Photo by CHRIS GEORGEPinellas Chocolate’s lineup of bars is on display at its new retail store at 10550 72nd St. N. in Largo.
LARGO – The Pinellas Chocolate company is not something out of a Roald Dahl novel. It features a sanitized kitchen packed with state-of-the-art stainless steel equipment, and is tucked away off Bryan Dairy Road in a nondescript industrial part of town.
There’s no magic. There’s no mystery. There’s only a family and its pursuit of crafting delicious chocolate bars.
And Pinellas Chocolate’s owners hope their first retail store will be the perfect platform to showcase those bars.
“It’s a fairly methodical approach,” co-owner Addam Vessa said. “We all kind of collaborate.”
The businesslike method is a result of the company’s roots in manufacturing.
Vessa’s father, John, and stepmother, Kim, own and operate Bottom Line Process Technologies, which creates lab-scale equipment for the food industry. The couple decided to relocate the firm from Cincinnati to Largo in 2005 and it wasn’t long before they enlisted their sons, Addam, 36, who was working in commercial printing, and Cody, 28, who was a land surveyor, to help out.
After several years of selling equipment to people looking to do small-batch chocolate operations or larger companies looking for equipment for their research and development, a question came up.
Why not us?
“We would bring people in to demonstrate it, so we were making chocolate in the test kitchen on a regular basis, which gave us the idea to spin off Pinellas Chocolate as its own company,” Addam said.
Trial batches for various companies would yield 10 to 20 pounds of chocolate, so it wasn’t long before they had enough knowledge to test the waters for their own chocolate.
“So we would start stockpiling various recipes and just bring them to friends and family or neighbors, and everybody seemed to have a pretty favorable reaction to it,” he said.
Utilizing industry feedback and years of institutional knowledge from John and Kim, the Vessas focused on flavor.
“There was a little bit of experimentation internally once we had our basic recipe down,” Addam said. “There were some little tweaks and modifications but by the time we were ready to do the chocolate company, we already had a pretty good idea of some baseline.”
Putting the product out
With the basics down, Pinellas Chocolate was formed by the end 2014.
The plan at first was to start small and get feedback by selling a few flavors at farmers markets in St. Pete, Clearwater and Tampa.
“The best parts are the sampling events, going to markets and putting chocolate out there for people to try and just getting different feedback ideas – good, bad or otherwise,” Addam said. “That’s probably what I enjoy the most about it, so I’m hoping with the store that it’ll encourage more public opinion and make it more of our own space.”
That input led to a diversification of the product line, including flavors such as orange, cinnamon, salted lime, peppermint and spicy datil pepper.
The next step was getting the chocolate into more consumers’ hands, so it made the move into wholesale, selling to gift and coffee shops and at high-end markets and hotels, such as Locale Market in downtown St. Pete, the Vinoy and Don CeSar hotels.
“We’d like to get more resort travel-oriented guests from across the country or the world and associate that imagery with their time in Pinellas or Tampa Bay and have it something they can take back,” Addam said.
It also worked with local businesses, such as Barley Mow Brewing Co., to incorporate its chocolate into some of its beers.
But after two years of refining flavors and marketing, one thing was still missing was: a storefront.
That’s not the case anymore, after Pinellas Chocolate held a soft opening for its retail store at 10550 72nd St. N. in Largo this past week. Addam said the Vessas are shooting for an official grand opening in late October or early November.
He also hopes the store will add a personal touch to the company by allowing for mini-tours of the kitchen for adults and hands-on activities for children.
“With the store, you can have people come in and give them the opportunity to try everything and explain to them a little bit about what goes into it, so hopefully it will give them a better understanding of the product itself,” Addam said.
From bean to bar
Cleaning and Sorting: Cocoa beans are cleaned and any that don’t meet quality standards are removed.
Roasting: Beans are slow-roasted in a convection-style oven.
Winnowing: The cocoa nib (the center of the cocoa bean) is separated from the fibrous outer husk by a machine that gently crushes the roasted beans, sending both nib and shell onto a set of vibrating screens, where the shells are removed by vacuum.
Grinding: A hammer-style mill pregrinds the cocoa nibs into a pastelike form. As grinding progresses, the cells of the cocoa nibs are torn, releasing the fat and increasing fluidity of the cocoa mass.
Refining: Chocolate is refined in a stirred-ball mill to achieve a smooth texture. During refining, the particle size of the cocoa mass decreases and the cocoa is blended with other ingredients.
Sifting: Before the refined chocolate is tempered and molded, it is sifted using a screen.
Tempering: The warm, fluid chocolate is cooled in a controlled manner. This encourages the cocoa fat cells to crystallize in a uniform structure.
Molding: After tempering, the chocolate is molded into bars and then packaged.