From Bean to Bar: Artisan Sonoma Chocolate a Sweet Treat

Taking their sustainable ethics in a different direction, the Malls embark on a sweet new adventure.


Jeff and Susan Mall were ahead of the Sonoma farm-to-table movement when they opened Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar in Healdsburg in 1999, basing their menu on what they grew and raised on their Eastside Road farm, and what they could procure from nearby ranchers and fishermen.

Such farm-to-fork service is now de rigueur, and the couple, lifelong culinary adventurers, are off on another journey. During a stint cooking at a Baja California Sur resort, they developed a taste for Mexican chocolate, appreciating its intense flavor, distinctive salt and spice notes, and compatibility with savory ingredients. While their year-old VOLO Chocolate business in Windsor keeps the Malls rooted in Sonoma, their ingredients are decidedly not local. And that’s the point.

Cacao pods for VOLO are harvested in the tropical Chiapas region of southern Mexico, where they are wrapped in banana leaves and allowed to ferment naturally. The beans are removed from the pods and shipped, raw, to the Malls’ tiny facility off Shiloh Road, behind Home Depot. Zulka Morena pure-cane sugar, Baja sea salt from Guerrero Negro and Mexican cinnamon complete the south-of-the-border list of base ingredients for their confections.

“The Mexican ingredients, and the way we treat them as chefs rather than bulk producers, make us different as chocolate makers,’ Jeff Mall said, as he operated a Rube Goldberg-like contraption (nicknamed Rubean) that cracks the cacao beans and separates them from their husks. He modified a used Champion juicer purchased on eBay to work with a ShopVac, creating a winnower that would cost $2,000 and up from a candy-making equipment supplier. It helps to be handy when starting a new business.

“Salt is as important to chocolate as it is to baking,” Jeff continued. “If you make cookies, cocoa and sugar alone are one-dimensional. Salt adds dimension. And we add less sugar than many chocolate producers. We think of ours as a chef’s chocolate.”

“We treat it like a food and not a candy,” added Susan, as she picked through raw beans prior to toasting them in a convection oven. “We’re now about products, not restaurants.”

The Malls sold Zin in late 2014, when their business partner wanted out. They had traveled often to Baja and had consulted for and taught cooking classes at Rancho Pescadero, a resort in Todos Santos, 45 miles north of Cabo San Lucas. After selling Zin to Dustin Valette, Jeff and Susan moved to Todos Santos for 18 months, where they managed the resort’s breakfast, lunch, dinner and room services, plus weddings and catering.

“It’s the hardest we’ve ever worked,” Jeff said. “But while we were there, we fell in love with Mexican chocolate and began making it on an experimental basis. When we returned to Healdsburg in 2016, we knew chocolate was our next venture.”

Valette, who left Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Kitchen to buy Zin from the Malls and turned it into what is now Valette, is a fan of VOLO.

“This is the next evolution in artisan chocolates, in my opinion,” he says. “VOLO chocolates are produced by chefs and designed for many uses. I love them for their intensity, lower sugar levels and increased salinity.

“We showcase VOLO by microplaning it on the side of our ItsNota ‘Snickers Bar’ dessert. It makes it fluffy and adds great contrast to the peanut nougatine.”

Not all VOLO products have solely Mexican ingredients, though the base bars always have salt, pure-cane sugar and cacao from Mexico. The 73% Chocolate Orange bar includes can- died orange peel; the 62% Dark Milk Chocolate features brown butter and roasted almonds grown on a ranch in Newman, California, where Jeff grew up; the 65% Creamy Dark Mocha bar is made with local Flying Goat Coffee and cream.

There are currently six chocolates available, at $8 per 2.5-ounce bar. VOLO also produces bonbons (the Malls’ version of a peanut butter cup is killer) for pop-up and special events, and solid-chocolate bunnies for Easter, which this year sold faster than the Malls could make them. The couple is playing with olive oil chocolate and the addition of Meyer lemon and other dried fruits to their bars, intent on balancing sweet with savory in each bite.

For now, it’s a two-person operation, carried out by the Malls in a 500-square-foot room. They can produce approximately 1,000 bars a week, though family and friends often help with packaging. Jeff’s aunt, Healdsburg artist Cathy Shanahan, paints and dyes on fabric in bold swaths of color; reproductions of her work wrap around each bar.

Growing their business is not foremost on the Malls’ minds. “We’re taking it one step at a time, testing the waters,” Jeff explained. “You can spend a lot of money really fast in this business, so we’re taking it slow.”

The brand began life as El Jefe — “boss” in Spanish and the closest approximation of “Jeff” in the Spanish language. Yet the world is awash in El Jefe brands, so the Malls settled on VOLO. It’s Latin for “to want, to wish.”

And who doesn’t want more — and more interesting — chocolate?

WHERE TO FIND VOLO

VOLO Chocolate’s Windsor production site is not open to the public, though proprietors Jeff and Susan Mall sell their confections at volochocolate.com and to a handful of winery tasting rooms and retailers, including these:

Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves
9711 W. Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg,
866-572-3552, bellawinery.com

Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery
8761 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg,
800-831-0381, ferrari-carano.com

Jimtown Store
6706 Highway 128, Healdsburg,
707-433-1212, jimtown.com

Relish Culinary Adventures
14 Matheson St., Healdsburg,
707-431-9999, relishculinary.com

Rodney Strong Vineyards
11455 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg,
707-431-1533, rodneystrong.com

Wilson Winery
1960 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg,
707-433-4355, wilsonwinery.com

 

Looking for more things to do in Sonoma County? Click here