George and Julio were sitting next to each other on a large, rustic wooden table near the main entrance of the Sibú Chocolate restaurant. Hidden in San Isidro de Heredia, the factory and restaurant feel isolated from civilization, though it’s barely thirty minutes from downtown San José. In this picturesque hacienda, every single piece of furniture and plant seems to have a character of its own.
The two men sitting at the table were responsible for creating what is now the home of Sibú Chocolate, which offers a wide range of chocolate products as well as its own Costa Rica chocolate tour. It is important to emphasize the word home, because homes exude personality. And personality is what the place has - tiny reflections of the vision, character and effort that both George and Julio have printed on their business.
George, a bright-eyed Floridian, spoke first and began detailing candidly on how their business began. “When we started, it was really important for us to put Costa Rica on the map for chocolates, right? In 2004, we really saw a resurgence of interest in first handmade products, artisanal products, fresh products. I mean, it was happening. Chocolate was one of those categories.
Having a chat with George and Julio, the owners of Sibú Chocolate.
European Techniques With a Tropical Twist
Everybody was exporting cacao beans that would become fine Belgian chocolates, but there was no reference to their origin. That's why we set out to make the finished product. We really set ourselves out to make a Costa Rican version of fine chocolate.”
At this point, Julio interrupts George in a soft, calm voice. They had indicated at the beginning of the interview that they tend to interrupt each other frequently, as if one continues the ideas of the other. As a joke, they said that sometimes they think as a two-headed mind.
Julio went on with his idea: “We produce everything that you need for making chocolate but we don’t make it. We export the beans. It's as absurd as if we were importing coffee. It didn’t make sense to import chocolate already made from it from other places that are not even cocoa producers. We said, ‘Well, if we have everything, why not provide the finished product?’.”
“What we were doing”, Julio continued, “was also contributing to a cultural change in Costa Rica. When we started, everyone just said, ‘Oh, why are you going to try to make fine chocolates? You'll never do it as well as the Belgians or the Swiss!’ And there was strong resistance to the idea that it was possible to do it. Our chocolates, if you eat them side by side with award winning chocolates in those European countries, are right next to them. The surprising combinations of flavors really helps us make Costa Rican chocolate something special. You know, using those local ingredients.”
To make the best chocolate bars, every single part of the process is important.
The Best Chocolate Bars Are Sustainable Ones
This is where the process forms part of the result. In George and Julio’s vision, part of having high-quality chocolate is ensuring the ingredients are gathered ethically and according to sustainable standards. It’s not exclusively a matter of how it is made, but also in what conditions, who makes it and who benefits from it.
“Everything follows through a filter”, says George. “That's an internal filter that we call our sustainability filter. We actually have the luxury of knowing the people we're doing business with. We ask them, ‘How did you produce this? What do you think? What are your attitudes about personnel? What are your attitudes about, you know, your impact on the environment?’ Those are the things that are important to us. And those are the questions that we asked of our suppliers.”
Sibú has won numerous awards for their high-quality chocolates.
However, for Sibú Chocolate, sustainability goes beyond having a certification. Having an organic certificate is an expensive process that not every producer can achieve. This does not prevent the producer itself from having sustainable processes in its business. Sustainability encompasses a wide range of aspects that not only include the environment. Although it is an important aspect, a sustainable business must also consider salaries, proper treatment of their employees and relationship with the community.
Julio says that establishing a relationship with a supplier is not only a matter of quality of the product, but also of how they relate with the people they work with. “We'd like to look for suppliers who are good people. We go to them and we talk to them because we need to trust them. We want to have long term relations with the producers of cocoa. So, we're very careful on who we buy from.”
Good Chocolate is a Philosophy
And how does the idea of placing additional care on the process, from the selection of the raw materials to the packaging, influence the consumers? According to George, millenials have a much higher standard of what they want. In this sense, having a different philosophy on how a business should be done does not only help cater to more demanding markets, but also helps the business adapt to whatever challenges it may face.
“Maybe it's just a question of getting used to doing things in a certain way. For example, we create our own organic compost. Everything produced in the restaurant is fed to the compost pile. All it requires is a little bit of organization. We also capture rainwater to use in all of the bathrooms. This way, we're trying to show also that we don't want to waste our natural resources.”
Nuts, fruits and other ingredients are also locally sourced.
At this moment, George left for a moment to attend to some guests, while Julio remained talking. In a nonchalant manner, he went on to explain how the packaging they use also fits perfectly with their philosophy. When George returned, a few minutes later, he asked if he had mentioned the packaging. What they mentioned earlier as a lighthearted joke seemed true.
Towards the end of the conversation, a single question remained. Where did this philosophy come from? What is something that they developed through the years?
“He's a journalist. I'm an historian”, said Julio.
“We are from a social sciences background, from the environmental sciences. The whole thing has always been in our DNA. And we wanted it to be a part of our DNA of the business. But also it came from great mentors. Before Sibú, we both worked for companies that were concerned about their impact on the environment and wanted to do things that you know, generated wealth in rural areas and had minimal impact on natural resources. These were ideas that, you know, we connected with. They served as a model for us and that's why we hope that we can give back in that same way.”
George and Julio relaxed for a second. It was starting to get cold, and San Isidro is particularly famous for its cold weather. However, the warmth the place exuded seemed to be enough to ignore the need for a sweater.
Their philosophy was something that could be felt.
You can find the best chocolate bars and some of the finest Costa Rica chocolate, like Sibú Chocolate, at Local Keeps. Navigate our categories or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions!