A sack of unfamiliar beans sitting in a Baja kitchen was a sweet discovery for Susan and Jeff Mall.
While the couple was well versed in the culinary world, chocolate making was not part of their repertoire when they took over the food and beverage operation at Rancho Pescadero. Today they are winning awards at international competitions for their bars of dark chocolate.
The couple started in 2010 as consultants for the Baja California Sur resort. At the time they owned the highly acclaimed Zin restaurant in Healdsburg in California’s Wine Country. In December 2014, they sold the restaurant and in February 2015 they were working full time just steps from the Pacific Ocean as executive chefs at Rancho Pescadero.
“We inherited the ingredients from the previous chef,” Susan Mall shared. “We had never seen cacao beans and we didn’t know how to make chocolate.”
A little research helped the Malls figure out what to do with the beans—roast, peel, and turn them into something edible. It took a few tries, and a realization the recipes they found online were subpar.
This is when they got creative. Because the Malls had honed the understanding of food profiles through their restaurant work they were able to create unique recipes and heighten the flavors of their chocolate bars.
“We had to learn how to tune our palates,” Susan Mall said of acquiring a refined taste for high-end chocolate. Today, they are close to being equivalent to wine sommeliers by being able to dissect what is in a piece of chocolate. While chocolate and wine is a natural, well-known pairing, the Malls have pairing sheets for their chocolate with cheese.
In Baja it was a bit of a bootleg, MacGyver-type operation as the couple used trial and error to figure out the process and the tools needed to make it happen. The Indian wet stone grinder was not suitable for tortillas so it was put into the chocolate operation. The wood oven was perfect for roasting the beans.
Hotel guests got in on the action by becoming free labor when it came time to peeling the beans. They found it to be an interesting activity one often doesn’t experience on vacation. When the chocolate was done, those same guests got to nibble on what they helped create. Many would buy handfuls of bars to take home with them. Rancho Pescadero profited from all the sales, not the Malls.
The duo didn’t anticipate the Rancho Pescadero gig being permanent or long term; having made a commitment of 18 to 24 months. By the end of July 2016 they were headed north—for personal and professional reasons.
(Rancho Pescadero has been closed since 2018, with a reopening expected in 2022. Then it will come under the Hyatt Unbound Collection umbrella.)
What the Malls took from Baja was a desire to turn their prowess for chocolate making into a business. Thus, Volo chocolate of Windsor, California, was born. In Latin the word volo means to want or to desire.
It’s an appropriate name because after one bite you will desire another, and another, then a square from a different bar. This is high-end, artisanal chocolate that ranges between 62 percent and 73 percent darkness.
A nod to Mexico goes into each bar, as cinnamon is part of every recipe. Sea salt, often from Baja, is part of the mix as well. When they were in Baja the salt came from Guerrero Negro in Baja Sur.
In Baja, finished chocolate was wrapped in foil whose original purpose was to be a hamburger wrapper.
Bars to this day are still hand wrapped, though automation is coming soon. A person can wrap one bar in a minute, while a machine can do 60 in the same amount of time.
The outer wrappers are a work of art. They are images of quilts with a color scheme of cream, orange and brown that have been created by Jeff Mall’s aunt, Cathy Shanahan.
The beans the Malls first worked with were from Chiapas, the southern-most state on the mainland of Mexico. The problem was the quality fluctuated. Today, Volo’s beans are sourced from Guatemala and Haiti.
“The quality level of the bean is ultra-premium,” Susan Mall said.
While the beans are foreign, other ingredients are more local, such as from Clover Dairy, Petaluma Hill Dairy, Merchant & Miller Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and Wolf Coffee.
Sonoma County businesses in turn support Volo by carrying the bars. It is the “turndown chocolate” at the Montage resort in Healdsburg.
In summer 2019 Volo introduced the MexiCali and Chocolate Orange bars. The MexiCali has chiles and dried cherries, while the other has candied orange peel.
Volo has eight chocolate bars, with No. 9 being talked about. The 73% Deep Dark Chocolate is the No. 1 seller, with the 70% Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel Crunch close behind.
In 2019, Volo entered the Academy of Chocolate competition with its MexiCali and Chocolate Orange bars. Both earned bronzes; the former in the Milk Bean-to-Bar Flavored category and the latter in the Bean-to-Bar Flavored Category. There were 1,500 entrants representing 46 countries.
In 2020, Chocolate Mocha earned a bronze and the Dark Milk Chocolate with Sea Salt & Brown Butter a silver in the Milk Bean to Bar Flavored. The 73% Deep Dark Chocolate garnered a gold for Dark Bean to Bar Flavored. It was one of 43 golds in the whole competition.
“I call this chocolate reimagined. It explodes and lingers,” Mall said.
In 2020, Volo produced 37,000 bars of chocolate. Each year the company has grown. It was on target to grow 15 to 20 percent in 2020—then the pandemic hit. Wholesale orders dropped by 70 percent, while online sales took off. A federal loan helped keep the company going.
An advantage to being in Sonoma County is the chocolate can be made year-round. Operations had to come to a halt in Baja in May because it got too hot and humid. Chocolate should not be refrigerated. Ideal storage temperature is between 62 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. In the right climate chocolate never goes bad.
With the growing popularity of Volo, the Malls know the 500-square-foot space where the chocolate is made is not going to be enough. Next door is the office and where inventory is kept. It too will need to be bigger to keep up with demand. They might also need more employees. They only have 2½ others working at Volo.
The back of each wrapper says, “While living & working as married chefs in Mexico we fell in love with traditional Mexican ingredients including cacao/cocoa beans grown in Mexico for 1,000s of years. We incorporated cacao into sweet & savory preparations which led us into the world of making Mexican-style chocolate. Now back home in Sonoma County we are continuing to make chocolate in the same tradition we learned in Mexico.”
While the Malls don’t have a professional reason to return to Baja Sur, the annual writers’ workshop in Todos Santos keeps them in touch with Mexico, where this chocolate craze all got started.