The Start of Dark Forest Chocolate

The Start of Dark Forest Chocolate

Dark Forest Chocolate Makers, Inc. was born out of the quest for the best chocolate. After searching their local area for pure, high-quality chocolate with limited success, Joanne and Dan Sundell began ordering bars from pioneers in the small-batch craft chocolate industry. Inspired and intrigued, the Sundells researched the many facets of cacao—from its health benefits and complexity of flavors to its growers and fermenters.

Dan purchased some small equipment and made test batches at home, while Joanne studied chocolate confections in the culinary program at the local community college. Their initial product was very good—a luscious, complex food that was made with minimal ingredients. They could vary the results by altering the many components that goes into chocolate making – botanical variety of the cacao, length of roasting and stone grinding, as well as ratio of cacao to sugar.

“It seems that chocolate makers don’t emerge from a traditional culinary background. They’re quirky inventors who enjoy experimentation and discovery. I believe that this is what emboldened us to start our own business,” says Joanne, a history professor at a local community college.

Other leaders in the young field didn’t start as chef or even entrepreneurs, rather inquisitive individuals who all had one thing in common—the quest for outrageously good chocolate. Dan, who enjoyed a long career as a licensed professional landscape architect, is naturally a curious tinkerer with a keen taste for what superb chocolate should taste like. And in an environment of growth and rebirth in the Rust Belt region of Buffalo, New York, the time seemed ripe to embark on making craft chocolate. Amid the atmosphere of craft brewers, pop-up pasterias and fermented food, the Sundells wanted to bring bean-to-bar chocolate to Western New York.

The couple took a leap of faith and turned their obsession into a business. Dark Forest Chocolate Makers opened in April 2015 near their home in Lancaster, New York – a small historic village. The name "Dark Forest" was chosen because they wanted to connect with the source of the cacao which is grown in the protected valleys of equatorial forests.

Dan and Joanne have used all their skills to own and operate Dark Forest Chocolate. From doing the build-out of their facility themselves (did you know that a 10-foot, three bay sink will fit on the roof of a Volkswagen Jetta?) and package design drawing on Dan’s graphics experience illustrating community design concepts to Joanne’s experience with website and social media, and of course, chocolate making, the Sundells have done it all. And after only two years of chocolate making, they submitted samples to the International Chocolate Awards and the Academy of Chocolate and received a total of six awards in the summer of 2017 for their dark and milk chocolates, a humbling achievement for such a young and modest enterprise.

Boosted by the awards and after making numerous test batches of chocolate, the Sundells have gained confidence in their chocolate making and in selecting cacao varieties. “We love to try new varieties but have to be very selective, using only varieties that work for us using our own process. It’s endlessly fascinating work trying to bring out the best in each bean, but we’ve had to pick a choice few and take the time to see what works best for each,” says Dan.

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