Sweet Earth Chocolates in San Luis Obispo

Organic, fair-trade chocolate — from truffles to hot cocoa — is the specialty at this shop opened by a Cal Poly food science professor and his wife

ktbudge@sbcglobal.netJanuary 27, 2010 

Chocolate is one of life’s sweetest guilty pleasures. Luckily, the owners of Sweet Earth Chocolates in San Luis Obispo are doing their best to offer guilt-free ways to meet the needs of your sweet tooth.

The idea for the company began simply enough. Tom Neuhaus, associate professor of food science and nutrition at Cal Poly, and his wife, Eve, were looking for some sort of modest business to run after Tom retired from full-time teaching.

Something like Sweet Earth seemed perfect, combining Tom’s food industry skills with the couple’s passion for chocolate. The vision and scope of their retirement plans changed significantly after a trip to a cocoa farmers’ co-op in Ghana in the summer of 2003.

Learning about the global chocolate industry means finding out about some uncomfortable truths; it’s an unfortunate fact that the majority of cocoa farmers barely scrape out a living while growing one of the world’s most coveted commodities.

As Neuhaus explained, in such situations, education is neither a priority nor an option for families, so most children end up working on the cocoa farms instead of attending school and are even often sold into slavery to work the farms.

Thankfully, Neuhaus also discovered that purchasing cocoa within a system known as fair trade helps combat these inequities.

Much like a similar structure within the coffee industry, farmers selling within fair-trade co-ops are guaranteed a better price for their cocoa, and there are often significant community benefits as well, sometimes even money for schools. Though at this point, the fair-trade model encompasses only a small part of the cocoa industry, it’s a start, and it offers consumers a choice about how they want to spend their chocolate dollars.

“Yes, it costs a little more,” said Neuhaus, “but if you treat chocolate as a privilege, as a special experience, then it’s worth it.”

When it launched in 2004, Sweet Earth Chocolates immediately forged a unique niche as a fair-trade, organic chocolate company. Originally, all the production of the handmade treats was done at the Vets Hall, before moving to an upstairs kitchen at the Splash Café in San Luis Obispo. (Tom’s sister and brother-in-law, Joanne and Ross Currie, own Splash Café and are also partners in the chocolate company.)

Everything is still made by hand at Splash Café, but last July, Sweet Earth also opened a retail shop just a few doors down from the restaurant. Celebrating all things chocolate, the store stocks everything from cocoa butter soaps to handcrafted cocoa bowls, from books about chocolate to chocolate-themed games and puzzles.

Of course, the array of chocolate treats is dazzling: bars for eating and baking, a few dozen flavors of truffles, individually wrapped bites in various shapes, chocolate-coated caramel goodies, chocolate peanut butter cups, wedding favors, vegan chocolates, and even cocoa powder for making hot chocolate.

Indeed, among the most popular items at Sweet Earth are the steaming hot chocolate drinks, especially the Aztec Mocha, which has the added kick of chipotle and cinnamon.

To complement the message of Sweet Earth Chocolates, Neuhaus also founded Project Hope and Fairness Inc., a non-profit corporation working to address the social inequities of the African cocoa industry. In addition, the Neuhauses and Curries recently announced that a portion of Sweet Earth sales will be donated to Haitian relief efforts.

“The world is a much smaller place these days,” said Neuhaus, “it’s a very connected place, and if you want to think about whether I am my brother’s keeper … we all have the potential — and responsibility — of behaving that way every day.”

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