Editor note: This is the first ChangeU blog post, since the initial challenge was issued, that has been written exclusively for ChangeU. Thanks to Champion of ChangeU Paul Johnson for taking on the challenge!
Chocolate as an Agent for Change
by Paul Johnson
When I was 15 years old, my parents announced that they were going to adopt four kids from Costa Rica. They later got on a plane and flew to Costa Rica to complete the adoption. While they were in Costa Rica they waited in line after line and filled out hundreds of documents. The whole time they were also taking care of the four adoptees. When my parents returned, our family was suddenly much bigger. My new brothers and a sister all spoke only Spanish and since I was the only one with any Spanish language, I became the family interpreter.
Those first couple of years were quite the adjustment. But looking back, I can see it started a destiny that has taken about 30 some years to come to fruition. Because of my family background, I was aware that there is a country called Costa Rica. I learned that there are kids who have a tougher childhood than I could have imagined. I learned to cross cultures and some language barriers. I learned about prejudice and racism. I got a taste for different foods and an appreciation for travel and adventure.
During my college years, I met my wife Jeanne and began a career as a network engineer. We were able to purchase a house and have the American Dream. We loved camping and backpacking. We traveled whenever we could. Our dream trip happened in December of 1999. We packed up all our camping gear and headed for Costa Rica for a three week vacation.
I had heard many stories of my parents’ experience, but now I was going to have my own perspective. Costa Rica is an amazing place to visit. There are hundreds of world class beaches. There are world class rainforests and wild rivers to kayak or raft. And since the fears of Y2K were reaching their peak at that time, we figured a beach in Costa Rica might be the best place to ride out the end of the world.
After those three weeks and while our plane was taking off for our return to “reality”, I told Jeanne “I think I could live in Costa Rica” and she said she thinks “she could too”!
After four more years of trying for a baby, we decided to leave that in God’s hands and trust His plan for our lives. We joined a mission program, sold our house and quit our jobs and moved to Costa Rica’s Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo. We had decided to make our lives be about others and not about our child bearing.
The mission team cast a vision for a youth program that would revolve around a skate park. After many short term volunteer groups and construction projects, the skate park was built. Our time with the mission was coming to a close and we started to look ahead for the next phase of our lives.
We had also been the recipients of a great blessing. Our son Azan was born April 5, 2005! We gave him that name because it is ancient Hebrew for “look up or listen”. Azan was proof that God had listened to our prayers! Since he was born here in Costa Rica, we were able to become permanent residents and no longer had to leave the country every three months.
Since we were no longer on the mission team and didn’t have any jobs, we began to think about how to survive economically in Puerto Viejo. I had inquired about working for the local internet cafe. But when I found out they only paid two dollars an hour, I figured we should start our own business.
We began to do some business planning but really had no experience running or starting a business. We eventually decided to meet a need we were feeling while we worked for the mission. There was no coffee shop in Puerto Viejo so we decided a coffee shop would be a good business to run.
Having never managed or owned a coffee shop we looked for some resources at the bookstore. One of those books happened to be “Coffee Shops for Dummies”. With our coffee shop bible in hand, we stared Caribeans Coffee. The book recommends investing first in a small scale coffee roaster. With the roaster you can produce your own brand of coffee and the aroma of fresh roasted coffee is better than any sign or advertisement. We decided to source green coffee from a cooperative that produced organic and fair trade coffee. So the farmers were getting a good sale price and we were getting a better purchase price due to reduced transportation costs and an earlier position in the value chain. Immediately we began to experience success. And more clients desired our coffee every day. And those clients started to hang out in a restaurant which was allowing us to roast in their storeroom. Eventually we were able to get our own place and we began to make fancier coffee shop drinks.
One of those drinks is called a mocaccino (one of my favorites since I discovered coffee in college). The drink starts with a very good espresso shot, steamed milk and some type of chocolate or cocoa. We had the best coffee, fairly sourced, organic and fresh roasted, so squirting Hershey’s syrup in there was not an option. We needed equally good chocolate, fairly sourced, organic and freshly roasted.
I had discovered the area around Puerto Viejo had a history of cacao production. But in the 80’s cacao was largely abandoned due to a fungal blight called monilia. Cacao is the main ingredient in chocolate (well not in the chocolate I grew up with…the main ingredients there were sugar and fat). Maybe we could make our own chocolate from the locally produced cacao.
A Google search revealed several important things to me. One is that chocolate is made from roasted cacao beans and sugar. If I could roast the beans in my coffee roaster, I would be halfway there! Another important thing was that there was and still is a movement in the United States of artisan or “bean to bar” chocolate. If they could do it, so could I!
We began to purchase small amounts of cacao from the local indigenous people (Bri Bri) and started making various products with their cacao. Eventually we were successfully making an 80% dark chocolate bar with the same name, Caribeans.
Now after eight years we have become the area’s first “farm to bar” chocolate maker and we sell chocolate faster than we can make it. We have been able to create a whole new market for locally grown cacao and are seeing what I call the “Napa Valley Effect” in our little Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo.
My wife and I along with two local cacao experts and four chocolate makers and many cacao farmers are transforming the region. Our mission is to model a new way of making chocolate and farming cacao that generates a better chocolate and a more sustainable economic living for cacao farmers in our region and around the world.
In future ChangeU blog posts, I will write about chocolate history, geopolitical issues facing cacao producers, sustainability (both ecological and economic), creating change at every level of the chocolate bar, cultural revelations, and about being a “gringo” living in Costa Rica. I hope to inspire you to create change in your sphere of influence and to find and keep what we call “pura vida” in Costa Rica.
Paul Johnson and his wife, Jeanne, are the founders and co-owners of Caribeans, the coolest and best coffee and chocolate shop on at least the Caribbean coast (probably the world) and certainly in the heart of Change University. They have not only restarted the cacao industry in a region where many thought it had been lost forever, they are also changing the lives of indigineous farmers and their families. And that has changed the entire region for the better. Paul and Jeanne (and don’t forget Azan) are certainly Champions of ChangeU! We cannot wait for you to hear more from Paul. And we strongly suggest that you start making plans to visit Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, and take the Caribeans Chocolate Tour. You will never forget the tour – especially the tasting experience on the tasting platform while looking out over the cacao forest at the waves breaking in the Caribbean.