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Chocolate : Dark Secret

April 22, 1993|KATHIE JENKINS

Cara Kiyohara buys 38,000 pounds of chocolate a month. And that's in the down times. In the fall, when people really start cooking, she buys more.

When she became the confectionary buyer for Trader Joe's six years ago, she made it a priority to find great chocolate at a reasonable price for the 50-store chain. She went to many countries and came back with lots of samples. Then the tasters were gathered together. Trader Joe's doesn't use professionals--Kiyohara recruited chocolate lovers from around the office and neighborhood.

"First we tasted it," Kiyohara says. "Then we melted it, and then we baked with it. We asked each other, 'Do you like this?' Just like the average customer would do." The particular chocolate they all liked best was made in France, in St. Etienne, near Lyons. The factory, which produces chocolate for several European labels, actually developed the recipe specifically for Trader Joe's.

Unlike most American bittersweet chocolate, which contains more sugar than chocolate, the chocolate imported by Trader Joe's is made from 61% cocoa solids. The chocolate content was a consideration, "but the deciding factor," Kiyohara says, "was the taste. Like anything else, if it is good, you want it."

The public seems to agree. "That bar is one of our top five sellers," Kiyohara says. The same chocolate maker also makes a milk chocolate version, which is more to the American taste and is currently Trader Joe's best-selling product.

"We buy so much chocolate," Kiyohara says, "that we've been able to keep the price low. We negotiated a pretty good deal." The 17.6-ounce bars (they are produced for the European market in a 500-gram mold), sell for $2.39. The company recently raised the price of milk chocolate, which contains less cocoa than the bittersweet, to $1.89 a pound.

So who is the manufacturer? The taste and texture is suspiciously close to the excellent, expensive French Valrhona chocolate, sold mainly at specialty stores. No, Kiyohara says, the chocolate is not Valrhona. She refuses to name the actual source: "I worked too hard to find them."

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