In a big city where businesses come and go, ChocoSol has built a place for itself in Toronto. ChocoSol Traders is a unique enterprise producing cacao-based chocolate products in the traditional Oaxacan style, but there’s much more to it than just the beans. (Though they also do fair-trade coffee bean roasting.) The entire project came about during founder Michael Sacco’s research trip (on collectives) to southern Mexico, where he was invited into an indigenous community to install a solar concentrator. A village elder and medicine woman within the community asked to use the concetrator to prepare her traditional chocolate.
As ChocoSol partner Mathieu McFadden tells it, “upon tasting this ancient form of rustic chocolate with its strong flavours and medicinal bitter kick, Michael, like most northerners, had his expectations blown out of the water, expecting the chocolate to be smooth like a Hershey bar. But what he did was scrape the surface of an ancient, beautiful and sacred food tradition.” Sacco later focused his work on making chocolate, using it as a vehicle to engage in his research. The ChocoSol founder ended up grinding chocolate for up to 13 hours a day using hand grinders, later replaced by bicycle-powered ones to better utilize the leg muscles (after Sacco noticed his grinding arm swelling with muscle compared to his other arm.) He remained in Mexico for three years producing cacao-based chocolate and selling it in farmer’s markets, which, McFadden notes, fuelled and supported the research and allowed him to build relationships with cacao forest garden stewards within Chiapas and Oaxaca.
McFadden himself is a key innovator among the Uma Nota community. Along with Sacco and the rest of their team, he has brought ChocoSol along over six-plus years of sweat equity, hundreds of pounds of cacao-based products and thousands of kilometres travelled with a full bike trailer for the markets. ChocoSol is a presence at nearly every Toronto-area farmer’s market and festival you want to be part of, from the popular Thursdays at Dufferin Grove Park and the recent establishment of the West End Food Co-op, coming out of the Sorauren market. Add to that annual appearances at Hillside Festival and others including our own festival, plus a home base on the northern edge of the city’s west end, and you have yourself an honest, busy and fun-loving company doing good business with integrity to spare.
Bicycle-powered technology has become a huge part of the ChocoSol initiative. “Bicycles are one of the few human scale tools that are present and can be repaired everywhere on the planet,” says McFadden. “This is why we continue to base our open source model of food production and distribution on these technique and on our friendship-based trading networks. ChocoSol works with artisanal scale tools — as opposed to machines, which displace the workers and disconnect them from the process.”
ChocoSol’s business practices are a model in ethical social enterprise and in fusing traditional food production approaches with modern applications. They still work directly with various indigenous farmers who specialize in Mayan forest garden techniques, which means organic agriculture drawing on ancient varieties of fruit trees, edible plants and sustainable goods like cacao, coffee, vanilla and cinnamon, which can be traded with ChocoSol or neighbouring communities. McFadden notes that “the Maya were agricultural masters and their work still exists within the polyculture of the Lacandon jungle. We have been working with our Chiapan friends to re-kindle some of these ancients foods and traditions.”
ChocoSol supports local families in those regions of southern Mexico, relying on them for cacao production but also extending the open-source practices — such as sharing resources and simple, accessible food production technologies — to their partner-producers there. The company has also supported initiatives like the establishment of an independently run ChocoSol operation in Peterborough, and the recently opened Maizal in Toronto’s Liberty Village, where they sell ChocoSol products and serve the drinking chocolate, but also uses traditional grinding methods for the corn tortillas that are the cafe’s focus.
A few more words from McFadden on what ChocoSol is all about:
“ChocoSol doesn’t offer another critic of how the industrial food system is broken, nor does it offer itself as a solution to the injustices between the global north and south.
ChocoSol offers a beautiful piece of chocolate, which is a symbolic invitation to partake in a working example of alternatives to the current dominance-based business practices — that top-down approach where the bottom line is the almighty dollar. We practice horizontal trade, which means we employ non-hierarchical business structures.
ChocoSol is a creative vehicle for all of our staff (seven full-time on payroll with benefits and five part-time staff, technicos and bike mechanics) to express our creativity, be it in food and hospitality, agriculture, social justice and most importantly, conviviality and the acknowledgement that other worlds do and can co-exist.”