Culinary Creatives / JoAnne and Dan Sundell
Names: JoAnne and Dan Sundell
Years in business: 3
Previous experience: Adjunct art history professor and landscape architect, respectively
Buffalo’s longtime love affair with chocolate is on record. The public library’s treasure trove of old newspapers reveals a disproportionate number of sweet shops in the city proper during the nineteenth century, perhaps a natural result of all the provisions brought to Buffalo via the Erie Canal. WNY chocolate stronghold Fowler’s opened in 1910, followed by Parkside Candy in 1927. In between, August E. Merckens, the dean of the chocolate industry, installed a Merckens factory at 7th and Jersey on Buffalo’s West Side, thereby sealing our chocolate covered-fate.
Move forward a century to a strip mall in Lancaster, where a landscape architect and an art history teacher are operating the uncommonly delicious Dark Forest Chocolate Makers, single-handedly reinventing Buffalo’s historic relationship with chocolate.
Those unlikely chocolatiers are Dan and JoAnne Sundell, who, in 2015, brought bean-to-bar chocolate making to Western New York. Stop by the shop or purchase a bar from a local retailer, and you’ll see why I am throwing around words like “reinvent.” In June, their work was recognized by two international chocolate organizations. First, the International Chocolate Awards anointed them with four silver awards for three of their single-origin chocolate bars. Later in the month, the Academy of Chocolate in London confirmed Dark Forest as makers of some of the best milk chocolate in the world with a silver award for their fifty percent Dark Milk and bronze for their fifty-five percent Goat Milk chocolate (my personal fave).
How did you get into the chocolate business?
Dan Sundell: After trying a bar from Mast Brothers, I became increasingly interested in the complex and varied flavors of chocolate from small batch makers. I bought some equipment for making chocolate at home and spent about a year trying various types of beans and fooling around with different roasts and recipes.
JoAnne Sundell: We were intrigued by how different the bars were from each other because of the type of cacao beans used. It was hard for me to get my head around that since I grew up eating orange chocolate from the Broadway Market.
How does one go from being interested in the chocolate business to determining that the effort and expense behind bean-to-bar is the best option for you?
JS: Frankly, everything just came into focus at once. The test batches were delicious, Dan needed a change from over thirty years in consulting, craft chocolate makers in the Pacific Northwest and NYC were growing in number, the food scene in Buffalo was starting to go, and the thought of an endless supply of chocolate really, really appealed to me.
Dark Forest sells retail and wholesale. What advice do you have for someone thinking about entering a similar business model?
DS: Think big and invest in equipment that will help you minimize labor on menial tasks. You have to find your place in the continuum between being an artisan and a food manufacturer.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you?
DS: We must continually explain what is different about small batch chocolate versus industrial chocolate to consumers. People simply don’t know that most every chocolatier does not make chocolate. A lot of it is semantics, for example, most make “chocolates” (e.g., truffles, bonbons) but do not “make chocolate.”
JS: Not gaining 300 pounds?
What don’t people know about chocolate?
DS: Cacao (cocoa beans) varieties vary in flavor like any agricultural product such as apples or grapes. However, most chocolate is sold as a commodity with little regard to flavor or the rampant slavery and child labor issues [in the countries where cacao is grown]. We buy beans from importers that purchase from local farmers and cooperatives. We need to know where it comes from, that the farmers earn a decent living, and that the quality is top notch. That makes our chocolate a bit more expensive than the run of the mill, but people still buy it because it simply tastes better.
JS: The difference between chocolate making and chocolatiering. Chocolatiering is artistry with chocolate. Chocolate making is artistry with ingredients.
For more information about Buffalo’s history of chocolate making, check this story and timeline.
Christa Glennie Seychew is a freelance writer who, upon first bite, added Dark Forest’s goat milk chocolate to her death row dinner menu.