Food is more than what you eat — it’s also about people and the planet. For local chocolatiers Elissa Verdillo and Zach Funk, these values guide Cacao Cocoon, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary.

“I don’t make chocolate just so people can have dessert … it’s revolutionary,” Verdillo says. “It brings people together rather than divides.”

The duo are the sole employees of the family-based, Arcata business and mindful about how their work has enabled them to live as they believe. From the organic and Fairtrade products they use to make their chocolate to generating income to help extended family in Chiapas, Mexico, they strive to have an ethical and socially conscious business.

“We are firm in our values — we really believe in equality. We really believe in unity,” Verdillo, 37, says. “That’s why we name our chocolate bars really powerful names because we want to send a message.”

Today, the “honey-spun” chocolate company has six chocolate bar flavors, including Clarity (vanilla bean and Himalayan salt), Love (vanilla bean, Himalayan salt, ginger and maca), Inspiration (peppermint, vanilla bean and Himalayan salt), Balance (lavender, vanilla bean and Himalayan salt), Transformation (citrus, Himalayan salt, vanilla bean and bergamot) and Unity (cashew milk, vanilla bean and Himalayan salt). They are produced with organic “single origin” Fairtrade cacao butter and cacao powder from a family-run farm in the Dominican Republic.
click to enlarge Himalayan salt, honey and organic single-origin Fairtrade cacao form the base of Cacao Cocoon’s chocolate bars. - DAVE WOODY
  • Dave Woody
  • Himalayan salt, honey and organic single-origin Fairtrade cacao form the base of Cacao Cocoon’s chocolate bars.

“By buying the butter and the powder from the farmers themselves, they get to add value onto it and there’s value kept in the local economy where the cacao is grown,” Funk says. “That’s one ecological, economical and social benefit to buying value-added, single-origin cacao.”

Funk, 39, moved to Humboldt in 2009 from the Bay Area via the Midwest to go to college. He graduated from Humboldt State University with an undergraduate and master’s degree in sociology.

Honey Special

Cacao Cocoon’s use of honey is also part of what makes it special. It is one of the rare small-batch, artisanal chocolate companies in the U.S. making chocolate bars with honey. It uses raw blackberry honey from Collett’s Humboldt Honey, which has hives in Northern California, Oregon and Montana.

“Sugarcane adds a flat sweetness but honey adds to the equation,” Funk says. Verdillo agrees and says honey makes chocolate more sensual and nuanced. It’s also the motivation for a new project that’s now in research and development: creating a line of “bee to bar” chocolates featuring honey from a variety of origins, such as Hawaii and Mexico. They are looking forward to offering a way for people to taste the different notes that emanate from the natural nectar.

Honey is also the sweetener of choice for their bars because it honors the original, traditional methods of sweetening chocolate in Mexico, with which Verdillo has experience.

Verdillo’s Chocolate Journey

Prior to moving to Humboldt, Verdillo, an East Coast native, was a small-scale chocolatier in Palenque, Chiapas. While she was raising her daughter with her former husband and living with extended family, she taught herself how to make chocolate to bring in extra money.

In Chiapas, her initial handmade bars were bean to bar, made from the labor-intensive process of stone grinding local cacao and blending it with honey. She soon changed her recipe and chocolate making process, switching to cacao powder and cacao butter from nearby farms, and honey sourced from Zapatistas.

click to enlarge Elissa Verdillo envisions using chocolate as a bridge to connect Humboldt County with Palenque, Mexico, where she hopes to buy a farm. - DAVE WOODY
  • Dave Woody
  • Elissa Verdillo envisions using chocolate as a bridge to connect Humboldt County with Palenque, Mexico, where she hopes to buy a farm.
Under the name Cacao Hermonilla, and living in the larger city of San Cristobal de las Casas, Verdillo sold chocolate to yoga studios, health food stores and markets, and occasionally hand-to-hand. She had a product people liked but it needed more traction to become something bigger.

Fast forward to 2009, Verdillo and her daughter Solstice, then a toddler, moved to Arcata. She put chocolate making aside and says she worked as many as three jobs just to get by, including cleaning homes. Then in 2010, she met Funk and the two eventually teamed up personally and professionally, and nurtured Verdillo’s dream of building a chocolate business.

In 2011, Verdillo started the makings of their handcrafted chocolate bar business. While Funk was bringing in income from teaching online classes, she began the process of putting things in place, like licensing and securing a commercial kitchen. As she had done in Mexico, she made the chocolates, packaged them and loaded them up in her basket to hit the streets, selling the bars at farmers markets and festivals in Humboldt County.

“She scraped, scrimped, saved, ate beans and rice, and saved up to build the business,” Funk says. “From the get-go, it was 100 percent from her sweat equity.”

Running the company has been no small feat especially since the couple is raising three daughters, Solstice, 14, Ominira, 5, and Mbeya, 2.

Since its start, pre-pandemic, the business mainly relied on face-to-face sales at events like the Eureka Friday Night Market and was distributed at just a few stores locally until 2020. With the pandemic, Cacao Cocoon refocused efforts to its website, social media and online promotions. As a result, Funk estimates sales have been up about 35 percent. The company's products are also now available in more local stores. So now, business is more than steady and they’re looking to an exciting future.

Building Bridges with Palenque

In February, Verdillo and daughter Solstice went to Chiapas to visit Solstice’s father’s extended family. While there, Verdillo witnessed firsthand how much of Mexico’s economy was suffering with tourism coming to a halt. Cacao Cocoon is now selling handmade jewelry by Solstice’s grandmother, Leticia May, with 100 percent of the profits going to May. Her necklaces, earrings and bracelets are made of amber, seeds, red coral and other natural gems from the area. When Verdillo returns later this year from Palenque, she’ll have more jewelry and clothes to sell.

Building a deeper connection with Palenque is also part of the couple’s vision. This summer, Verdillo and Funk will also be looking at land in Palenque with the plan of building a farm where they can grow cacao, raise bees, preserve some land in the jungle, provide jobs and support the local economy.

click to enlarge Elissa Verdillo envisions using chocolate as a bridge to connect Humboldt County with Palenque, Mexico, where she hopes to buy a farm. - DAVE WOODY
  • Dave Woody
  • Elissa Verdillo envisions using chocolate as a bridge to connect Humboldt County with Palenque, Mexico, where she hopes to buy a farm.

They are already in the beginning stages of cultivating cacao in Palenque. “I’m envisioning connecting Humboldt with Palenque with this project,” Verdillo says. She hopes the Humboldt community will want to be a part of this. “We have a certain amount of money set aside for this land and we know that we have a great following here in Humboldt and a true dedication. We know people who believe in the natural world and preservation.”

As the Palenque project comes together, locals can continue to enjoy Cacao Cocoon’s honey-spun chocolate. The Clarity bar is the best seller, by the way, but the Unity bar, made with cashew milk, is a smoother and creamier dark chocolate version and Verdillo’s favorite.

When you taste Cacao Cocoon’s chocolate, they hope you’ll think about their story, their values and Verdillo’s sage words, that chocolate is more than dessert. She says, “We want people to eat this chocolate bar and remember.”
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Andrea Juarez

Andrea Juarez

Andrea Juarez moved to Humboldt County in 2013 from Colorado. She writes about health, the outdoors, business, food and culture. When she is not at her keyboard, you’ll find her exploring her new environs. She is enamored with the area’s stunning coastal trails, the smell of eucalyptus trees after a rain, and... more
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