Peter Kelsey is not the kind of person who can sit idle for long.
Funny and outspoken, Kelsey spent nearly 20 years building his New French Bakery into a 300-employee behemoth with annual sales of $40 million, then sold it, lock, stock and baguette, in 2013. (In a Star Tribune story at the time, Kelsey did not dispute a sale price north of $10 million.)
“That was on a Thursday,” he said. “I got the money and I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘I’ll never have to work again.’ ”
Think again. On the following Monday morning, Kelsey woke up, read his customary three newspapers and drank too much coffee. “It’s 11 in the morning, and I couldn’t see straight,” he said with a laugh. “I’m thinking, ‘Now what?’ ”
Initially, he filled his time with volunteer work, and a lot of hours on his bike. All that pedaling led him on a seemingly endless search for a palatable energy bar.
“I thought, if I’m looking for something better, then other people must be, too,” he said.
Bingo. Two years later, he had kick-started an ambitious new food operation in a modest storefront not far from the south Minneapolis address of his beloved New French Bakery, a short bike ride from his St. Paul residence. His dark chocolate energy bar — fortified with protein-rich algae, pumpkin seeds, cranberries and, for a caffeine jolt, coffee-like guarana powder — is conveniently wrapped in a waterproof package.
It’s a product that, it should be noted, was made entirely from scratch, right down to the chocolate. No melting down other people’s chocolate for Kelsey. This is a man who has devoted several decades of his life to baking premium breads, after all.
“If I’m going to make something, I’m going to make it,” he said.
That’s how K’ul Chocolate, Minnesota’s only large-scale bean-to-bar maker, was born. (The name, pronounced cool, is the Mayan word for “energy,” and each bar is stamped with a pattern that’s based upon the cross-section of a cacao pod.)
Typically, Kelsey immersed himself in all aspects of the business. He unofficially apprenticed with a semiretired Pennsylvania chocolate maker, attended conferences and conventions and traveled to Central America and South America — cacao trees grow only between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn — to meet a wide range of farmers, from Brazil’s largest organic producer to a small operation tucked into a remote Peruvian valley.
Along the way, Kelsey learned the hardest part of the chocolate business: tracking down good beans, ultimately buying from three sources.
“Genetics and fermentation are critical, and that’s out of our control; that happens at the farm,” he said. “It’s like buying someone else’s grapes and making wine. We can only control the roast and the grind, so you do what you can do.”
Different beans yield fascinating and delicious variations on flavor and color, and those subtleties play out across the half-dozen K’ul chocolate bars, which all follow a recipe that’s 70 percent cacao and 30 percent Brazilian organic sugar.
Kelsey also adds a bit of sunflower lecithin and, in some cases, cocoa butter. Why? Texture.
“For most people, the strict two-ingredient bars come off as chalky. They don’t melt in your mouth,” he said. “I wanted to hit, for lack of a better phrase, the sweet spot.”
Inside the $2 million facility, two adjacent rooms — kept cool, and redolent of that intoxicating chocolate scent — house the production line, a veritable United Nations of food manufacturing technology that consists of gleaming machinery imported from Austria, Denmark, Brazil, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Great Britain.
The showiest piece of equipment is the roaster, made in the U.S. by Diedrich. It’s a modification of the company’s coffee roasters, familiar to anyone who has stepped inside a Dunn Bros. coffee shop.
“Chocolate is not that hard to make,” Kelsey said. “OK, it’s hard to make really incredible chocolate. But it’s not that hard to make decent chocolate, not if you’re paying attention to your beans and your technique. It’s not rocket science. It’s way easier than making bread.”
The first K’ul bars rolled out in July. They’re produced once a week in an eight-hour shift, by four workers who start with burlap bags filled with beans (each roughly the size of a chocolate-covered almond) and finish — after sorting, roasting, cracking, sifting, grinding, sweetening, tempering, molding, cooling and wrapping — with 10,000 chocolate bars.
When it comes to pricing, Kelsey is taking a populist approach, landing squarely in between mass marketers such as Hershey’s and more upscale bean-to-bar competitors.
Kelsey, a cancer survivor who is quite adept at extolling the health benefits of dark chocolate — its favorable glycemic levels, its enviable antioxidant properties — eats one of his chocolate bars every day.
“I’ve always loved chocolate,” he said. “After radiation treatment I could only taste three things: chocolate, coffee and protein. Chocolate is a mood enhancer. You eat it, you feel better.”