The couple, who clearly embrace the concept of high quality chocolate for all, constructed their unique chocolate empire on the ultra-simple philosophy that “chocolate should be enjoyed.” That may sound excessively obvious, but when trying to court non-chocolate connoisseurs into the wonderful world of true chocolate, this turn of phrase proffers a deeper meaning.
Many would-be connoisseurs begin their connoisseur journey via chocolate from a company with much larger market reach (chocolate makers we cover in our On the Chocolate Regular column, see Alter Eco last issue) than a boutique like Zak’s. Maureen and Jim hope to bridge that gap.
“Dark chocolate doesn’t have to be bitter. Chocolates (bonbons, truffles, call them what you will) need not be overly sweet.”
Their commitment to the entire process hits all this home with a chocolate-packed punch, enabling Zak’s to impress both chocolate connoisseurs and newbies alike.
Maureen and Jim take the extra step of using cacao nibs from the same roast batch for each single-origin bar they create, then pressing single-origin cocoa butter from the nibs – of which they add just a touch into the batch itself to enhance mouthfeel.
“We like the term Craft Chocolate to describe our hands-on small batch offerings because it’s broader than bean-to-bar.”
Intrigued by this creative chocolate duo and their two-pronged chocolate endeavors? Good. Let’s dive in…
Growing up in the Northeast, long before a chocolate career ever crossed her mind, Maureen fondly remembers enjoying chocolate as a child. And no, we’re not talking a Hershey bar either, as tends to be the childhood prototype for a “first chocolate” moment. Her dad sometimes made candy and fudge at home, a much different beginning than most of us experience. On occasion, he also brought home packages of seconds from the famous Schrafft’s chocolate plant outside Boston.
He also developed a bit of an obssession to test that favorite catchphrase from the old M&Ms commercials – “They melt in your mouth, not in your hand!” Always willing to take on a challenge (or just make a big mess), as a child Jim often sported rainbow-colored palms from testing that concept. The verdict? Yes, with persistence, M&Ms could indeed melt in your hand! Take that Mars, Inc.
Fate Steps in at UConn
Both growing up in the Northeast, fate brought these two would-be chocolate gurus together when they ended up in a freshman English class at the University of Connecticut, and, coincidentally, were both pursuing careers in Finance (Accounting majors). Yes, if you’re reading this wondering how on earth Jim and Maureen met in an English class while both majoring in Accounting, yet wound up married and making chocolate together… well… you’re not alone.
“Yes, we were both accounting majors, but we met in Freshman English class about a month into our first semester. It’s actually pretty funny because, for some reason, all the guys sat on one side of the room and all the girls sat on the other side…
One day Maureen got to class just before it started and the only seat left was next to me. Then, it turns out that she forgot her book and so we had to share. That’s how we met.”
That’s one heck of a sweet origin story.
A Keen Attention to Detail
As their college days passed on the baton to the real world, time passed… Jim and Maureen married… had children… and the chocolate fire slowly kindled. With a penchant for hobbies and projects that require patience, a keen eye for details, and great hand-eye coordination to boot, Maureen eventually found her way to chocolate.
It’s no understatement here on Maureen’s natural skillset, either. In addition to diving into chocolate (including some basic chocolate making classes back in the day), she also enjoyed creating porcelain dolls, with hand-painted eyes no less. She might spend one year completing just one doll. Details.
If Schrafft rings a bell, but you just can’t quite place it, perhaps you once saw them on national televison. In 1968, in an attempt to broaden their customer base, Schrafft’s commissioned a sixty-second television commercial from pop artist Andy Warhol.
Schrafft’s sponsored the 1959 CBS telecast of The Wizard of Oz, the first of the film’s annual telecasts (it had been shown once on television in 1956).
PET Milk purchased Schrafft’s in 1967, breaking the ice cream, restaurant, and cake and candy operations into separate companies. Only the ice cream line survives, having been purchased by the LeSauvage family, owners of several ice cream labels. The New York-New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas features a Schrafft’s Ice Cream parlor.
In March of 1981, Schrafft’s candy factory closed its doors forever, citing negative effects of the then-current economic recession… despite 45 million dollars in sales the year prior.
Soon she made chocolates for more family and friends over the holidays, pretty much taking over the kitchen, continuing to use better chocolate, and then seeking out organic an/or natural ingredients wherever possible. The chocolate writing was on the wall.
Six years ago, when she discovered organic cacoa beans online, Maureen convinced Jim to start down the path to a chocolate business, feeling confident they could try the processes at home without sending chocolate flying all over the kitchen.
The Evolution Will Not Be Televised
Before opening Zak’s, Maureen completed another series of Ecole Chocolat programs, including chocolate making & quality assistance. Jim completed the Ecole Chocolat professional chocolatier program beforehand too, as the couple gradually prepared, and worked diligently to master their craft, prior to actually opening Zak’s.
Maureen also interned with a Master Chocolatier at Sweet Paradise Chocolates in Maui, and she’s continued to take master classes too, including classes at Cocoa West Chocolatier Vancouver, the French Pastry School in Chicago with Norman Love, and with Richard Tango-Lowy of Dancing Lion Chocolates.
As Jim lightheartedly tells it –
“Maureen pretty much taught me everything I know about chocolate making. She is now a Master Chocolatier… and I’m still trying to get it right with every batch!”
Note: Jim eventually went from official taste tester to primary roaster/chocolate maker, although every batch is always a joint process of consultation and tasting. Final decisions are always based on a two-to-zero vote. “It’s not always easy to achieve, but if we don’t both agree, then we don’t move a batch forward.”
“This gave us valuable insight and experience with tasting, flavors notes and more. It’s all about continuous learning and finding new inspiration.”
Finally, before flipping the switch… opening the doors… cutting the ribbon if you will… Jim and Maureen needed to solve for one very crucial equipment issue – how to press their own cocoa butter.
“It was important to us that we had the ability to press our own cocoa butters from day one, to make our own chocolate that we could then use to make ganache-filled chocolates, brownies, and other chocolate ‘stuff’… as well as single-origin bars. That all needed to be included in our business.
As part of our overall equipment search, Maureen explored options for cocoa butter pressing, looking for something that would work for our scale and quality requirements… but she couldn’t find anything online or through the chocolate forums.”
However, after checking with the equipment manufacturer, he then wrote back saying that pressing for cacao butter was, in fact, possible.
“We spent six months shipping cacao nibs to Washington, where he would press them and send back the resulting cocoa butter and cacao powder he pressed with them, including detailed notes about each attempt (temperature settings, pressure, speed, nozzle sizes, fun stuff like that).
With each new shipment, he continued to tweak the equipment settings, until we found a combination that worked for our requirements… resulting in the cocoa butter quality and quantity we needed for a creamy chocolate, and to make ganache filled chocolates. ”
Finally, with all the important preliminary work complete, and Zak’s chocolate evolution fully realized, the adventure officially began in 2012.
A Clear Focus On Quality, Ethical Sourcing, and Relationships
With the doors open, Zak’s quickly put the spotlight on one of the extremely important pieces to its chocolate puzzle: ethical sourcing. Maureen and Jim personally met several of the farmers they buy cacao from, and strongly believe in direct trade and fair pay. Farmers absolutely must receive fair wages –
“We buy our cacao beans through farmers that we’ve met through other chocolate makers whom we trust, or through cooperatives where we’ve developed personal relationships with the managers of the cooperatives.
There is a lot of transparency in our small, craft chocolate world, where we know what the farmers are being paid, and it is a much higher wage than is paid through the world commodity market.
All our beans are ethically-sourced. We will not purchase beans if, besides loving what we can create with them, we have not had an opportunity, either directly or through other chocolate makers whose standards we hold in high regard, to vet the source… and [to be] comfortable with the source from a social, economic, and environmental standpoint.
Organic certification is not necessary if we are comfortable that there are traditional, organic practices in place.”
Zak’s sources from a wide variety of origins, mostly from Central America, South America, and the Caribbean (although they started with Madagascar, still a favorite as we’ll note in a moment). They currently offer bars crafted with beans from Guatemala (they actually use several), Belize (Jim’s longtime favorite), Nicaragua, Haiti, and Peru, inlcuding a new Peruvian origin bar premiering this summer alongside a new Dominican origin bar.
As Jim notes, “We will sometimes pass on great beans because, for us at that time, they don’t offer something unique.”
Like so many of the best chocolate makers today, for Zak’s, origin is key –
“We like having one origin bar that offers something familiar (in the sense of a traditional chocolate flavor), but also has its own unique flavor profile.
Right now, our Nicaragua bar fits that slot. It has the deepest, most chocolaty chocolate flavor of any of our origin bars, but it also has this amazing molasses-like sweetness, and finishes with vanilla notes…
…the perfect pairing for a morning coffee…”
Guatemala Monte Grande
Outside of that core bar, however, the couple looks for beans that showcase something different… perhaps a bit of a surprise, like the roasted raspberry flavor profile of Zak’s Guatemala Monte Grande.
Indeed, as one of the first chocolate makers in the US to sample the Monte Grande cacao in 2016, Maureen and Jim actually decided, although they absolutely loved the unique, roasted raspberry flavor profile, to pass on purchasing the beans because the sample batch required way too much sorting time, while also resulting in too little cacao. Or as Jim elaborates, “In other words, we probably would’ve needed to charge $30 for the bar to justify the time required…it just wasn’t worth it.”
Zak’s award-winning Guatemala Lachua Bar
“Several harvests later we put our faith in relationships we had developed and bought the Monte Grande cacao because we had been assured that significant progress had been made in the quality of the beans. We are thrilled that this bar is now on our shelves and has been really popular.
Relationships and feedback led to this wonderful chocolate being available to share. We even shared our very first batch with the Farm Manager, Roy Fraatz, who implemented the improved procedures. Full circle – bean to bar and back to the farm – this is what the craft chocolate world can offer.”
Uncommon Cacao / Maya Mountain Cacao
Zak’s also forged an early relationship with Maya Mountain Cacao in Belize (Unocmmon Cacao’s first project), starting with Maya Mountain’s Kickstarter campaign, which launched about six months before Zak’s opened for business.
Jim and Maureen helped as early testers of new cocoa beans, providing feedback, etc., and through the Kickstarter campaign, they funded the planting of two acres out of a 120-acre agroforestry demonstration farm, which is now, literally, bearing fruit. It’s used to train the next generation of cacao farmers as well.
As Jim notes, “We also were excited to see our Belize chocolate bars being enjoyed by the farmers on a post to their Facebook page.”
Like we noted earlier, Zak’s creates all of their single origin bars with cocoa butter pressed from the same batch of beans as the bars, preserving the single-origin flavor profile. As any great chocolate maker will tell you, different origin cacao beans contain different natural flavors, and both Maureen and Jim feel they only touched the surface of flavors in chocolate before they started crafting their own.
They were originally drawn to Madagascar Chocolate from Valhrona… and now the chocolate power couple makes their own Madagascar chocolate, Maureen’s favorite all along.
“We’ve had the privilege to meet and get to know the owner of the plantation in Madagascar and we’ve met a couple of times at chocolate conferences and shows in Seattle and San Francisco as well. For us, it was a little like meeting a rock star in our field, and the fact that he’d already tasted and enjoyed what we created with his cacao was extra special.”
Top Notch Ingredients
Great chocolate of course begins with high quality cacao, but it ends with the best secondary ingredients. In addition to ethically-sourced cacao, Zak’s uses only organic cane sugar. No soy, corn syrup, or anything to extend shelf life ever finds its into any of Zak’s Chocolate. All their dark chocolate bars are vegan, gluten free. and dairy free, while Zak’s crafts their milk chocolate with the same ingredients as the dark chocolate, save for the addition of organic whole milk.
Their single-origin dark chocolates contain only cocoa beans (mostly certified organic), organic cane sugar, and a small amount of cocoa butter – which as we noted, they press in-house from the same beans used in each origin bar.
Zak’s white chocolate contains only house-pressed cocoa butter, organic cane sugar, and organic whole milk powder. Plus as Jim notes, they go the extra mile for health’s sake as well –
“We also use separate equipment for our milk and white chocolate from the point at which milk is added, so we avoid cross-contamination as much as we can for people that have dairy intolerance, are vegan, or are otherwise avoiding dairy.
We also offer a rotating selection of vegan bonbons in flavors like raspberry, tropical blackberry, hazelnut, caramelized pineapple and others. If you didn’t already know there was no dairy in these creations, well, then you wouldn’t know it from the taste or texture.”
Oh So “Zak’s”
Everything is done by hand, from sorting cocoa beans to wrapping our bars to hand crafting our truffles.
“When you control the process from bean to bonbon (we’ll call it that ’cause it’s catchy) you can be creative and play with flavors in unexpected ways.
We can pair dark chocolate bonbons with white wines because it’s all about complementing flavor profiles, not about having to deal with a chocolate that’s too sweet or bitter to pair with wine.
The style of our bonbons should give people a bit of a journey. When biting through the thin House-Blend dark chocolate shell, we hope people experience the sensation of a great dark chocolate that then gives way to the flavor in the gananche, often layered – for example a ginger lime, yuzu lemongrass, tropical blackberry, cinnamon plum or earl grey lavender.
So there is a ride, where the flavors open up as the chocolate melts in your mouth, then it comes back to a finish of chocolate at the end.”
In addition to their award-winning single-origin dark chocolate bars and dark milk chocolate bars, they also press their own cocoa butters for single-origin white chocolate. Because they use very small-scale equipment, they create a unique result…cocoa butter that contains just enough cocoa solids to yield what Zak’s calls “Sonoran Desert White Chocolate.” It’s a white chocolate that looks tan in color (like desert sand) and has a richer, deeper flavor to complement the expected, creamy smoothness of fine white chocolate.
To top it all off, they use their own house-pressed cocoa powders for baking single-origin brownie flights, and Zak’s even offers cold brew cacao. Everything starts with house-roasted cacoa beans.
Keeping It Local
Of all the great chocolate makers and chocolatiers we’ve covered here at Chocolate Connoisseur, Zak’s scores at the very top for its love for local. As Jim proudly proclaims –
“Many of our offerings reflect our continuous, unique use of local ingredients. Arizona has a wide variety of locally-grown and locally-produced ingredients.
Also, the Phoenix area is really a small business economy, so we like to take advantage of what’s available, and to cross promote our local partners.
Our local ingredients include organic and natural products from socially and environmentally-conscious producers, which meshes well with our own mission – a focus on social, economic, and environmental concerns.”
Here’s a quick rundown of the key, Phoenix area infusions:
- Chocolate Honey Bonbons, crafted with honey from a Scottsdale beekeeper (AZ Queen Bee Honey)
- Mocha Truffles, featuring locally-roasted specialty coffee by Peixoto Coffee (a personal favorite) of Chandler, AZ
- Nut Butter Cups, filled with locally made peanut & almond butters (PB Americano)
- Caramel Pecan Turtles, Bark and other nutty creations, crafted with locally-roasted and seasoned nuts (NutSack foods)
Finally, they source their prickly pear and prickly pear honey pieces (a quintessential desert favorite) from an actual cactus farm in Green Valley, AZ (AZ Cactus Ranch).
In addition, Jim and Maureen also created a locally-focused series of bonbons featuring Arizona wines (no, that’s not a typo) and craft beers. Jim explains –
“We have created several pieces featuring AZ wines as a way to introduce locals and visiting tourists to the up and coming AZ wine industry. For example, we recently created an Arizona Syrah-based ganache, in an edible chocolate cup, with a syrah-mousse topping as a dessert for a charity dinner… using the same wine being poured by the dinner’s featured AZ wine maker, Pillsbury Wine Company.
We also did a Valentine’s Day flight for Carlson Creek Vineyard’s Tasting Room, using their Syrah paired with, of course, the same Syrah…can’t go wrong if the wine is actually in the chocolate. Our chocolates are also carried at Carlson Creek Tasting Rooms in Scottsdale and Wilcox.”
Porter Malted Milk Chocolate
Last of all, there’s Zak’s Porter Malted Milk Chocolate. Crafted with already “brewed and used” cacao nibs from a Milk Porter Beer, locally brewed at one of my personal favorites in all of the Phoenix area, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co., or AZ Wilderness for short.
Sort of like recycling nibs (except way better than that sounds), Zak’s takes the same cacao nibs roasted in-house specifically for the AZ Wilderness brew, and, once the beer brewing finishes, takes the nibs back from the fermentation tank, dries and stone grinds them, and then turns them into a porter-infused malted milk chocolate.
Their already chocolaty single origin Nicaraguan cacao nibs then get the added flavor benefit of soaking in the magical fermentation of an AZ Wilderness milk porter. Of course, they’re also gently-wrapped in Zak’s award-winning House Blend Chocolate, and to hear Jim tell it – “Oh… does it taste heavenly.”
By using the “beer soaked” nibs as starting point to grind into a new chocolate, Maureen and Jim start with nibs containing an unusual depth of flavor, from exposure to the vanilla, malts & yeasts used during fermentation, all in addition to the deep, dark chocolate flavor inherent in the Nicaraguan cacao. Jim happily elaborates –
“We used additional malt and made a dark milk chocolate with the intention of paying homage to the flavor profile of the beer, rather than infusing the beer itself into a ganache. And we used Nicaraguan cacao in this case because it was the perfect match for the flavor profile the brewer wanted in this Porter.
Our Nicaraguan cacao comes from Matagalpa, a coffee growing region. This Nicaraguan cacao gives us the deepest, darkest chocolate notes of any cacao we’ve worked with, along with brown sugar/molasses and a hint of vanilla.”
I cannot begin to tell you how amazing that sounds for a coffee, beer, and chocolate lover like yours truly… but I digress.
Maureen and Jim don’t stop with incoming partnerships, however. They also partner with other local businesses to provide the chocolate side to the equation for some outstanding, unique creations.