Miami's very own Willy Wonka

When I hear ‘Chocolate Factory,” I automatically think of Willy Wonka and Oompa Loompas, but Carolina Quijano is challenging the stereotypes about the magical places where chocolate is made. She opened Exquisito Chocolates, one of the only chocolate factories in South Florida, after having taught herself to make chocolate in a tiny apartment in New York City. 

Quijano was born in Miami but moved to Colombia as a child. She earned degrees in psychology and Latin American studies from the University of Miami and graduated as a member of its Honors College, then worked in Miami for a year before moving to New York. There she earned a graduate degree in organizational psychology and started working in management consulting for companies providing financial services. 

What would be a dream job for many was temporary for Quijano, though she didn’t know it at the time. In 2011, she took a work trip to Paris, where she stumbled upon a hot chocolate that made her question everything she knew about chocolate. What seems like a mundane occurrence turned out to be a life changer. It brought her love of chocolate up a notch higher than most of us, and inspired her to learn how to make it herself. 

Carolina had taken a chocolate-making class at Miami-Dade College during her breaks at UM, so she was familiar with the basics. Upon returning from her trip, she spent months learning more about chocolate on Youtube and after two years of experimenting in her Manhattan apartment, decided she would make chocolate her full-time job. She also decided she would do it ethically, which unfortunately is not the norm in the chocolate industry.

When she moved back to Miami in 2014, Carolina started making chocolate in a warehouse and distributing wholesale, until she opened her current store on Eighth St. and 127th Ave. in 2018. However, unlike many industry giants (see Nestle, Hersheys and Mars) Carolina was determined not to profit at the expense of workers in South America who grow and harvest the cacao beans used in chocolate. 

Carolina traveled to the farms who are currently her providers, personally ensuring that the workers were being paid a livable wage and the cacao beans were of a high quality. She spends further time perfecting the chocolate-making process and testing the flavors of beans from various farms and countries.

The care that Carolina puts into the process and the pride she takes in her shop are immediately clear. 

From the street, people passing by see a wall with a painted on chocolate bar and a simple slogan: “We Make Chocolate.” Inside, the store is cozy and warm, with stuffed burlap bags repurposed as chairs and a glass wall allowing customers to see how the chocolate is made. 

I took a tour of the factory with students from the FIU Honors College, led by Carolina and Anna, a current FIU hospitality student who works at the store. They emphasized the importance of the ethical process to the spirit of the store, but the photos on the walls of the store speak for themselves. They are of the farmers that supply the beans used in the store, and every photo was taken by Carolina herself. 

After a hands-on experience of the chocolate-making process, we tasted several types of chocolates with varying percentages of cacao. Carolina informed us that cocoa beans taste different based on the soil that they are grown in, so they do not mix beans from different countries or even different farms. 

Every type of chocolate at Exquisito Chocolates has a distinct taste. Some are made according to the country its beans are from, and some have mix-ins such as pretzels and cookies and cream. All of them taste richer than any other chocolate I have tasted, and all are delicious. 

The factory is a fascinating gem in Miami, but Carolina’s story is what drew me to write about her. As a Latina who grew up in Colombia and is now back in her hometown and adding to its culture, she is an inspiration. And as someone who started out in one intense field and made a drastic career switch into another, she is an example for college students of what seems difficult but is not impossible.

Her advice for college students is to explore every interest you might have, and take a break from the rigid career mindset that many students think they need to have. For Carolina, a simple hobby turned into a fulfilling career. She encourages students to seek ways to seek out new opportunities for personal enrichment, always considering what can be grown into something more.

Connect with the store at exquisitochocolates.com and on Instagram at exquisitochocolates. Find them at 2606 SW 8th Street, Miami, FL 33135.

Follow Maria Duque on Instagram at mariaaduquee_.