The chocolate churns over and over again until just the right temperature.
Immediately upon entrance to the second floor of Splash Cafe on Monterey Boulevard, the smell of peppermint consumes the room. This is Tom Neuhaus’ own organic chocolate factory. The workers here aren’t little blue people, but rather students, volunteers and paid workers.
Lenya King, 20, from Boston, is living with Neuhaus and his family for the summer, wrapping chocolate bars to save money for school. King brushes fingerprints from the bars before wrapping them in the golden ticket-colored wrapping.
“It’s handmade. I’m trying to make it look pretty, right Tom?” King calls to Neuhaus as he walks by.
“And not let it melt in your hand,” Neuhaus jokes.
Neuhaus and his sister, Joanne Currie, owner of the two Splash Cafe locations, co-own Sweet Earth Organic Chocolates. For every item purchased, a portion of the profits supports cocoa farmers and their Fair Trade Certified cooperatives in the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon.
When Neuhaus, a Cal Poly food science professor, looked to start his chocolate business more than a year ago, he realized the awful condition in which many African cocoa farmers find themselves. The more he learned about their plight, the more he wanted to help.
As a result, Neuhaus and San Luis Obispo local Dale Landis will travel to the Ivory Coast and Ghana on Aug. 22 to deliver materials to villages of cocoa farmers.
Neuhaus became involved with chocolate while going to school at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Back then, it was a hobby – just something he did in his spare time. But his love for chocolate led to the creation of his non-profit organization Project Hope and Fairness.
Neuhaus founded the company to assist cocoa farmers in West Africa; however, he has spent much of his time educating the local community about the situation there.
“(Ivorians) don’t even know what chocolate tastes like; they can’t afford it,” Neuhaus said, stressing the importance of fair trade.
Having a product be fair trade is important, to ensure that farmers receive what they deserve. When a food product is fair trade certified, it will bear a label, verifying that farmers in the country are receiving the correct amount for their product.
Over half of the cocoa grown in the world comes from Africa. Even though a large percentage is from Africa, cocoa farmers there are struggling to make a living.
Neuhaus has much worldly knowledge about food and culture making him a great fit to teach French cooking, food and culture as well as food fundamentals. In addition to those courses, Neuhaus is in charge of overseeing Cal Poly’s Chocolate Enterprise.
The list of places Neuhaus has lived over the years is as extensive as the many types of chocolates he crafts.
He has lived in South Dakota, Texas, France, Austria and New York to name a few. In France, he worked in a restaurant with chocolate and desserts. At one time he even co-owned a restaurant in Texas. He even wrote a food column in the Washington Post.
“I like to get something done and leave a mark that stands the test of time,” Neuhaus says.
For Neuhaus, his biggest mark is making a difference in the life of African cocoa farmers. His trip later this month will be his fourth to West Africa.
“You can’t just throw money at stuff. I’m trying to help out at the village level,” Neuhaus said.
Neuhaus first visited farmers in Ghana in 2001 and found out most were lacking basic farming equipment. Unlike the United States, farmers receive no subsidies for their crops. There are no government programs to help families who have trouble making a sustainable life growing cocoa.
The Ivory Coast gained its independence from France in 1960, and by 1967, leader Felix Houphout-Boigny issued a law stating that the “land belongs to the person who cultivates it.” This created a great influx of people from all around, seeking out land to start their own cocoa farms and become rich. People burned hundreds of miles of forest. For a while this worked and the Ivory Coast had one of the wealthiest economies in West Africa, but now the cocoa market has become saturated, and a civil war is on the break.
The problem with the cocoa industry is that too many people sell cocoa beans, meaning farmers ultimately receive just one fifth of the original profit.
One way villages are working here is more money, more villages and schools can be assisted.
“More and more people should get involved in the together to build up their communities, is with the construction of cocoa cooperatives to ensure farmers a better price and per kilo of cocoa beans.
The organic cocoa Neuhaus uses in Sweet Earth Organic chocolates is fair trade certified. However, Neuhaus doesn’t get his cocoa from West Africa because there are no cooperatives at this point that raise their crops organically. The majority of organic fair trade cocoa comes from the Caribbean.
Eventually Neuhaus wants to organize trips to Africa for Cal Poly students. Until then, however, students can still help out with raising money for Project Hope and Fairness. Once there is more money, more villages and schools can be assisted.
“More and more people should get involved in the planet or we’re doomed as a species,” Neuhaus said.