By Gregory Daurer | Feb 07, 2022
Park City / Heber City, Utah
Chocolate bars, drinking chocolate, and other chocolate products
Stout and business partner Anna Davies chose Ritual Chocolate as the name of their business in order to pay homage to the Aztec and Olmec cultures of Mexico, which made cacao "a major part of their lives."
"They used it in religious rituals and ceremonies," says Stout. "It had a lot of value to them. And we wanted to reference that, since over the last 100 years cacao's value has essentially plummeted to next to nothing, thanks to the bigger companies who just tried to out-compete their competitors by making the price lower and lower and lower." Often, that has involved employing shady business practices.
Ritual, on the other hand, sources its cacao from farms and co-ops in Belize, Peru, Ecuador, and Madagascar which pay living wages to farmers -- and the company proudly names them on its website. Stout says, "We only work with buyers who really emphasize the quality of life and social and environmental thresholds that we would never want to go under."
From that cacao, Ritual makes chocolate which has not only won the company several Good Food Awards, but which has also seen the business highlighted as one of the finest producers in Utah by Saveur, as well as being cited as one of the "best craft chocolate makers" in the country by Smithsonian. And what flavorful products: The company's packaging points out how its bar is made with beans from Madagascar has notes of "raspberry, citrus, and peanut," and its chocolate from Ecuador calls to mind "honey and fudge."
Intense, long-lasting flavors. Stout says those result from Ritual's production methods and machinery, which has made the company stand out since its beginnings in 2010: "We used specialized equipment to make our chocolate -- and for the first six or seven years there were very few other companies in the country using that type of special equipment," says Stout.
That equipment includes the company's three-roll mill refiner (built in Brooklyn in the 1950s), which it runs all its cacao through twice in order to get the particles ground down to the smallest size possible. And its longitudinal conch (built in 1915 in Switzerland), which improves the chocolate's quality over the course of a three-day run.
Stout and Davies, then a couple, started the company in Boulder, Colorado, before moving production to Denver for about four years. In 2015, they relocated to Park City. It was largely a lifestyle choice: After work, Stout -- who cycles, skis, and snowboards -- wanted to have closer access to outdoor amenities. "I knew I wanted to spend my time outside -- like, every possible minute I could -- which is a lot easier when you live in a place like Park City," he says.
The move also situated the business closer to its prominent Salt Lake City distributor, A Priori, which Stout credits with making Utah brands known far and wide. Presently, Ritual Chocolate can be found in over 600 retail locations across the country and also runs an online store. And it has two cafes: one in its original 3,000 square feet of space in Park City, as well as one in its new 12,000-square-foot facility in Heber City -- the location of its offices and factory since 2020. There, the company precisely crafts its chocolate products and offers tours.
How much chocolate does Ritual make in a given year? "It's a lot," says Stout. "Maybe 300,000 bars."
But there's a reason Ritual Chocolate needs several revenue streams. Stout points out that chocolate is not a staple in people's lives like, say, bread or wine. While a brewery can be successful by running a neighborhood taproom, Stout says that for his chocolate business, "You have to cast your net really far and wide in order to have income."
Plus, there's a lot more competition now. "When we were starting, I think there were under 25 companies in the country, including all the old big ones like Hershey and Mars, etc cetera," says Stout. "And now, today, there's probably 20 in every state."
Despite all the business challenges, Stout still enjoys turning on people who've had limited experience with craft bean-to-bar chocolate. You could say there's a ritual behind enjoying it.
First, don't eat chocolate immediately after coming off the slopes, when the inside of the mouth is cooler than normal. Perhaps, sample the chocolate alongside hot tea or coffee -- like at one of Ritual's cafes -- which will heat up the tongue. Snap a small piece off the bar, because if the bite is too big, it's "harder to pick up certain notes, because it overwhelms your taste buds."
Don't expect instant gratification: The chocolate will need to melt in the mouth a bit. At about 25 seconds into the experience, that's when, for instance, the "dried fig, cherry, and tobacco" notes really burst out of the Belize chocolate, and the "floral, herbal, toasted peanuts and stone fruit" flavors really emerge from within the Peruvian bar. Expect those flavors to linger for a couple of minutes -- with additional subtleties making their presences known.
That experience can be a "revelation" for folks, says Stout. "People tell me all the time, 'Oh man, you kind of ruined me, because now every time I buy, like, a Lindt bar, it just doesn't taste good anymore."
He adds, "We are focused on buying the best cacao that we can find and making the best chocolate we can with it."
Challenges: Price point is a challenge: Encased within artful packaging, a bar from Ritual Chocolate can cost $10 or more. "It's just an extremely difficult business, because [chocolate's] a product that is undervalued" due to its historical commodification, says Stout. "We have to diversify our income in a lot of ways."
Opportunities: "To keep growing within our niche of fine chocolate," says Stout. "We're just trying to focus on quality and retain our customers."
Needs: Employees. Ritual Chocolate needs additional help with operations and bookkeeping. So, for Stout, it's "being able to afford a bigger team where more of those responsibilities are spread out."