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May 24, 2020
It’s no secret that we are professional snack makers and equally professional snack eaters and chocolate definitely tops our fave snack list. During our January business trip to San Francisco, we found ourselves looking for #beantobar and #craftchocolate on Instagram while waiting to check into our SoMa hotel. We soon discovered the diversity of the craft chocolate scene in the west coast and noticed the concentration of chocolate-making companies in California.
Then we stumbled upon 9TH & LARKIN’s Instagram account and quickly fell in love with the brand’s sense of aesthetics. We immediately put this SF based bean-to-bar chocolate maker on our “to-try” list and had our first taste a couple of days later and oh boy, was it GOOD. We loved this chocolate so much that we partnered with 9TH & LARKIN on a giveaway.
Because we wanted to hear more about Lan’s chocolate story and the wonderful world of craft chocolate making, we asked her to answer all of our burning questions for May's edition of Smartbite Collective. We think you’ll really enjoy e-meeting Lan.
Are you a morning person or a night owl?Night owl. I am not myself before 9 am.
Favourite song of all time?Fallen by Presuntos Implicados
Who’s the last person that has texted you?I am not using my phone very much. Last text was from my dentist about my appointment which has been cancelled due to quarantine.
Biggest pet peeve?People standing too close to me in line at grocery store.
Last book you read?Getting to Yes
Favourite city?Hoi An, Vietnam
Favourite holiday destination?Home
Favourite word?Yeah. I use it a lot.
What’s your life motto?Strive for perfection, settle for excellence.
Pinterest or Instagram?Instagram
Coffee or tea?Tea
Last song that was stuck in your head?Justice by D.A.N.C.E
What’s your favourite emoji?😀
Favourite season?Spring with so many beautiful flowers blooming
Biggest phobia?Dropping dead and not having a chance to say goodbye to my family.
Proudest achievement?To get 9TH & LARKIN up and running. We built it out from scratch.
The one thing guaranteed to make you happy?A delicious and beautiful piece of cake. I love eating. Good food always makes me happy.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?My dad once told me that most things, no matter how complicated they may look, can be broken down to basic, simple issues. Tackle it from the basic point.
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions Lan. So, how does an analyst and an engineer start a craft chocolate company? What inspired you to start making your own bean-to-bar chocolate?
Brian and I love eating chocolates. We often scout everywhere when we travel to look for good food, good bakeries and especially good chocolates. We used to make bonbons and truffles to eat at home and one day we felt adventurous and wanted to make our own chocolates from scratch starting with raw cacao beans. Embarking on this journey was a surprise to ourselves as neither of us had a background in food. I used to work in tech and cooking was just our fun hobby. I remember that around 2013 when I was still at my day job, I worked on one project that allowed me to work quite closely with manufacturing startup companies in San Francisco Bay Area. They were full of energy and inspiration and they inspired me to want to make something myself. So after spending a lot of time thinking long and hard, I decided to leave my job and started 9TH & LARKIN.
So that's how it all started! Fascinating. Let's deep dive into the craft chocolate world. The definition of craft chocolate seems to vary differently from person to person. What is your definition of craft chocolate?
To me craft chocolate is made in small scale using very high quality ingredients. The cacao beans are transparently sourced and usually are of fine quality as craft chocolate focuses on highlighting the flavor of the beans.
How would you describe your first memory of making your own craft chocolate?
The first ever bean-to-bar chocolate we made was in our kitchen at home. I mentioned to my mom we wanted to make chocolate from scratch, so she came visit us from Vietnam with a very nice surprise: 5lbs of cacao beans from Tien Giang, Vietnam. We experimented with roasting the beans, then hand peeled the shells off the beans to get the nibs inside, and made that into chocolate in a tiny stone wheel grinder.
What inspired the company name?
I used to live on Larkin street when I was dating Brian who was living on 9th street. In San Francisco, 9th & Larkin are joint streets. They become one. We love that coincidence and decided to use the two street names as our brand name.
We absolutely love that brand name story Lan. Now, let’s talk about what’s inside that beautiful packaging. You offer dark chocolate, correct?
Yes, all of our chocolates are dark chocolate, at least 70% cacao.
Where do your cocoa beans come from? Specifically, are they supplied by a broker and then bought in bulk or do you source your beans directly from a farm, cooperative or producers’ organization?
Our beans are from Dominican Republic, Honduras, Tanzania, Fiji and Vietnam. We are so small so it is not feasible for us to travel to the farm and buy directly from the growers. We work with suppliers who work directly with farmers and cooperatives in those countries where cacao trees are grown. Our partners not only pay farmers above market price but also provide them with technical assistance to produce high quality and sustainable cacao.
I’ve read on your website how the regions of origin affect the chocolate’s taste. What regions of the world do your beans come from, and why? What flavor profiles are you looking for?
Cacao trees can only be grown between 20 degree north and 20 degree south of the equator where the climate is appropriate for growing cacao trees. Our beans are from Central America, the Carribean, Southeast Asia and Africa. The cacao we use to make chocolates are fine or flavor cacao. Besides chocolate flavor you can also taste other flavor notes like nutty, fruity, earthy, spicy, floral, just like fine wine.
Crops and flavors vary with every season – how do you keep consistent flavor? Are you always tweaking blends?
We actually don’t try to keep flavor consistency. That’s what makes craft chocolate interesting. We play with the nuances. Our chocolates are single origin, and besides cacao, we only add cane sugar and a little bit of cocoa butter, so the flavor you taste is naturally coming from the cacao beans themselves. Flavor may change from one harvest to the next, as cacao is terroir food, and the differences in the amount of sunlight or rainfall from one year to the next can result in changes in flavors. It’s actually a lot of fun, like our Tanzania bar, one harvest lemon zest flavor is very pronounced, and the next harvest, banana note is more dominant.
We love the fact that your chocolate flavours change with each cacao harvest. How do you go about developing your recipes?
Testing, testing and testing. From different roasting profile, to how long to stoneground them, we do a lot of tests to come up with the right combination that highlights the flavors of each origin.
Do you have a favourite bean to work with? If so, why?
I love Vietnamese cacao beans. I am Vietnamese so I always feel that special connection when working with beans from my home country.
If you had to choose one 9TH & LARKIN chocolate as your favourite, which one would it be?
For me, it is the Tien Giang, Vietnam 70% cacao.
Are you finding an increased customer awareness of high quality and craft chocolate in California?
Yes, I do notice more people seem to pay attention to the quality and appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into the making process. Making chocolate from scratch is very labor intensive, especially at a small scale, so I appreciate very much when people notice it.
If you could give people one piece of advice when choosing chocolate what would it be?
I would read the ingredients. The shorter the ingredient list, the more natural the product is. Craft chocolate in general is very simple. We don’t rely on artificial flavors and most of the time the sugar amount is very low, so you get more benefits from cacao. I would also check the packaging to see where the cacao beans are from, name of the origin, the region, cooperative. The more details there are, the more transparent the supply chain is. This means that when you are buying that chocolate bar, not only are you supporting a small chocolate maker, but you also help providing farmers at the origin with living wages and also support the production of high quality cacao.
Are there any chocolate makers who you find particularly inspiring?
Oh yes, many actually. Dandelion in San Francisco; they are super focused and consistent and they have done a fantastic job building out a dream chocolate factory. Soma in Toronto makes delicious chocolates and their fruit bars taste like eating the fruit in the bar form. There are many many more that would take a whole page to mention. Behind each craft chocolate bar is a real chocolate maker with passion and determination to make a GOOD chocolate.
Most importantly, where can people buy your chocolate?
At the moment, we sell our chocolate on our website and at specialty food stores and gift shops in California. We occasionally ship to Canada, Europe and Australia when upon our customers' request. I will have to work on that. If you see any places in Vancouver that you want to see us in, please let us know :)
Thank you, Lan, for taking time away from the beans to answer our questions. You can follow Lan's and Brian's fascinating journey on Instagram and learn more about 9TH & LARKIN on their website.
WHAT IS SMARTBITE COLLECTIVE? Smartbite Collective shines a spotlight on changemakers in our community that live according to Smartbite principles. We started Smartbite Snacks because we want to live our lives on our own terms while creating a positive change around us. We don't wait for things to happen, we get up and happen to things. Roadblocks don't discourage us, they fuel us. We believe that life is what you make it, how you impact it and also how you look at it – rice cakes are just rice but wine is just grapes. To us simplicity, boldness, kindness and giving a shit (yes, we said it) are everything and when we meet someone who embodies all of the above, you bet we'll ask tons of questions.
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May 27, 2020
April 17, 2020
February 28, 2020
Little story time: When we were looking for a graphic designer to join our tiny but mighty team last year, Kayla’s application was the very last one that made it into our inbox. After going through all 319 resumes and after picking a couple of hot candidates, we decided to click on Kayla’s email at last and we are so glad we did.
Who is Kayla? The short answer: a Vancouver based graphic designer who is behind the majority of Smartbite Snacks promo designs and who is about to start working on our US product packaging.
To give you the long answer, we caught up with Kayla one rainy Saturday morning at our favourite local cafe DALINA to talk about her creative process, drawing inspiration from her life, and her advice to aspiring creatives in an ever-changing digital world.
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