality yield.”
 

FUELLING THE CREATIVE COMMUNITIES

Back to Brooklyn, where the Raaka have moved onto a second, bigger factory in Red Hook. The company is surrounded by countless small, creative businesses and collaboration is the mot du jour.

“Brooklyn breeds communities based around collaboration and camaraderie," says Hodge. "Every month we do two unique chocolate bars; we’ve worked with local companies like One Girl Cookies and and Heatonist Hot Sauce.”

In-house, it’s the same. Hodge and Cheney expect the whole team to share ideas on everything from sales to production and growth, taking total ownership of the company and not just of the task they are assigned.

Then, there are Raaka's partners, which range from airlines to cafés. You’ll find Raaka’s new 8g mini bars of myriad flavors in coffee shops all over New York City. “Coffee and chocolate go really well together, so our mini bars are doing well in coffee shops," he says, when asked about his latest venture. "A little chocolate bar with a coffee? It's is a no brainer.” 
 
Nathan Hodge’s new book, The Art of Chocolate, is released on August 7, and Raaka will be at The New York Coffee Festival from October 12-14 2018.
 

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