Minnesota couple finds their future in Caribbean chocolate

A.M. Costa Rica/Connie Foss
Paul Johnson shows off some of the local product

Caribeans Café has celebrated a grand re-opening at a new location in Cocles, where it will serve signature chocolate drinks as well as be the starting place for visitors to the Chocolate Forest Tour.

Paul and Jean Johnson came to Puerto Viejo from Minnesota more than six years ago. At the time, they never imagined they would become the area’s cacao experts, helping native families develop what they call value-added chocolate production: chocolate produced in one place, from tree to bar. The Johnsons were first introduced to cacao while caretaking a house in a forest that had once been a cacatal, or cacao plantation.

They began experimenting with making their own chocolate, as do many area residents. But the Johnsons had a business knack in addition to a good recipe for making chocolate. Eventually their garage chocolate production took over the back room of their café in Puerto Viejo, where Johnson used the coffee grinder for the dual purpose of grinding cacao beans.

In December 2010, the Johnsons made the decision to close the original Caribeans Café at its prime location facing the beach in Puerto Viejo in order to focus on the cacao plantation and chocolate production. They refer to this decision to close the café as pruning in order to grow their chocolate production.

Although the Johnsons still sold coffee and chocolate at the weekly farmers’ market in town, their real business was taking root on the cacao plantation, where they moved the equipment back to their garage and expanded the production process. The Chocolate Forest Tour in Cocles has been keeping the Johnsons busy, but their real work has been in developing a community of small, labor intensive cacao plantations where chocolate is produced on site from their own cacao beans.

The Johnsons did not begin with a five-year business plan. The growth of Caribeans Café and the Chocolate Forest Tour have been a process much like pruning and growing cacao in order to help it thrive. Their growth as cacao and chocolate producers branched out into helping others do the same. Now they see themselves in the vanguard of a new economic emergence of the cacao industry here in the Caribbean, what they hope will create the Napa Valley effect, a sustainable culture for families and a Renaissance in the appreciation of fine chocolates.

While the Caribeans Café serves specialty drinks where chocolate will be featured more than coffee and a chocolador showcases their many unique blends of chocolate bars for sale, the Chocolate Forest Tour is the real feature in the Johnsons’ business.

On the tour, visitors walk through the forest on an ancient mango trail and experience cacao production by seeing the trees and flowers and tasting the fruit. The chocolate tasting itself is held on the mountaintop next to a breathtaking view of the ocean all the way to Manzanillo. Invention, creativity and innovation are rampant, evidenced in the chocolate buffet where guests are invited to eat pieces of chocolate along with dibs and dabs of various herbs and spices. Garlic and black pepper are popular choices, as well as ginger and cilantro.

Next week, Johnson will take his innovative ideas about chocolate to the North West Chocolate Festival, held in Seattle, Washington.

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