In Focus: Bixby & Co.
by Eric Battersby
For this issue’s In Focus, we start in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York, where Kate McAleer of Bixby & Co. spent her chocolate-loving childhood. This idyllic part of the state offers a stark contrast to the intense, urban metropolis of New York City, and just as these two regions showcase two unique pieces to the same state puzzle, Bixby & Co. showcases two very different aspects of the chocolate world.
Indeed, it’s an incredibly unique combination unlike any other we’ve ever covered here at Chocolate Connoisseur.
We’ll dive into that shortly, but first, let’s take a closer look at Kate, and her journey to both chocolate maker and chocolatier…
Growing up Chocolate
Although you’d probably think most chocolate makers fall in love with chocolate at a very early age, in our years of experience here at the magazine, most chocolate makers find their way to chocolate significantly later in life. Kate, however, is a rare exception —
“Recently my Aunt sent me a picture she found of me as a little girl with my mouth covered in chocolate. I always had a love of chocolate in all forms. I have been obsessed with chocolate really since before I can remember. Desserts… chocolate. Ice Cream… always chocolate.”
Kate’s unique chocolate journey stemmed not so much from her chocolate obsession, however, as it did from extensive exposure to different parts of the world. First, her parents pulled her along on many of their work trips, so she saw much of the USA while growing up.
Bixby & Co’s Kate McAleer
Even more influential, however, she participated in a school “Year Abroad” program during her junior and senior years of high school, “incredibly important experiences” for her development.
Kate elaborates —
“When I lived in France as an exchange student, my whole exposure to chocolate, in pastries and even baguettes, was broadened, and my host mother constantly reinforced an overall sense of the importance of fresh food. She would take me with her to purchase the daily baguette for the household, and our typical French breakfast was baguette with Nutella.
Since even my own mother would never allow chocolate for breakfast, my French host mother changed my world with this newfound take on the first meal of the day.
For our new café (at Bixby & Co.) we are working on developing toast with our own hazelnut chocolate spread and I’m SO excited. Current testing has been so fun and has me harkening back to my high school days in France!”
While Kate’s mother may have frowned upon chocolate at breakfast, she still most certainly influenced Kate’s interest in food, particularly since she’s an avid cookbook collector.
Kate fondly remembers when her mother gave her the Alice Water’s children’s cookbook “Fanny at Chez Pannise” –
“Fast-forward to 2016, as Bixby & Co won a Good Food Award, and I was privileged to meet Alice Waters in person! I mentioned this story of growing up with her as a role model, and an example of the food movement, and it was an incredibly memorable moment!”
A 2016 Good Food Award Winner in the Confections category
Bixby is Born
Although the Hudson Valley served as Kate’s childhood base, Kate and her family frequently visited Maine, so much so that she purposefully points out, “Maine truly was our second home.”
It comes as no surprise that Maine eventually became home to Bixby & Co as well.
“We originally started the business in Warwick, New York, where we were from in the Hudson Valley. We moved the business first to an incubator in Belfast, Maine and then eventually to Rockland, Maine, our current location.”
Dating all the way back to her college days, as a member of the golf team, Kate would note how the snacks available on the golf course were not only full of subpar ingredients, they also lacked a clean label indicating as much. That’s when she first started to recognize a gaping void in the marketplace for healthier snacks.
Kate and her mom, Donna, started Bixby & Co together to help fill that void, particularly for organic candy bar options, as she notes, “We developed the Bixby bar to meet this need.”
Launching the company back in December 2011, Whole Foods Market served an important partner for their first product launch. When they relocated to Maine, however, Kate made a conscious effort to plug into Maine’s strong entrepreneurial community, which you clearly see reflected in their product line.
As for the name Bixby & Co., the Bixby name comes from Kate’s great-great grandparents, Lillian and William K. Bixby. As the Bixby & Co. website notes –
“[They] worked very hard to achieve the “American Dream.” They lived an adventurous life with incredible devotion and commitment to family as well as community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
That same adventurous spirit led Kate to expand her horizons by spending two years studying abroad in France and China. She lived with host families and became immersed in their cultures. Since then, she continues to travel abroad which has opened her heart to exotic cuisines and spices which inspire her creative recipes.”
Close to Cacao
Bixby & Co. procures their cacao from the well-known, and even more well-respected, Uncommon Cacao. They source beans from Haiti, Guatemala, Belize, and the Dominican Republic.
Uncommon Cacao uses what they call the Transparent Trade model, and as they note front and center on their website, “Farmer prosperity is a key ingredient in good chocolate.”
According to Uncommon –
“Transparent Trade is verifiable, published pricing for every transaction related to a cacao purchase along the supply chain, including information about who produced it and where.”
Click here to visit Uncommon Cacao and learn more about this outstanding wholesale cacao company, based out of Berkeley, California.
In 2018, Kate and her father joined a group of chocolate makers to visit organic farmers in Lachua, Guatemala, and her appreciation for chocolate kicked up yet another notch –
“This was a life altering experience to witness the devotion and hard work to grow premium, organic cacao. On our trip we brought some of our bars made with cacao from those very farmers. There was a time when we were able to present our finished product to the farmers and invited them to taste the product.
Traveling to origin countries has been a really important experience for me. As a student of cacao, actually seeing the trees growing in person… understanding the process the fruit goes through… it was totally different than learning about the process in a classroom. Gaining this knowledge and experience now helps us explain to our customers exactly how chocolate is made.”
As the Bixby & Co. website notes, “After graduating from New York University, Kate pursued her passion of combining cultural history with the culinary arts. She earned diplomas in pastry arts and culinary management from the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in Manhattan… and certificates from Ecole Chocolate, Vancouver.”
Kate also notes that she was a student of the very first bean to bar class at the ICE as well.
She continued to excel, first as a Tory Burch Foundation Fellow and Gorham Savings Bank LaunchPad Winner, then also being named Maine’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Small Business Administration.
Despite all the hustle and success, Kate and her family have been facing one extremely significant challenge — her mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer back in 2006.
According to the Bixby & Co. website –
“Today, her mother lives life to the fullest with incurable metastatic breast cancer. This is being achieved by new types of cancer medications allowing people to live ‘a new norm’ with an advanced cancer diagnosis.
This has resulted in her family continually seeking clean foods and a chemical-free living environment in our home. Her mother’s courageous example greatly influenced Kate’s mission.”
As you can imagine, a hardcore focus on health influences everything Bixby & Co. produces, and that means high quality, organic ingredients. Kate explains further —
“Maine Organic Farmer’s and Gardner’s Association or MOFGA is our certifying agency for our certified organic products. MOFGA is the country’s oldest organic certifier in the USA and I believe part of the organic food movement here in Maine.
I’m very proud that we are the first certified organic chocolate maker in Maine. Launching our certified organic bean to bar production was also a major milestone for us. We worked closely with the State as well as MOFGA to bring to fruition our bean to bar line.”
In addition to being certified organic, Bixby & Co is also gluten free, and they offer several vegan options as well. They also sell a 100% cacao bar with zero sugar, and craft many of their single origin bars with higher cacao percentages, which, as Kate notes, “Customers tend to really enjoy!”
All Bixby & Co. products are manufactured in their chocolate factory, a 125 year-old former ice plant (which they’ve refurbished over time) that’s located at a working marina on the Mid Coast of Maine.
The factory is open regularly for visitors, and as the company promotes, the “presentation and viewing of our bean to bar production area is a journey through the history of chocolate and how it is made.” The main factory area isn’t open to the public for food safety reasons, but visitors can view the Bixby Bean to Bar kitchen through windows, and may even catch a chocolate maker at work.
Kate and Donna are clearly happy running Bixby & Co in Maine. Kate feels there is a true authenticity to local food in the region, and that authenticity has influenced several of Bixby & Co’s creations —
“For example, our seasonal bon bons highlight local ingredients. We are just about to relaunch our Ricotta bon bon, which features a local ricotta from an amazing cheesemaker named Alison Lakin.
I’ve also worked with Fuzzy Udder and Appleton Creamery. Appleton Creamery is one of the cheesemaking pioneers in the state, part of the overall craft cheese movement that is afoot here in Maine.
My energy and excitement truly comes from these types of partnerships which feel incredibly connected to the overall movement here in Maine for local, authentic food.”
Another great example is Bixby’s new Split Rock Bourbon Bar, gracing your February 2020 issue cover. Kate says Split Rock is one of the only, if not the only, certified organic distillers in the state. As for the bar, it’s a bourbon-soaked, 70% Dominican Republic origin bar that sounds incredibly delicious.
Then there’s Primo, which Kate reminisces upon fondly…
“As a young girl, when we would come to Maine my parents would take me as a special treat to Primo, which is one of the top farm-to-table restaurants in New England. This past year we had the amazing privilege to work with Melissa Kelly, owner of Primo, to bring to life the “Primo 20 Karat Bar” in honor of her restaurant’s 20th season.
The bar is made with our single origin Dominican Republic chocolate and then sprinkled with Primo almonds (roasted in olive oil and rosemary with chili peppers).”
Another Maine connected treat is Bixby’s peanut butter ganache-filled chocolate Lobster Claws. This signature piece comes in a mini wooden “lobster” crate, and no lobsters are harmed in the creation of this chocolate!
Bixby & Co.’s best seller is their Belize single origin 70% chocolate bar. Belize sits near and dear to my own heart, as it’s my favorite origin of all time to date. Kate holds it in high praise as well –
“I think Belize is an incredibly hot bean origin right now. Maya Mountain produces the Belize we source, and I believe the flavor is just amazing.”
Bixby & Co. offer several other bean-to-bar chocolate options, including their Rock City Guatemala Coffee Bar, which features both Guatemalan cacao and Guatemalan coffee.
The most unique aspect to Bixby, however, may serve as a holy grail to some – organic chocolate candy bars. Affectionately called “Bixby Bars”, these 1.5-ounce candy creations fill the giant gap between quality chocolate (typically reserved for straight chocolate bars), and quality candy bars.
They offer several unique combinations, including two all organic varieties: Peanut Butter and Maine Sea Salt and Hazelnut and Raisin with Maine Sea Salt. They also offer several different fruit and nut bar combos as well, including a Limited Edition Cranberry, Pecan, Pistachio bar.
In addition, Bixby & Co. sells a very unique coconut milk-based Smoothie Bar line, featuring fruit flavors (including the Dragon Fruit bar pictured earlier), a Coconut Nib Swirl bar that looks incredible, and a Match bar too.
One final, important product Bixby & Co. put together – Donna partnered with the Audubon Society’s Project Puffin to develop three Puffin chocolate confections. Bixby & Co. donates five percent of Puffin chocolate sales to Project Puffin, which is restoring and protecting the iconic Puffin in the State of Maine.
“As a proud sponsor of Project Puffin, we help support the vital conservation work of the National Audubon Society to protect birds and the environments we all share.”
The Puffin Chocolates are gluten-free, non-GMO, and the Dark Chocolate Puffin is also vegan.
Getting Out and Moving Forward
If you’d like to catch Bixby & Co. at an event, they usually attend the Fancy Food Show, Sweets & Snacks, and the New England Chocolate Festival as well.
As for the future, Kate and Donna are opening a new shop in Waterville, with Colby College –
“This will be our second retail location and we are so excited to bring to life a farthing of our chocolate vision to a new part of the State.”
We wish Kate and Donna all the best and look forward to what lies ahead at Bixby & Co..