Maker of the Month
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
I first contacted Rohan Barnett, co-founder of Ah Cacao, when I was planning my trip to Cancun, and discovered Ah Cacao was based nearby in Playa del Carmen. He was very gracious in agreeing to meet with me and show me around their facility. As I hurried down the long main drag in Playa del Carmen, 5th Avenue, I was looking forward to the coolness of the chocolate facility. I passed the original Ah Cacao Chocolate Café and promised myself I would come back and linger at one of the little tables and savor some new-found treat. Upon my arrival at the facility, I was quite surprised to see that the front door was in fact a screen door, and that aside from the large fan inside, there was no refuge from the overbearing heat. As I stepped inside, I was immediately taken by the entrepreneurial feel of the small facility, and the warmth with which I was greeted. Surprised by his accent, I learned Rohan is originally from Ireland, and his wife, Mónica Tello, is from Mexico.
The Ah Cacao facility is one large room in a somewhat industrial area of the town, with 25% sectioned off for use as the kitchen where brownies and cookies are prepared for the café. The front part of the room is crowded with several desks and the walls are stacked high with supplies for packaging and production. In total, there are 5 people working for Ah Cacao in the production facility. Of course my mind kept wondering “where is all the chocolate, and how in the hell is it not a melted puddle, like me?” Just outside the tiny kitchen, at the back of the room is a door…much like the Key Maker in Matrix Revolutions, inside sat a man busily working at a small table, in what could only be described as a refrigerated closet. The walls of the closet were lined to the ceiling with chocolate bars!
Ah Cacao’s story began several years ago when Rohan and his wife Mónica were backpacking around Mexico and came across a cacao plantation in Tabasco. Their inspiration was to educate people on all facets of chocolate, from growing to production of a finished product. As part of an MBA project, Rohan and some associates developed a business plan for a chocolate company, complete with a global distribution strategy. Rohan has no formal training in the culinary arts or in cacao cultivation. His knowledge comes from what he calls his library of 20 books all titled Chocolate. Rohan designed the logo and artwork for Ah Cacao himself, as he couldn’t find a firm to do it for a price he could afford. His passion for the subject has guided him to where they are today, and where they will be tomorrow.
Ah Cacao’s chocolate is made form criollo beans grown exclusively in Tabasco and Chiapas. Rohan has developed relationships with many small growers in the region, and encourages them to produce better and better beans through use of modern cultivation techniques. He has contracted with a local Tabasco processor, whose main business is the manufacture of cocoa butter. This processor had all of the grinding and conching equipment necessary to manufacture coverture. Combined with Rohan’s culinary artistry, Ah Cacao’s unique blend of criollo chocolate wass created.
The chocolate is manufactured in dark, milk and white chocolate bars, as well as cacao pod shapes of solid chocolate. The bars are simple, marked off in squares ideal for eating, and wrapped in clear cellophane with an Ah Cacao label. The mini cacao pods come three in a bag, one of each type of chocolate. The dark chocolate ranges from 70-72%. Also available is pure cocoa powder and traditional Mexican cocoa tablets for making hot chocolate. The vanilla used in production is also from beans grown in Mexico, and are also available for purchase.
The Café was opened in 2004 and was both the retail outlet and the production facility for two and a half years. Late in 2006 they expanded by renting the production facility and purchasing a refrigerated van for delivery of their product to other locations. Current production level is around 50,000 bars per year, which are sold either through the one Café location or at Plaza de Fiesta, a large souvenir superstore with 6 locations around Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Ah Cacao can also be found at the gift shops in Xcaret and Xel Ha parks and in “Los Cinco Soles” in Cancun airport.
Ah Cacao would like to sell into the US, but they need to set up a US distributor first. Shipping to the US is a minimum of $40 and even within Mexico it is similarly priced. At this time, they are speaking to investors to expand the business further, and the US is certainly on their radar.
By far the biggest challenge faced by Ah Cacao is the heat. Storing it, transporting it and maintaining quality in the retail locations. There have also been many challenges dealing with local politics and business requirements, as well as other unofficial groups who control local commerce. Having a wife who is Mexican has helped a great deal, but the obstacles are still a part of doing business in Mexico.
Before concluding my visit, I purchased a couple of T-shirts and a beautiful molinillo. My credit card payment was processed on the laptop via PayPal, receipt and all. Mónica was out of the office, so I did not have the opportunity to meet with her this time. I thanked Rohan for his time and wished him continued success with the growth of his blooming business. As I walked away, I was filled with a sense of excitement and exhilaration that someone could become successful at a business dominated by those with French educations, simply because he felt passionate about it. I smiled, reflecting as I walked on the inspiration I felt from our meeting. I made good on my promise to indulge in a brownie, while enjoying a shaded table at the delightful little Ah Cacao Chocolate Café. A sticky but still sublime afternoon…