A popular comfort food during intense studying for final exams is one that Cal Poly students can make themselves — chocolate.
Each Friday, students gather at a food-processing center on campus wearing culinary hats, bustling about to create the next fresh batch of sweets.
Rich, smooth chocolate is cycled through a device called a “tempering machine” that’s used to heat and cool the candies in making.
But the operation isn’t just for practice. The students market their product and expect to bring in $50,000 to $60,000 from sales this year.
Cal Poly Chocolates, a program that’s now 12 years old, is unusual and in some ways unique. Few colleges nationwide offer instruction about the chocolate-making process. None offers the full-scale, hands-on operation that Cal Poly does, according to food science professor Tom Neuhaus.
He launched the program in 2000, working with one student at the time. Today, 10 students take his chocolate production course and help run the university’s small business. Four other students are paid employees.
Cal Poly Chocolates managers Anna Nakayama and Simon Zhao arrive as early as 8 a.m. each Friday to set up for a monster day of production.
Then, from noon to 6 p.m., the rest of the group joins them to make their product: eight kinds of candies, including bittersweet chocolate bars and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.
The students must learn how to properly monitor the formations of beta crystals from the cocoa butter by temperature, sight and touch. The crystals are part of the molecular structure of the hardened chocolate. When properly formed, they give the finished product the proper texture and gloss, and it snaps when broken.
The group hand-wraps about 300 items on average each production day.
The chocolates are sold on campus and at the Cal Poly Downtown-Gift Shop, as well as Spencer’s Fresh Market in San Luis Obispo.
Sales have grown from about $10,000 annually in the early years, and they’ve doubled over the past couple of years.
Neuhaus credits the leadership of the student managers with making improvements to the program, particularly its marketing aspects.
They coordinated new packaging with Cal Poly’s graphic communications program. The chocolates now include colorful green, purple and red covers.
“I’ve learned about so many aspects of the business — accounting, sales, customer service, efficiency, sanitation,” said Nakayama, a senior nutrition major. “It has been a great experience.”
Zhao has been working to create an inventory system that documents the ingredients used in the process. “I want Cal Poly students in the future to take this farther than I ever dreamed of,” Neuhaus said. “The things these students are doing are tremendous.”
Cal Poly uses only fair trade-certified, organic products. Those include beans that are processed into chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder wafers after importation from Peru, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador.
During the past year, Neuhaus, who also co-owns Sweet Earth Organic Chocolates in San Luis Obispo, has visited West Africa — a prime cocoa growing region — numerous times. Some of his students have joined those ventures over the years.
The experience has enhanced their understanding of the conditions under which cocoa is produced overseas, where child labor is widespread.
“My hope is that chocolate moves toward the bean-to-bar model that encourages smaller businesses,” Neuhaus said. “More small businesses should be buying chocolate directly from villagers under fair conditions. I hope to see Cal Poly students living in villages and foreign villagers living here.”
As the Cal Poly students learn their craft, fun activities include giving kids a tour after they’ve watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and passing out some free samples in nutrition classes from time to time.
“I remember taking samples to my metabolism class,” said Zhao, a junior nutrition major, with a grin. “Everybody rushed to the table when I put them out. Everybody wanted some.”