San Antonio, Texas
After working in manufacturing for more than 30 years, Mikiten was ready to retire early. On a seemingly unrelated note, he and his wife, Joan, were connoisseurs of fine chocolates.
But the serendipitous marriage between manufacturing acumen and a developed sweet tooth turned out to be the catalyst for a new chapter in the Mikitens' life: San Antonio's lone chocolate makers.
Since 2014, Casa Chocolates has produced small-batch chocolate bars that are beloved by the San Antonio community and beyond. Each bar is thoughtfully crafted to showcase the varied tasting notes, bean origins, and work of the bean farmers.
"I was involved in big manufacturing, so Casa Chocolates is my fun retirement business," says Brian. "My wife and I liked really fine chocolate. I learned that for $29, you can get a bag of beans from a guy in Oregon, and he tells you how to roast it, how to grind it, how to add sugar. The chocolate I got out of that was so much better than the chocolate I normally had; I thought, 'Oh, that's interesting.'"
The first roast -- in the Mikitens' kitchen oven -- didn't yield the desired results, but they started to acquire the information needed to problem-solve their way to excellent chocolate. Eventually, they started to sell their bars at a local bakery to resoundingly positive results.
"We started off making it for a small bread company here in town -- Broadway Daily Bread -- they said sure, they'll try it. We sold out in one day: 12 bars. Then I figured out you need things like bar codes and licenses -- so we went through all of that and then the machines got bigger and bigger."
With time, Casa Chocolates has become much more sophisticated in its offerings. Brian has developed a sharp eye for knowing what types of flavors to seek in when purchasing new beans, and what will resonate with his audience.
"We have beans coming in from very small farms all around the world," he explains. "Our big thing is we're buying fair trade, non-GMO organic beans, and we buy from small farmers and pay them way more than other people do, and we generally bring it in through a broker. Most of what we do is try to find flavor profiles that are different from each other. I want every one of our dark chocolates to taste different from each other."
After determining whether a cacao bean passes Mikiten's quality-control testing, he loads the beans up in small sample roasters to find out which flavors can be teased out through temperature and time.
Mikiten roasts, mixes, ages, molds, tastes, tempers, and sells his small-batch chocolate bars from a kitchen and retail space located on the Northeast side of San Antonio. They are open to the public 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Thursday to Sunday each week, and routinely host long lines of folks looking to sample, smell, and purchase chocolate bars.
Upon entry, customers are given access to a brief and free chocolate education: Mikiten has different chocolate disc samples set up, and a rehearsed pitch to anyone interested in learning about the bean-to-bar process. "Part of what we do is educate, part of what we do is make people happy," he says.
Primarily, the space is used for manufacturing, though the storefront retail space is successful in its own right. Currently, the space is predominantly occupied by a cacao bean roaster Mikiten modified to his liking, along with mixers, sample roasters, a small stone grinder, sheet racks, fridges and freezers, and of course, bags of cacao beans.
Challenges: Mikiten does not want to create a chocolate empire. He wants to enjoy his chocolate business, he wants to do it well, and he is rather content to keep things around where they are now -- although that comes with its own sets of obstacles. "From the manufacturing side, if we get too big, the flavors change," he explains. "If the machines get too big, the flavors change. We can get about 300 to 400 bars per day out of here at full production, but imagine if it takes three to four weeks just to make the chocolate, and something like Christmas or Valentine's Day hits, and we run out -- which is what happened this year. You could have a gap."
He adds, "We always have to have a couple hundred pounds of chocolate here, unmelted, untempered, ready to go. Our big issue is if we run out of beans, we're completely hosed."
The bean-to-bar process takes about four to six weeks, and Mikiten is not going to bring in additional help to streamline the process, so another challenge involves keeping the delicate balance between maximum output and maximum quality aligned.
"We have our processes pretty much down," he says. "I don't want to grow much past where we are now. We could open more stores, but I think the capacity for what we have here is what I'm comfortable with. If we start getting much bigger in terms of output volume, the quality goes down. It has to -- that's the nature of our business."
Opportunities: As presently constituted, the opportunity ahead of the Mikitens is to keep the business fun -- just as they intended. "I came from a company that had 300 employees when I sold it; I really don't want to do that again," says Brian. "If I have a bunch of employees, it automatically feeds the great machine. I just sold two other businesses, so I have no employees for the first time in my life since I was 30. The idea is to self-limit through supply and demand, and control what we can physically operate ourselves. It's the Texas barbecue theory: when we're out, we're out."
Needs: A common thread among small businesses during the pandemic has been supply chain hiccups; Casa Chocolates is not exempt. While the chocolate quality has remained high, the price-per-bag of beans has skyrocketed. "Prices are always going to be the issue," says Mikiten. "Our future issues will be supply lines. What used to cost us $500 per to ship a pallet now costs $1,000. That cost is distributed across every bean. There's usually six to eight bags per pallet, and you're now adding $80 to $90 per bag per shipment. You're increasing costs that have no value whatsoever: I'm not buying better beans, I'm simply adding cost to something that has no value added."