The Straub family doesn’t only deal in award-winning craft chocolate.
The founders of Portland, Oregon-based Creo Chocolate focus on building relationships, both with quality-driven cocoa farmers and customers seeking a treat, a pick-me-up or a concerned listener.
“You’re here to celebrate with people who are having a great day, and you’re here to comfort those who are having a terrible day. Chocolate is that medium to minister to people,” said chocolate maker Kevin Straub. “We’re here for our community.”
The Straubs — Kevin and his parents, Tim and Janet — have a history of being creators and producers. They farmed strawberries and raspberries on 45 acres in Washington for 17 years, making other food from scratch.
“Our family are learners. We made our own bread, grinding the wheat. We were very particular what wheat we had,” Tim Straub said. “We made our own yogurt, two gallons at time. We made our own granola. Chocolate fit into what we do.”
The Straubs began making chocolate in 2010 for fun, at first roasting beans in the oven and using a rolling pin and a bag to grind. The family shared their chocolate with friends as they learned the ins and outs of the craft.
“When you make something yourself, you kind of take pride in it and you get better,” Kevin Straub said. “We were just having fun eating chocolate and making it as a hobby.”
After four years, the Straubs reached a point where they could either “slow down or speed up,” Kevin said.
They decided to speed up. In 2014, the Straubs opened Creo Chocolate — Creo meaning “I believe” in Spanish and “I create” in Latin — in central Portland, just east of the Willamette River. They opened in what was once a showroom for a tile company. In fact, the Straubs used some of the original tile to adorn the front of the building, built in 1924.
“When we saw it, we fell in love with it. It is an awesome building,” Kevin Straub said. “There are some problems with it, but with any building that’s almost 100 years old, there’s going to be some challenges with it.”
They redid the the electrical and plumbing systems and installed new chocolate-making equipment, including a custom-built winnower with some 3D-printed parts. But adapting the space to fit their needs wasn’t the Straubs’ only challenge. The family also needed to find a reliable cocoa supplier they could work with directly.
“Since we were raspberry farmers, we know what it’s like to be a farmer, grow a product and take it to a buyer and not work directly with the end consumer,” Kevin Straub said. “It can be challenging, and a lot of times the farmers don’t get paid very well.”
The Straubs traveled to Ecuador to meet potential suppliers. They made a connection with Samuel, who grows heirloom Arriba Nacional cacao on 150 hectares about 170 miles southwest of Quito.
The family fell in love with the quality of Samuel’s beans — and their floral, nutty flavors. The Straubs also appreciated the Ecuadorian cacao’s ability to pair with inclusions such as mint, chiles and, of course, raspberry.
Because of Samuel’s attention to detail, Samuel sets the price for his cacao, and the Straubs are more than happy to oblige.
“As a chocolate maker, our job’s a lot easier when we have a good quality product and an amazing bean from good genetics, and really rewarding those farmers who want to grow that is important to us,” Kevin Straub said.
The pursuit of quality — and expertly pairing inclusions — has paid off. As of the end of 2018, Creo Chocolate had earned 42 awards, with titles from the International Chocolate Awards and the Good Food Awards among them.
But to the Straubs, it’s more about delighting and teaching customers. In 2017, Creo Chocolate had 4,000 visitors take their factory tour, which includes an educational component on the chocolate-making process from farm to finish. It expands the customers’ knowledge and awareness, helping to support the overall craft chocolate industry.
“As we educate more and more people, it’s raised the whole industry, and vice versa,” Kevin Straub said. “When other people educate their consumers and they come to Portland, they’re totally willing to spend money on chocolate.”
And hopefully, returning time after time.
“What really matters to me is seeing the customer come in here, eating a chocolate bar, saying ‘this is good’ and coming back,” Kevin Straub said.