They may be on opposite ends of the country, but Zak’s Chocolate in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Birmingham, Alabama-based Match Chocolate, have plenty in common. Both are small businesses whose delicious, hand-crafted chocolates have grown popular in their communities. They also share a goal of making single-source, high-quality chocolate more accessible in their regions.
Consensus spoke with Zak’s co-founders and owners, Maureen and Jim Elitzak as well as with Kala Northrup, the founder and owner of Match, to learn more about the journey to becoming chocolatiers and proprietors.
Before Zak’s, making chocolate goodies was a pastime of Maureen Elitzak’s and an outlet for gifting – because who doesn’t like chocolate?
“It’s just something that most everybody likes,” she noted. “In the beginning, it was a way to do other creative, fun things that I could give to people that they really enjoyed.” “It started off when our daughters were younger.” “Their sports coaches, teachers — it gave me an outlet where I was able to make a whole bunch of stuff and give it to people.”
Jim Elitzak told Consensus, “Maureen was doing this as a hobby. She took classes…it was a holiday thing…and as the hobby grew, she started using finer and finer chocolate until she was using essentially the same chocolate that all of the five-star resort pastry chefs use.”
The couple had moved from city-to-city for Jim Elitzak’s job, and upon returning to Arizona ten years ago they came to a realization: high-quality, organic chocolate was hard to find. Maureen Elitzak concluded that if they couldn’t buy it, they would just have to make it.
“The way I tell her story is, Maureen’s not one to give up on things. She’s more of a “there must be a way” [kind of person]. Through research, she found out that you can source organic cocoa beans and actually make your own chocolate.”
Maureen Elitzak’s persistence convinced her husband, initially dismayed by the messiness of chocolate-making, to join her in her newest hobby: making chocolate from scratch.
After learning and improving their craft, the pair began giving the treats to people and receiving positive feedback. This led them to open a small factory and retail shop in Scottsdale.
“We decided to take a shot and open a business,” said Jim Elitzak. The unique angle of the business is that we make our own chocolate. We have sort of the front end, which is chocolate making, and the back end, the public-facing end, turning our own chocolate – which is unique to us – into finished products that we can share with people.”
Zak’s is just one of a growing number of chocolate shops across the U.S. that both make 100 percent of their own chocolate and all of the cocoa beans used are ethically sourced. Its products range from vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free single-origin dark chocolate bars to bonbons, truffles, and even a cocoa grilling rub. Zak’s sells traditional truffle flavors like raspberry, mint, and orange, and more experimental ones like blackberry cardamom and locally-inspired prickly pear.
The single-origin distinction indicates that all cocoa has been harvested from one region – preserving the terroir; allowing you to taste differences in each chocolate. Everything is done by hand — from the sorting and roasting of the beans to the printing of cocoa butter and the wrapping of the bars.
Despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the owners say that it’s been repeat customers who have helped keep business alive — some of whom have bought even more than they did before the pandemic. Jim Elitzak also attributes positive word of mouth to the company’s overall success.
“People share, gift, and send it to their friends. It’s been great–that’s the most fun about this.”
When we spoke at the end of October, the Elitzak’s said that they were in the process of expanding their store by around 40 to 50 percent, allowing them to increase productivity and storage capacity. The decision was made after the space next door to their shop became available in May.
More than 1,500 miles away from Zak’s in Birmingham, is Match Chocolate. The company’s founder Kala Northrup’s relationship with chocolate was forged during her time in pastry school in New York City. It was the challenge of making the confection that drew her to the craft.
“I always found that throughout pastry school I really liked the challenge, and chocolate was definitely the hardest thing.”
Much like Maureen Elitzak, Northrup said that she began making treats with pre-made chocolate.
“At that point, I wasn’t doing bean-to-bar, I was doing more work with already made chocolate making confections, truffles and bonbons, and what-not.”
After moving to Birmingham, Northrup made the same discovery as the Elitzak’s did in Scottsdale: craft chocolate was hard to find.
This, in addition to the gift of some equipment from her partner, began Northrup’s candy making journey. While she admits her first batches were far from great, it was the noticeable improvement that kept her going.
Now Northrup is the sole owner and operator of Match, which she runs – in addition to working a full-time job – and specializes in single-origin chocolate bars. The products are vegan and handmade by Northrup using 100 percent ethically sourced cocoa beans.
The Match site describes the bars as “Two ingredient dark chocolate bars made from just single origin cocoa beans and raw Florida cane sugar. Each bar tastes different due to the flavors of the regions in which they are grown.” Examples include the Cahabon bar, made with cocoa from Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, and the Pangoa bar with cocoa from the upper Amazon of Peru.
Northrup also sells different flavored inclusion bars that use ingredients like Alabama-grown satsumas, coconut milk, candied peanuts, lime, and lemongrass to create more experimental flavors. All of these bars can be found on Match’s Current Offerings page.
Northrup also sells cocoa powder and offers Match packs: “two different single-origin chocolate bars matched together to show how much of a difference the taste of place can make.”
All of the bars are hand wrapped by Northrup who uses a “simple, almost plain brown craft paper packaging,” with an interior foil lining.
“When everyone’s ornate and you’re simple, you also standout,” Northrup added.
Match currently sells to customers in the Birmingham area, primarily at farmer’s markets and pop-ups alongside other small businesses. Northrup said she has done collaborations with shops that feature local makers.
While the lack of markets and in-person sampling during the pandemic has impacted business, Northrup says that a company she works with that curates gift boxes has actually seen an uptick in corporate demand. This means that Northrup’s bars have been featured in many gifts given by Alabama-based businesses to employees, making for an “unexpected big bonus for the year in terms of sales.”
“It’s been really great because everything that’s featured in these gift boxes is local products. It’s a lot of cross-marketing, most of us know each other, and I think also businesses are seeing it as a way to help their local economy and small businesses by giving local things as well.”
The challenge of making high-quality chocolate and being able to introduce her products to others is what has drawn Northrup to the craft.
“I really like the challenge of it and I really like good chocolate. Everybody’s had it right? A lot of people have had chocolate at a very low caliber only. When you can open up that door and show people where it was grown, how it was fermented – that it’s fermented in the first place – “did you know that? Most people don’t.”
One thing most people can agree on, these small artisanal confections are changing the chocolate game for the sweeter.