Friday, December 2, 2011

[EID Feature] Pete's Chocolate Company: Detroit's First Chocolatier

The Adventures of Pete and Pete's Chocolates. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg at Rust Belt Market.

Pete Steffy of Pete's Chocolate Company says he has always been "really into food and cooking," but it was when he was living in the small city of San Cristóbal de las Casas teaching English in Mexico that he got into chocolate.

"There was this really cool chocolate shop there run by this guy who studied chocolate-making in Mexico City," Pete says. "I had this friend who's just one of those guys who makes friends with everyone and everyone loves him [one of those really dynamic types], and he somehow was able to convince this guy to do a chocolate class with us. I think he charged us, like, $50 each, and there was four of us there for a week."

And so Pete learned the craft of chocolate confectionery from chocolatier Iván Arce in the indigenous home of the cacao tree.

"I really enjoyed doing it and began experimenting with it," Pete continues. "I was doing really small batches and giving them away--not that it's hard to give away chocolate! Then a lot of those people wanted to buy chocolate to give to other people, and it sort of grew organically from there."

If you ever visited the phenomenal (now unfortunately closed) Burton Theatre in Detroit, you may have seen some of Pete's chocolates. The Burton was the first place where his products were available to purchase. Pete is friends with the guys who ran the Burton and cites them as a real inspiration to him. "If these guys can open a theater, [you] can do anything [in Detroit]!" he jokes. (Then immediately tells me he's kidding and very sincerely says their efforts were truly inspiring to him...Pete just seems like the kind of affable guy that won't even rag on his buddies in jest.) Much as they sought to offer an eclectic movie mix in their theatre, they also wanted to have some unique items in their concession stand. Pete's chocolate was perfect. "It was a good start to get my name out there."

Pete makes mostly hand-rolled truffles, which are a little different than what you usually see in chocolate shops like Godiva. These are fresh truffles; there's no hard shell but instead they are a consistent soft, fudgey texture. They are hand-crafted using fine bittersweet (60% cocoa), milk (31% cocoa) and white chocolate from the world's largest chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut in Belgium, then blended with European butter, fresh cream from Southeast Michigan’s own Calder Dairy and the highest quality spices, nuts, dried or preserved fruits and flavorings available. Pete has about a dozen standard flavors he always carries (like cinnamon cayenne and peanut butter) plus some "oddball" flavors he switches up, like rosemary sea salt and white chocolate orange cranberry.

In addition to molded and dipped truffles Pete just recently started experimenting with chocolate bars. He also makes different kinds of hot chocolate, which includes a vegan French-style hot chocolate made with coconut milk and flavored with exotic spices like chai and garam masala. (You seriously would NEVER be able to tell that it's vegan; this hot chocolate is thicker, richer and more decadent than most other places that use whole milk.)

Last Christmas, business for Pete and his eponymous chocolate exploded, and on the heels of the new cottage industry food laws allowing for small, independent artisan food producers to work out of their kitchens (instead of requiring a commercial kitchen, as it was required previously), Pete set up his LLC and made his hobby an official business.

Pete's Chocolate can now be found at select special events around town, like the upcoming 2nd Annual Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar next Friday (Dec. 9, 5-11 p.m.), but you'll primarily be able to find him at the Rust Belt Market in Ferndale on weekends (Saturdays and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Fridays 6-10 p.m. through the holidays). You can order online for pick-up or delivery, and Pete also caters special events.

Because demand has grown so quickly, Pete isn't totally sure what to do with it next (it was just a "hobby," after all). But what started as a hobby has now evolved into Detroit's first and only maker of artisan chocolates, and Pete is now considering his options: maybe opening a storefront, or spending next summer interning at chocolate shops in Europe, or even importing cacao beans and making chocolate straight from the bean itself. "What better place than Detorit to do that?" he says.  "It’s funny that in some ways Detroit can be a hard place to start a luxury food item business, but also there’s no chocolate in Detroit right now." It's a bagel desert; it's a chocolate desert ... but thanks to Detroit's DIY bakers and chocolate-makers, the times they are a-changin', and the Paris of the Midwest finally has its own chocolatier.

Want to see more? Check out the Flickr set here.