THEO’S CHOCOLATE AMBASSADOR, Aaron Lindstrom, can tell what kind of tour he’s going to give within 60 seconds of meeting his audience. If there are kids, he’s probably not going to go into things like quality premium pricing scales or the methods of keeping pests away from crops.
“But if right off the bat someone says, ‘So, with conflict in the DRC, how do you guys maintain a crop income?’ it’s like, ‘OK; it’s this kind of tour,’ ” he says.
He’s put together a 70-page book stuffed with facts and figures detailing not only the history of Theo and how the Fremont company does business, but also how and where cacao grows, how it is harvested and how it gets turned into the chocolate we know and love.
The guides at Theo train for three months and have to commit much of the book to memory before giving tours on their own.
The day I speak with Lindstrom, he’s waiting to give a hopeful would-be tour guide her final test. (Spoiler alert: She passed.) He also checks in with new tour guides, tagging along on their tours about a month after they pass, to see how things are going.
It’s only part of what Lindstrom has done to revamp the Theo Chocolate tour, including changing the name to “The Theo Chocolate Experience.”
More than 50,000 people take the factory tour each year, an experience that has been a part of the company since close to when it began in 2006. However, a few years ago, it looked quite different.
At first, people were able to get up close to the bean-to-bar chocolate-making process — practically peering into the refining machines. But safety laws changed, meaning no more kitchen access.
“We had to figure out how to still give the most tactile experience,” Lindstrom says.
He toured other chocolate factories — in the United States and Brazil — to see what he liked and didn’t, finally launching the updated Experience last November.
Now Lindstrom and his fellow guides lead visitors through descriptions of the chocolate belt and Theo’s relationships with farmers in the Congo and Peru. There are fermentation boxes and trays of cocoa beans, and a video that introduces the farmers and shows how the 8-pound mature pods look on the actual tree.
Lindstrom sourced a cocoa pod from Hawaii and worked with a movie studio to create a perfect replica.
“We used to use a football. It was like, ‘How did we not have a cocoa pod?’ ” he says with a laugh.
And there’s chocolate. A lot of chocolate.
Bowls of broken bars are passed around while Lindstrom talks about letting chocolate melt in your mouth instead of chewing it immediately, and how that can intensify the flavor. He lets you taste nibs right after roasting and talks about inclusions such as raspberry, almond and coconut while handing out more shards of chocolate.
You still see the factory and witness the process; it’s just that now, you’re watching the action safely behind glass while munching chocolate.
Watching the magic happen at Theo still is, well, magical. The company’s goal is to make 12,000 pounds of chocolate per day, which works out to about 60,000 bars of chocolate.
When you learn that it takes four cocoa pods to make one bar, and then think about all the pods needed for 60,000 bars, your head can spin. Better just grab another bite.
Still, Theo is a small chocolate company that crafts nearly everything it sells from scratch: the graham crackers and marshmallows in the signature Big Daddy confection; the caramels; the toffee in the newest bar, a 70% dark chocolate Coffee Toffee bar; the root-beer barrels for the 55% dark chocolate root-beer barrel bar; and more.
After the factory tour ends, in the retail shop, you often can find Katy Radtke testing out new confections there.
“Pretty much any new product that we have, we’ll take samples and take it in the store, just to make sure,” she says.,
Radtke is the new product manager, in charge of ideating and creating the initial recipes for new products. She also tweaks existing bars to make them better; this summer, she tested two iterations of a mint chocolate bar, quizzing anyone who came in on which one they liked more.
“We had a vote; there was a clear winner, and that’s going to be our new mint bar,” Radtke says.
Things like this keep people coming back on the tour; Lindstrom says he recently bumped into a woman who has been on the Experience three times since the revamp.
It’s also what keeps him engaged — that and the questions he gets from people on his tours.
“It can be so fun. I’ve been working in chocolate eight years, and I feel like I learn something new every day,” he says.