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Oct 08, 2008

After 20 years as a defense attorney, Shawn Askinosie needed a change. Little did he expect the answer would lie in an $8 chocolate bar.

By Gregory Holman

Take one bite of Askinosie chocolate, and chances are you’ll never crave a Hershey’s or Mars bar again.
But that’s not really fair to Hershey’s and Mars, the two biggest purveyors in the U.S.’s $13 billion chocolate industry.
Comparing Askinosie’s product—which is packed with fruity, herbal flavors and contains only cocoa solids and cane sugar—to its mass produced brethren is like comparing a Ferrari to a Ford.
Askinosie Chocolate, which was founded in 2006 in Springfield, Mo., by 47-year-old Shawn Askinosie, is one of only a handful of microbatch artisanal chocolate makers in the U.S. The chocolate is sold primarily in San Francisco, New York and other major U.S. cities, and is exported to Sweden and Australia.
While artisanal chocolate is nothing new—it has been made in Belgium, France and Switzerland for hundreds of years—the field has been given new life in the U.S., particularly since California’s Scharffen Berger opened shop in 1996.
They even have their own collective: this summer, Askinosie and four fellow microbatch chocolate makers joined forces to form the Craft Chocolate Makers Association of America.
Be sure you get the name right. For chocolate makers, the term “chocolatiers” is a misnomer—if not an insult—as it refers to the makers of bonbons and truffles, not the chocolate of which bonbons and truffles are made.

Past Lives
Askinosie Chocolate is the result of a long personal journey.
By 1999, Askinosie had practiced law in Springfield for almost 20 years. He was a successful, well-known member of the community, pulling in close to $1 million per year.
He took on the kind of high-profile cases that give defense attorneys a bad name, including defending a high-school chemistry teacher accused of killing his wife and children, and a tanning salon owner charged with secretly videotaping women and underage girls.
His reputation suffered as a result of his success in the courtroom. An account in a local newspaper in 1999 quoted a potential juror in a homicide trial who called Askinosie “underhanded, conniving and immoral.” Along with write-ups in The New York Times and special reports on his work on “Dateline NBC,” he received numerous death threats.
It was time to make some changes.

Watch our video interview with Shawn Askinosie, in which he discusses the importance of exceeding fair trade standards.

His transformation began with efforts to improve his community, including promoting highway safety in Southern Missouri after an Amish woman was killed when a car hit her horse-drawn buggy.
Inspired by the death of his own father when he was 14, Askinosie also helped launch Lost & Found, a charity that nurtures children through the grieving process after a family member dies.

A Fresh Start
In May 2005, Askinosie had the experience that would end up changing his life.
After trying two difficult homicide cases, he was called away from his home to attend the funeral of an elderly relative. On the way, he remembers contemplating if he should take advantage of a business opportunity that recently had come up in Santa Fe, N.M.
As he was mulling over the pros and cons of the deal, Askinosie saw two signs—a bumper sticker and a billboard—both with the words “Santa Fe” on them.
“Oddly enough,” he writes on the company website, “I sensed that those ‘signs’ were telling me to back away from the Santa Fe business.”
During the funeral service and on the trip back home, Askinosie says the ideas of making chocolate “from scratch” popped into his head.
Soon, he was acting on his impulses, cooking mini-microbatches of chocolate in his home kitchen. When his wife, Caron, got tired of the mess, he relocated his operation to the small kitchen at his law firm.
His focus soon shifted to super-artisanal chocolate, which involves making the product exclusively from cocoa solids and sugar.
As he learned more about the process, Askinosie came to the conclusion that there are just three opportunities to influence the flavor: by using top-quality, single-origin cacao beans; by roasting the beans carefully; and by exposing newly made liquid chocolate to the air in order to remove “off” flavors.
His approach contrasts sharply with that of most major chocolate producers, which typically augment their products with additives and refined sugars to create a creamy texture and sweet flavor.

Cooking Up a New Business
In the summer of 2006, Askinosie merged his practice with another attorney’s firm—the beginning of his effort to extricate himself from his life as a lawyer.
He put up half a million dollars of his family’s savings to construct a factory customized to his specific needs, starting him on his way to become a chocolate maker.
Less than two years later, Askinosie Chocolate shipped its first order to Sweden.
Now that his operation is up and running, Askinosie is applying the same innovative attitude he used to build his business to the making of his products.
In June, Askinosie became the only craft chocolate maker in the world to market a white chocolate bar, which is made with 34 percent cocoa butter and using only cacao beans grown in Soconusco, Mexico.
He is also exploring the possibility of creating a “dark milk” bar, which would contain a small amount of milk to add a creamy texture. Though it wouldn’t be as pure as his 70-percent cocoa bar that’s made entirely from beans that originate in San José del Tambo, Ecuador, he figures it might be a way to reach a wider audience that hasn’t yet experienced the joys of artisanal chocolate.
He’s also joining forces with other small-scale producers. In September, Delaware microbrewery Dogfish Head released Theobroma, a stout beer made with Askinosie Chocolate.
And with the country’s economic turmoil limiting the market for his $8 chocolate bars, Askinosie is introducing the Itty Bar, a 14-gram portion of chocolate that is designed to be sold for $1 out of a jar situated next to the cash register at coffee shops and tea rooms.
Even in these unpredicatable economic times, that’s a small price to pay. “Where else,” Askinosie asks, “can you get the best of something for $10?” 

Making Askinosie’s artisanal chocolate takes top-notch cacao beans and a willingness to do things a little differently. In our interactive feature, listen as Shawn Askinosie explains each step in the chocolate-making process.

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