17 October 2005

Chocolatier has social vision for new venture

Cruz Guerrero

BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal

October 17, 2005

Mike McKenna, while inaugurating his growing company's new chocolate-making kitchen in Jalpa, Guanajuato, earlier this month, pointed to an odd source of inspiration: a nearby church with four walls and no roof. Its congregation celebrated mass under a tree for seven years before finally erecting the walls. The building still lacks a roof thirteen years later.

Someone started passing around a straw hat after hearing the story and by the end of the evening the assembled crowd had raised more than 3,000 pesos (US280). The municipal government promised to match the donations. The crew that constructed McKenna's kitchen will finish the job in the coming months.

"Twenty years is long enough waiting for Jesus to give them an answer," McKenna said laughingly, after the hat made its way around the grounds.

Although the story amused the assembled crowd, who nibbled on handmade truffles and artisan cheeses from Queretaro and sipped Texas wines imported by a San Miguel grape grower, McKenna's girlfriend Barbara Hartinger gently reminded him during the middle of his anecdote: "We're here to talk about chocolate."

María Elena Morena, McKenna's first employee, cut the ribbon, officially opening Sensual Chocolatiers' 500 square-meter facility.

The new kitchen, built on a hectare of land 20 minutes from San Miguel de Allende, includes environmentally-friendly designs, gardens and three pet burros. More than 4,000 agave plants surround the building. Twenty beds of herbs yield lavender, rosemary, sage, chilies and mint key ingredients in McKenna's eclectic creations. Sensual Chocolatiers also recycles its gray and black waters for irrigation purposes.

"I wanted this place to be 100-percent environmentally friendly," McKenna said proudly.

He also wanted to create jobs in an area with few employment opportunities.

"One of the reasons I came to Jalpa is because there's a lot of poverty," he explained.

His company now employs thirty people – most from the nearby area. Between two and five job seekers arrive at the kitchen each day. Some carry machetes to ward off snakes while trekking across the countryside.

"They come over these mountains in all directions," McKenna said. "There's a lot of walking in the Jalpa Valley."

An unconventional workplace, employees often christen the truffles they create and participate in hiring decisions. Employee-inspired truffles include: "Rosa Mexicana," a mixture of dark chocolate ganache spiced with cinnamon, almond and coffee and dipped in dark chocolate; and "Catalina," a combination of caramel brittle and coconut.

GROWING STEADILY In addition to the church with no roof, McKenna draws inspiration from the kitchen's bucolic setting and expects it will provide the same for his employees.

"These surroundings are for the people who work here," he explained. "This place will probably be closed to the public eventually" in order to maintain tough hygienic standards.

The kitchen's construction also created jobs, but McKenna, thinking in the long term, hired many of the same locals, who initially cleared rocks from the property. In the process, the men learned a skill. McKenna, a mason by trade, now considers many of them masters.

But McKenna situated his business in Jalpa for more reasons than altruism. The local women, he noticed, were especially adept at rolling masa, or tortilla dough: a skill similar to parts of the truffle-marking process.

Although the company is enjoying success nowadays, growth came slowly for Sensual Chocolatiers. Five years ago, McKenna, who has no profession confectionery training, sold his truffles from a tray in the San Miguel de Allende Public Library, making US12 a day.

Morena, who was working in McKenna's housing complex, joined him early on, forgoing a paycheck for the first year of operations. It took McKenna two years to perfect his first batch of recipes, which now incorporate Mexican staples like guava, chilies and agave and unique pairings like white chocolate with lemon and rosemary.

Through word of mouth advertising and a promotional assist from the municipal government, the business slowly started to expand.

Sensual Chocolatiers now produces approximately 6,000 truffles a week, selling the small indulgences through retail outlets in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Queretaro and Ajijic, Jalisco and directly to wholesale customers. The local municipality, the Guanajuato state government and Los Pinos (the president's residence) now gift Sensual Chocolates' truffles to visiting dignitaries.

The Canadian expatriate aspires to greater things though.

"My goal is to franchise in the United States," he said, adding that he's fielded inquiries from the as far way as Hawaii and the Middle East.

"If we can do that then we've got the capability of expanding four fold."

And even more importantly to McKenna, it would create more jobs.

From the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition.

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