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Prices Portlanders pay for treats likely to remain stable despite rising cocoa costs

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Master Chocolatier Julian Rose pours dark chocolate into a shell mold in the test kitchen of Moonstruck Chocolates.With Portland lately considered the nation’s epicenter of artisan chocolate-making, local chocolatiers are again counting on strong holiday sales. That’s good news for everyone from the 100 workers at Moonstruck Chocolate Co., based in St. Johns, to smaller operations such as Woodblock Chocolate, Alma Chocolate and Cacao in Portland.

No one knows for sure how many chocolate-making businesses there are in Portland or how many people work for them, but Portland’s annual three-day ChocolateFest coming in January will be the largest chocolate vendor show in the nation, with at least 80 exhibitors, says Jennifer Kent, the show’s co-producer.

“Eight years ago, we started with 25 vendors and attendance of 800,” Kent says. “We expect attendance of over 10,000 this year.”

Kent says it makes sense that Portland is winning recognition for its hand-crafted chocolates. “This is such a foodie town with a lot of artistic people,” she says. “Consumers here are conscientious about where their food comes from ... and we have a real winter, which lends itself to chocolate-eating.”

Julian Rose, master chocolatier at Moonstruck, said that based on pre-orders, the company will see holiday sales up 5 to 8 percent from 2012. That’s in line with the company’s sales growth of the past six years.

Fine chocolate, it turns out, is considered comfort food even as consumers have faced tighter budgets and a difficult job market, say the chocolate-makers.

“They may buy less, but they don’t want to compromise on quality,” Rose says.

This year, Moonstruck offers 30 holiday gift items at its website, including a 24-piece boxed “Holiday Truffle Advent Calendar” for $65 and a 9-piece “Oregon Distiller’s Truffle Collection” for $20. Least expensive — a dark chocolate Rocky Road Santa tree ornament for $7.50.

Holding the line on prices

Chocoholics won’t see price increases this year despite a steep run-up in the past six months in the cost of two basic ingredients: cocoa and cocoa butter.

According to the London-based International Cocoa Organization, a harvest shortage in Africa has pushed global cocoa prices from $2,197 a ton in February to $2,730 this month.

Sarah Hart, owner of Portland’s Alma Chocolate says she expects to be smarter about efficiencies to keep her truffle production costs in line.

“Portland is a city where people pay attention to food detail,” Hart says. “We like craft food in general — wines, beers and coffee. It’s about being in the Willamette Valley where people support local and like quality.”

She describes the holidays as the time when “things go berserk” in her shop and is predicting a 20 percent increase in sales.

At Moonstruck, Rose explains that connections to international suppliers — who buy cocoa on contract — have helped the company avoid production cost increases.

“At our level we are constantly striving for a visually beautiful and delicious chocolate,” Rose says. “We’ve gotten a bit more efficient about doing it at every level.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Master Chocolatier Julian Rose makes milk chocolate shavings as a decoration in the test kitchen of Moonstruck Chocolates.

Buying direct

Charley Wheelock, who co-owns Woodblock Chocolate with his wife, Jessica Wheelock, in Portland said he avoids commodity pricing by buying direct from cocao bean farmers in such places as Peru and Ecuador.

“We pay a premium price (two or three times the commodity price) for our beans,” he said. The business sells what it calls “bean-to-bar” chocolate made from scratch. Woodblock starts with raw cocao beans that are roasted and hand-processed.

“We encourage our customers to try chocolates originating from different countries,” Wheelock says. “Each is unique. I get excited about flavors from origin to origin.”

A Woodblock gift box, including chocolate bars and other items, sells for $90. Bars go for $4 apiece.

Jesse Manis who operates two Cacao chocolate drink shops in Portland, sees another strong year for all things chocolate. His shops also sell chocolate bars, caramels and other goodies.

“Chocolate is a funny thing. When times are tough chocolate becomes that affordable luxury,” Manis said. “Our sales in the past several years have been up 5 to 10 percent. We’ll see another increase this year.”

Asked in a recent Wall Street Journal story why Portland has become the nation’s Wonkaland, Manis responded by saying, “There is less fear here about breaking rules.”

With that in mind, how about a “Crater Lake Pepper Vodka Truffle” from Moonstruck or a “Madagascar Sambirano” bar from Woodblock Chocolate, or maybe a box of “All Salted Lavender Caramels” from Alma Chocolate?

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