Ever since chocolate was first discovered by the Aztecs and praised for its aphrodisiac qualities, the delicacy has been associated with love and romance. Austin native Ryan Cheney’s first foray into chocolate making was also a love story. The Raaka Chocolate co-founder was working in tech when the woman he loved informed him of plans to travel out of the country for several months. Disenchanted with his desk job and the digital world, Cheney decided to go on sabbatical, and joined her on an epic journey around the world.
The couple made their way to Thailand, and began studying at Agama Yoga School where they learned mindfulness, tantric yoga, and even how to make aphrodisiac chocolate truffles using indigenous herbs. After several months of what he describes as "living in awareness" and learning a new way of life at the school, Cheney returned home transformed by his time in Thailand, and eager to share his growth with others.
The raw chocolate he’d been introduced to on his travels was an important part of those experiences, and he had a desire to live in a less processed world moving forward. “I started engaging with life in a way that felt real and honest to me, and it felt natural to work with my hands,” he says.
Cheney began playing around with recipes and testing out his chocolate bar creations on friends, polling them for feedback on each flavor. Then came testing out reactions at farmers’ markets, where his enthusiasm was bolstered by people's excitement. Says Cheney, “I was curious if this could be a conversation starter for people: raw chocolate and aphrodisiacs.” Sure enough, it was.
Dissatisfied with other raw chocolate options available on the market, Cheney partnered with Nate Hodge, who became Raaka’s head chocolate maker, and the duo officially set up shop in 2010. Based in New York City, Raaka specializes in small batch chocolate, manufacturing it from virgin bean to bar in its chocolate factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Raaka is one of the only pure process chocolate companies out there, meaning that they forego the roasting process to preserve the flavors of their ethically-sourced and carefully attended to cacao beans, often purchased for more than twice what mass producing companies like Hershey’s can pay. Truly a labor of love, it’s a time intensive process to create a bar of Raaka chocolate, handmade, wrapped, and shipped from their factory.
Over the past five years, Raaka Chocolate has expanded out of Brooklyn and across the U.S. Here in Austin, the chocolate, which comes in festive, handpainted wrappers, is available everywhere from Whole Foods and Central Market to Quickie Pickie and Friends & Neighbors.
Cheney says he and his team aren’t in the virgin chocolate business because they care about being on trend, and they’re not out to critique the other chocolates in your stash. Instead, Cheney says, the impetus behind Raaka is all about slowing down and being aware of each moment, each flavor — and that human connection that is so often lacking in the frenetic hustle of Western life and culture.
“That’s the human aspect of the business. I care about fair ownership structures, and it feels really ugly to me that so much of the world’s ownership is concentrated in a small fraction of people. I’m interested in business as a way to spread out ownership in a more fair way. I believe labor creates value. People really putting their life energy into it, that’s what really creates value. And I think they should be the owners and taking the benefits of their hard work,” Cheney says.
As Valentine’s Day sales spike, Cheney reflects on his philosophy that chocolate “creates loving experiences,” saying that, “For a lot of people, when they eat chocolate, they feel warm and they feel something good inside, and that’s a simple thing but an important thing.”
Cheney concludes that chocolate’s sensuality and romance has much to do with its mysterious nature: “Good chocolate can be very bold and can feel luxurious while you’re eating it, and has a flavor that’s kind of complicated. Some flavors are just more simple. I think chocolate has a lot going on, so it simultaneously feels indulgent while at the same time has this effect of being kind of mysterious.” He thinks that mystery and complexity is the romance of eating chocolate, and, “A good piece of dark chocolate can give you the shivers.”
Whether you’re looking to treat your mom, your beau, or yourself this Valentine’s Day, Raaka has a myriad of original chocolates to choose from. They’ll be releasing special chocolates for the holiday topped with edible flowers, available with a subscription to the First Nibs monthly series. For other gift ideas, Cheney recommends pairing Raaka chocolates with wine, as the chocolate can have such distinct flavor notes. He says to make it an experience. “It’s a chance to slow down and share what you’re tasting. It’s fun to alternate between the chocolate and wine.”
Order Raaka chocolates online, or pick up a bar at several locations around Austin.