Growing up in Dunwoody, Kristen Hard loved to make things.
“I was always into food, from the time I was a child,” she said recently. “I was always in the kitchen wanting to make stuff.” At the same time, “All I ever wanted was a chemistry set. I was really into science. I was really into invention.”
“I think I kind of always had this brain where I have a balance with this obsession for science and for art,” she said.
Jump forward a few years. In her 20s, Hard was working as a private chef on a yacht. During a stop in the Caribbean, she had an epiphany. The two sides of her brain came together when she discovered chocolate – real chocolate – came from the seeds hidden inside the fruit of a tropical tree and wasn’t simply concocted in a huge factory.
“It blew my mind. It was like all these dots connected… like the stars aligned.”
Hard set about learning how to make chocolate from scratch.
She produced small batches of chocolate for herself and friends. She experimented. In 2004, she moved back to Atlanta and started selling her chocolate through farmer’s markets and street fairs.
When Hard started out, she was among a handful of custom bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the country, she said, and the only one in the southeastern U.S. Now her chocolates draw widespread attention. Notices from magazines such as Travel + Leisure, Food + Wine and Oprah decorate the walls of her office in her northwest Atlanta factory.
Her company, Cacao Atlanta Chocolate Co., makes luxury chocolate directly from cacao beans and sells scores of chocolate treats — such as $3 chocolate truffles and $8 chocolate bars and $21.50 Salame di Cioccolato, which looks like salami — through a Buckhead shop and a café in Virginia-Highland.
Hard says she’s set her sights set on an even grander goal. She wants to make the best chocolate in the world. And maybe, in the process, help save chocolate itself for the future.
After she got into the chocolate business, Hard said she discovered its problems. It’s a far-flung industry, with small farms in Central and South America and Africa and manufacturers spread around the world. “I started understanding the industry and the corruption and the lack of quality,” she said.
“Over the last 100 years, cacao has been bred [to increase] disease resistance and yield,” she said. “They have bred out flavors.”
She decided that if she wanted to make the best chocolate in the world, she needed to work with the best raw materials. She went looking for better chocolate beans. She said she worked with cacao farmers and at one point even owned her own farm in Peru.
She says she found what she wanted in old chocolate trees that produced fruit that is sweeter, not as bitter, “more elegant.” “I’m looking for the rarest, the less than 1 percent, cacao,” she said. “It exists. It’s really hard to find. It’s hard to find farmers who are growing it.”
Hard said she’s now working to convince farmers to grow rare, heirloom varieties of cacao. At the same time, she wants to create a market that would allow those farmers to be able to afford to grow those varieties. “We basically have created a new market for cacao that has never been seen before,” she said.
That means making chocolate that’s expensive. That doesn’t worry Hard. “Chocolate is a luxury,” she said. “A dark chocolate, fine chocolate, is a luxury. It’s not a foodstuff, like rice. It shouldn’t be treated like a commodity.”
She also worries about finding ways to replace aging cacao farmers. Their children are moving away or to other crops, she said, which may mean real chocolate will grow even rarer, more expensive. “What happens when [the farmers] die?” she asked.
She thinks it’s worth the struggle.
“I am trying to redefine things so our children and children’s children will have this,” she said. “I just feel like there is a way to make a change in this world if you put your mind to it.”