Who: Mike Orlando
Where: Santa Barbara, California
Santa Barbara has great wine and Mexican food, but have you heard there's a bean-to-bar chocolate maker producing some insanely good chocolate? Mike Orlando of Twenty-Four Blackbirds is DIY to the nth degree, from the equipment he built himself — all with curiosity, obsessive testing, and the power of the internet! — to the kraft paper packaging he prints on using a printer you'd find in your mom's office. And of course, the elegant 1/2 ounce chocolate bars illustrated with a feather imprint. Look out, Willy Wonka! There's a new mad chocolate scientist around!
In 2010 Mike, his girlfriend Elaine, and his sister Gina started Twenty-Four Blackbirds. At first they all continued to work their full time jobs despite making chocolate well into the wee hours of the morning, but now Mike leads the charge while his collaborators have stepped back into a 'volunteer' work mode and work one day per week for the chocolate company. Mike's background is in marine biology and chemistry (he even spent a few years as an aquarist). His skills in running a well-designed experiment have served him well throughout the chocolate making process. As it turns out, creating a subtly sweet, innocent-looking 1/2 ounce chocolate bar is far from simple.
Twenty-Four Blackbirds chocolate — wrapped simply in kraft paper — comes in at an approachable price point ($2.50 per bar). This is a chocolate bar meant for everyone. (No fancy gold wrappers, pretense and pomp!) Each bar has intense, explosive flavor. Mike is making some of the best chocolate around and he's doing it on his own terms, often building his own equipment, with a lot of experimentation, tinkering and of course, tasting.
The Test Kitchen
Twenty-Four Blackbirds chocolate moved from the home kitchen to several commercial spaces before landing at its current home: a 1,500 square-foot factory smack in the middle of downtown Santa Barbara, California. The space is partitioned into four quadrants where different steps occur. Eventually, Mike would like to create a retail/tasting space at the front of the house, but for now, it's enough to keep up with the chocolate making and wholesale orders. Many of the pieces Mike uses in his kitchen he's designed and built himself.
The Secret SauceMike's inventiveness and ingenuity set him apart from other chocolate makers. (Although, to be fair, to be in the bean-to-bar chocolate industry, you've got to have a streak of these qualities!) When one step of the husk/nib separation process proves inefficient, he modifies the machine he built himself to add a window to see what's going on and troubleshoot. He constantly experiments, researches, and reaches out to others in the field to hone the best flavor in his chocolate.
The Business Plan
Twenty-Four Blackbirds has grown in an organic, we're-busting-at-the-seams fashion. Every success (and challenge!) necessitates a new approach, different timing, a move-in kitchen or a combination of these factors. The first few batches were sold at local coffee shop The French Press and the small bars flew off the counter. The 1/2 ounce size of the bar is ideal for snacking on with a coffee and a friend, an aspect that sets the product apart.
Mike claims to have had great luck in marketing, but at the core, people love his chocolate because it tastes great, it's affordable and the hand-drawn illustrations of local Santa Barbara blackbirds (all done by Elaine and Mike) make it an irresistible purchase.
Santa Barbara — the town known for wine, high rent and ridiculously good weather — was ready for a great chocolate bar. Being the first local chocolate of its kind, the bar has been successful in all the local cafes and shops. The cafes are integral to the local business, which convinced Mike to cast a broader net. Mike also works closely with a local chocolatier Maya of Chocolate Maya. Together they discuss farming practices, the farms he sources his beans from, and new ways to deliver his chocolate. (He recently developed a hot chocolate mix!)
Next up? Inviting local artists to help him with the packaging for his next few bars.
6 Quick Questions for Mike
1. Favorite online resources for your kitchen?
2. The one thing you can't live without?
A project to work on. I get bored easily and when there's nothing to do I go a little stir crazy. Making chocolate is a perfect remedy for this because there is always some step of the process to tweak, or some piece of equipment that needs building or fixing.
3. If you could spend a day with anyone, who would it be and why?
I know I should name a celebrity, but in reality it's my girlfriend. Even though we live together, we haven't had more than a handful of days in the three years since I started this business to relax, not think about work, and spend the entire day together. But maybe we'd invite David Bowie.
4. What's in your Google reader?
My Google what? I almost never have time to keep up with the same websites on a regular basis. I'm a fan of seeking out articles to learn how to do something specific or how to solve a particular problem. That said, I have been known to get sucked in to xkcd and The Perry Bible Fellowship.
5. If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it?
Only a million? Just kidding. I have a lot of ideas for building equipment that I'd love to see become a reality, as well as a lot of testing and sensing equipment I'd love to get to help me perfect my craft further. Central air conditioning for my factory would be awesome, too, now that the weather is heating up. How much do I have left? I would also like to start a small cacao farm so I can really get to know the whole chocolate making process from seed to bar. If there's any money left after that, I'd put it toward getting a full night's sleep.
6. What is the best way to taste your chocolate?
Any accompaniments or tasting notes we should be aware of?I've noticed that everyone eats chocolate their own way — some take little bites, some big ones, some chew it up while others let it melt slowly in their mouth — and all of those are the best way. I would just add that if you want a more complete experience, you should take the bar out of the wrapper and check out its color, sheen, and aroma, since all single origin chocolates are different in those respects. Snap a small piece off and smell again. From there, eat in your preferred manner, but just do it slowly and pay attention to the flavors you get as you inhale through your mouth and exhale through your nose.
Always remember to try tasting the same chocolate a few times throughout the day, because whatever you've eaten prior, as well as the temperature of your mouth, will effect what aspects of the chocolate's flavor profile stand out to you.
(Images: Leela Cyd)