Updated: Sep 25, 2020
When I accepted Juan Gonzales's proposal to write an article about his company MABCO, I thought perhaps you would be interested in a different perspective including cacao beans distribution.
Juan is what we define in Italy "un personaggio" which means he is quite a character, outspoken and authentic. And let me be blunt about this, if you are conservative in "our" thinking who doesn`t need to be reformed by taking know-how of the completeness and plausibility of different "profiles" in the "field", this reading is not for you. We must be aware of sensitive topics, however. In fact, the informal nature of these questions, far from limiting their scope, actually enables delicate issues like immigration, integration, direct-trade, and fair-trade to be openly discussed in the slightest provocative way.
MABCO was born from the idea and the challenge of finding the best quality coffee and cocoa beans while at the same time trying to help the small coffee and cocoa producers of Mexico and Latin America. By providing a fair price to producers and co-ops the benefits will be felt by small communities that will be able to grow economically and provide a better quality of life for their families. We always visit our small producers and co-op producers in every region to be able to understand and witness all the hard work that takes place in bringing you the best products.
What is your company's background? When and how did you start your project? How many people are involved?
I have been in the business for the 10 last years. The idea starts when I got a divorce and I was struggling in all the aspects of my life, job opportunities included. Be a Mexican immigrant can represent a great trigger for the working dimension. So I decided to return to my villages in the mountains of Veracruz where I grew up in extreme poverty as the son of a single mother. We used to work in the coffee and cocoa plantations and I remember it was a hard life yet simple and genuinely happy. It was back at my home that I realized that my call was to bring to Canada the best coffee and cocoa beans. I am a one-man show with many hats from delivering, sourcing, testing, accounting, sell represent, media promote heavy-duty cargo man, driver... Sometimes I temporarily hire people too.
What does it mean to be an importer? Do you just buy cacao beans from local farmers to place them on the market? Or is it about directly being part of all the process from tree to bar in terms of quality with the aim of engaging and developing local cacao growers practices?
Be an importer and distributor means you have the control of everything, from the sourcing to the distribution, but cacao is not that easy because most all the farmers are not even educated to read and write. Therefore they can`t deal with all the paperwork to export which means I have to fill in the gaps ab origine. Indeed I think the word "direct-trade" is not used properly. Most of the chocolate makers just visit the farmers buying in small volumes and bringing back at home the cacao beans suitcase by themselves or through DHL.
Looking deeply at the craft chocolate market from the source, there are so many points that need clarification and the claim "direct trade" is one of them. Unfortunately, the reality is still far removed from that. The truth is that people/businesses like MABCO are actually connected to farmers and plantations with the necessary export/import experience facing underlying issues of the process by facilitating communication, mobility, and even improving the quality of the products.
Bean-to-bar chocolate makers are mainly small companies that cannot face the expensive steps of the process like dealing with government and certifications. Each one of them uses 100 or 250 kilos of cacao beans for each origin at the best. Plus not everyone offers a huge assortment to the final costumers starting from 3 up to 5 single-origin bars (excluding limited edition and inclusion products). In the end, cacao beans are direct-trade but not personally from chocolate makers. But if we talk about tree-to-bar the situation is different.
Another observation should be made about cacao cooperatives and consequential integration. It happens frequently to find obstacles in changing for the better their culture and practices. Also, it is possible to confront crooks and brokers and the general problem of corruption.
I am glad in Honduras I found a safe place to work and people willing to learn and to welcome me. I was the first to import to Canada these beans that have won several awards.
Which one comes first: the passion for coffee, chocolate, or vanilla? Or did you focus on all the areas since the beginning?
All tree from the beginning. My business plan is divided into 60 % coffee, 30 % cocoa beans, and 10% vanillas.
What are the origins/varieties do you offer currently? Can you describe their flavor profile? Are you looking to enrich the assortment with new entries? Maybe rare and not popular ones?
Honduras Copan 3 profile Trinitarios CO-OP from Omoa region, Santa barbara Copan region, bronze winner in the academic chocolate UK 2019. Notes of walnuts, sponged toffee, black olive, and nutty.
Ucayali river Peruvian Trinitarios CO-OP. Notes of bananas, raising, and strawberries winner is many awards and selects in the final in the salon of chocolate in Paris 2019.
Mexican tabasco single Estate, Trinitario variety. Notes of spices, tobacco, cinnamon. Award winner at the northwest festival 2018.
Mexican tabasco, white criollo, notes of pink grapefruit, lemons, and herbals.
Vietnam Dak-Lak single-origin and trinitario variety. Notes of sweet cherry, lemon, oranges, and mocha winners of 10 awards at the academic chocolate awards
Papua new guinea family Estate, trinitario variety. Notes of raspberry, bread, wine, and strawberries winners of bronze awards in academic chocolate wards 2019 and international chocolate awards.
Overall, I try to keep what people want and need always delivering the best quality. About rare origin/variety, it is a hard-selling product, and, often, the value ratio for price and quantity is out of the rage for small chocolate makers.
Are all your products fair trade and organic certified? Why are these attributes so important today?
Well, I have a personal problem with certifications in special with Fairtrade because they are only "statements" that just help farmers to sell the commodities to a higher price but it is not always a sign of good quality. In addition, farmers or cooperatives have to pay 2 % of royalties to use the Fairtrade network and logo. Anyways, I think it doesn`t help the local communities. It is just a subtle form of brainwashing farmers, exporters, importers, and retailers.
Organics have another protocol at the agriculture level which is very expensive and it clearly reflects on the prices of the products. I carry two organic cocoa beans origin, the rest are premiums.
You are located in Canada, Ontario. But do you distribute internationally too? For example in America and/or Europe?
Of course! I am a registered Canadian Company but I can sell anywhere in the world. I already have costumers in Asia, Europe, and the USA.
Why does MABCO stand out in the specialty coffee & cocoa importer market?
I am too small to make any difference but what I achieved so far makes me happy and it strengthened me to keep moving forward.
Can you name a few craft chocolate makers who source your cacao beans?
Ultimately Chocolate, Sweetness Chocolate, Kasama Chocolate, Donna Elvira Chocolate, Hummingbird Chocolate.
Who are the main MABCO cacao beans suppliers in Mexico and/or South America?
Hacienda Jesus maria Mexico, Ucayali rive Peru, Coagrisal Honduras, T-bros Vietnam, PNG group, and a few more are on the way.
I know TBROS VIETNAM CACAO DAK LAK is part of your portfolio. I tried some Tbros chocolate bar samples and I admire their story and hard work. Why did you choose this tree to bar chocolate maker as your Vietnam supplier?
In reality, it is the opposite. They choose me! Based on my reputation, they reached me out with the purpose to establish their brand internationally. Regarding my position, I gave them a chance warning it was not going to be a cakewalk because, in my experience, being an immigrant means to work 3 times harder to be noticed for quality. Plus honesty and respect are very important to me.
Do you produce chocolate bars? If yes, what origin and percentage can we soon expect to try? What is the name are you going to use?
No, I just make samples 100% unrefined chocolate paste for me and my clients. During the process, I record the roasting time, conch time and I use to age the sample for 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days. It is a very helpful method for flavors control.
Did you observe any positive changes for your business, farmers, and chocolate makers after the COVID Collision?
Nope. As I said many times, chocolate is a luxury product, and people are still going to buy industrial products reading chocolate just as an occasional sweet treat. Because of the pandemic situation, the bean to bar movement has stopped. I think it is necessary to start from the beginning again. Sadly, back then in march with the COVID Boom big corporations started to restock all the raw materials at very ridiculous prices taking advantage of the crisis for different reasons: destroy what the bean to bar businesses have built in the last 10 years and benefit on the deep economic issues of farmers and co-ops left without contracts, cash, and the government support. Everything to produce cheap chocolate, easy to sell in big volume. All this situation affects the sugar and coffee industry too. ONLY BUSINESSES WITH SOLID SAVINGS AND THE PACIENTE TO SURVIVE WILL DO GREAT IN THE LONG TERM.
What are the areas most affected by the recent (non-temporary) pandemic situation in parallel with the weather condition (summertime)?
Logistic, shipment delays, stolen cargo, not-fulfilled payments, higher rent prices, etc.
Can you describe how to taste cacao beans? What should we expect/consider as fine quality fruit?
The fruit has a unique flavor of soft white fruit resembling soursop fruit and guava. But if you pay attention it has citrusy and breadfruit aromatic notes too.
What are MABCO's upcoming plans?
Survive! I am going to introduce Nicaragua cocoa beans from INGEMANN CACAO soon.
Thank you, Juan Gonzales, I wish you the best!