The front door closes, leaving behind the morning cold and the sound of dangling wind chimes. All that can be percieved now is warm air and the chocolate smell coming from the kitchen of Mama Ganache, San Luis Obispo.
The smell originates from a machine that works like a water wheel. As it spins, particles of melted dark chocolate burst into the air, diffusing an irresistible odor.
However, shop owner Thomas Neuhaus didn’t buy the machine for its odor diffusion but rather its tempering function: When the machine drags the chocolate up into the air, the chocolate releases its heat.
Chocolate has personality. If not tempered right, it will look gray and ugly.
Photo Credit: Central Coast Foodie
But Mama Ganache is not just a chocolate shop that trades hand-made chocolates, ice-creams and truffles. It also sells chocolate books, features local artists’ paintings and helps cocoa farmers get out of the commodity system and into producing chocolate themselves.
Neuhaus, a food science professor who supervises Cal Poly’s chocolate production course, visited West Africa in 2003. During that period, he learned West African farmers make little money for their hard work. In 2004, he opened a fair-trade, organic chocolate shop and named it “Sweet Earth Organic Chocolate.”
Fair trade is a social movement that promotes sustainability and helps producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions.
While West Africa does participate in fair trade, its contribution is minimal. Most of the chocolate that Neuhaus purchases is made in Ecuador, Peru.
However, Neuhaus couldn’t keep the name of his business for long, because a corporation came to him and claimed to own the phrase “Sweet Earth.”
After five months of researching and discussions, Neuhaus, his wife and their employees came up with the name “Ganesh Baba” (his wife’s late guru’s name), then changed it to “Papa Ganache,” and finally to “Mama Ganache.”
The word Ganache (pronounced guh-nahsh) originates in France and means a mixture of chocolate and cream, which is the formula for the original truffle.
While many people can’t pronounce the word—one customer even pronounced it “ga-nee-chee”—Neuhaus is okay with that, because customers are always right, he said.
“For a name, as long as people have to do a certain amount of mental work around it, that means the memory is being laid down in their brain,” he said. “So it’s a good thing, even when they can’t pronounce it.”
This season, Mama Ganache is decorated in orange and black with spooky ornaments like plastic spiders and spider webs. But the usual furniture is still there: a khaki, leather sofa and an armchair of the same color in a corner next to the front door, a cocoa tree in the opposite corner, some wooden chocolate and book cases scattered around and a wall painting of a cocoa vine behind the register.
Also on the wall is this line: “A delicious way to help the Earth and the people who depend on it.”
Photo Credit: Mama Ganache Flickr
Chocolates displayed in the shop are handmade based on the recipes that Neuhaus created during the early stage of the business, using organic ingredients. About 100 recipes are collected in a recipe book for employees. Vegan products have a green star (or circle) on their name tags.
With 40 years of experience in business—from running a restaurant and bakery in Austin, Texas, as well as working as a chef in various restaurants—Neuhaus said the possibility that a product is going to sell is more important than a unique recipe.
“[Rule] Number One: Money makes the world go round,” he said. “If the thing does not make money, forget it. You’re not going to do it.”
For that reason, Neuhaus came up with a variety of formulas that could be produced using the same machinery to reduce the cost of equipment over the long run.
Now, Mama Ganache’s chocolates are sold across the country and all over the world, including places such as Hong Kong, Australia, Europe, Canada and most regularly, Puerto Rico.
Neuhaus also came up with peculiar formulas to satisfy companies’ requests, such as bacon dipped in chocolate or English toffee pistachio, which turned out to be one of the best things he’d ever eaten, he said.
Apart from such successful collaborations, he also encountered requests from some companies that led him and his employees to spend hours on a recipe and never called back, leading to the loss of tens of thousands of dollars.
“So basically they just used us,” he said. “And I’m a small business person. I don’t have time to be used.”
After that, Neuhaus left the job of product development to Rebecca Wamsley, a 63-year-old truffle maker—and former landscape architect—who also does pottery on the side. She calls herself a chocolatier (pronounced shoh-koh-lah-tyey).
There were about 15 truffle flavors when Wamsley started working as a wrapper at Mama Ganache, and now there are about 35. She likes playing with Asian flavors. Sometimes it results in a successful, new product, like her sesame truffles. However, her peanut butter thai truffles just never quite took off.
“[Chocolate] kind of has a life of its own,” she said. “It’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever cooked with that kind of feels like it has, how shall I say, personality in a way? Because it can be really moody and difficult to work with. If the temperature is not right or if the humidity’s too high, the chocolate can act strangely.”
While product development is the most fun part, Wamsley said she also loves making little creatures, like a truffle spider with chocolate legs on top of a cookie filled with pumpkin spice.
Wamsley’s also good at coming up with unique names for her chocolates: A Bloody Good Treat is a chocolate filled with raspberry, for example.
She does all of the decorations by hand. One way is to use a toothbrush to add tiny purple sparkles on top of the truffles. The sparkles are edible “luster dust” mixed with a little alcohol.
For chocolate to look shiny, it needs to be tempered at around 90 degrees, so Wamsley has to constantly warm up and cool off the chocolate by putting it in a microwave and stirring it with a whisk. She has a laser gun that tells the temperature of the chocolate, but an old-school way of testing the chocolate is to use one’s index finger to slightly touch it and then make a line on a surface to see how thick the chocolate is.
But Wamsley is experienced enough that she can judge the chocolate by eye.
She folds a parchment paper into a cone and pours some newly tempered white chocolate into it. Then, she carefully cuts the tip of the cone and quickly scribbles on another parchment paper to test the thinness of her chocolate ink.
Wamsley draws mustaches and o-shaped mouths for her chocolate-covered cookie cats.
“They’re supposed to be kind of scary,” she says. “But happy’s okay, too. Cats are kind of a traditional thing for Halloween.”
Across the table from Wamsley is Beatrice Lunday with her tray of chocolate bark. She’s working on a vibration machine, which sits next to the tempering machine. She has cut crystallized ginger into small cubes and mixed it with dried cranberry and chocolate before spreading the mix on a big rectangular tray. Now is time for some vibration.
The purpose of vibration is to eliminate air bubbles from the chocolate mix. After that, Lunday sprinkles more filling on top of the mix to give it a nice look. She vibrates the tray again to smooth out the mix’s surface.
Lunday is Neuhaus’ former student. She’s currently a Cal Poly graduate student who’s running Cal Poly Chocolates. In fact, Cal Poly chocolates are also consigned at Mama Ganache.
“[Cal Poly] does more bars,” she said. “And here does more specialty things… I think they’re both fun, but in different ways.”
After being molded, chocolate is put in the freezer and later wrapped. The best-seller of all time here is “salt caramel.”
“That’s like a dynamite,” Neuhaus said, noting it has been popular for minimum of five years.”
But for the time being, peppermint patties and vegan peanut butter cups are the most popular. On average, Mama Ganache ships about 1,000 peppermint patties alone per week, Lunday said.
Photo Credit: Mama Ganache Flickr
Luis and Josefina Castillo, hard-working siblings who grew up in Mexico and speak some English, also contribute to the success of Mama Ganache.
While Wamsley works with special orders, Luis and Josefina take care of most of the regular chocolates sold in the shop. Both had experience working in a candy factory in Mexico before coming to Mama Ganache; they are “the backbone of this business,” Wamsley said.
Starting November 7, Neuhaus will feature in the shop 250 photos that he took of West African cocoa farmers and their lifestyle. The photos show everything from a close-up look of a cacao pod cut open to portraits of African cocoa farmers.
“The way I look at it is I’m part of the value chain,” Neuhaus said. “I’m adding value to the product and I want West African cocoa farmers to add value also.”
For Neuhaus, this business is like a family that provides customers with the products that they want and the employees with the enjoyment of their work.
The wind chimes ring as a middle-aged couple enters the shop. They wander around to look at the chocolate creatures on the shelves, buy some truffles and sit down at a small table next to the large glass window overlooking the street while enjoying paintings on the walls.