Checking in with Chad Morton of Roast Umber and Atucún

Tommy Allen (TA): It has been a year since we last heard from you and your new venture, Atucún. What’s been happening?

Chad Morton (CM): So, what's happened since a year ago? Roast Umber is the coffee side of what we’re doing. We have overcome some obstacles and had a couple of major wins.

TA: Such as …?

CM: For example, we were able to successfully create a nitro cold brew that our Roast Umber team was really excited to launch in 2021. So, we jumped immediately into scaling up, when we suddenly — and just as sales were taking off 
— began seeing failures within our canning process, like to the tune of 60%. The product was still good, the shelf stability was still intact, but our cans were bulging during our shelf stabilizing process. Honestly, bulged cans don't look good on retail shelves.

TA: And "failure" is good, right?

CM: Yeah, it can be. It really forced us to get honest with ourselves and decide whether we really [wanted] this product. After much reflective discussion on what we created and our faith in our product, we decided it [needed] to come out and so let’s keep at it. After many weeks of tests, two months ago we figured out how to create a shelf-stable package without bulging cans.

TA: As an artist, I recognize being excited after figuring it out. However, when you look at dollars, a 60% failure is still a big loss rate — that’s real dollars!

CM: Yeah, everybody wants to own their own business, right? It amounts to a lot of dollars. It’s been a huge commitment and I’m thankful as a startup for our partners. I’m thankful that the community of businesses and consumers seemed to like it. And, as a small business owner, I'm grateful for my friends and family who continue to support me on this journey. 

We think Roast Umber and Atucún are really in a good spot today because of the support and extra effort we have added to our testing phase.

TA: Since Rapid Growth believes it is important to move beyond the PR for PR sake, I want to explore what other lessons you have learned.

CM: As I look back, a majority of our year was us trying to figure out how to get chocolate to the United States first and then to Grand Rapids. We also spent 2021 trying to talk to people who might be interested in the work that we’re doing so we laid a lot of groundwork. 

Recently, in the last 4 to 5 months we’ve been able to start selling some chocolate here in Grand Rapids. The addition of our new chocolate line, Atucún, has been embraced locally.

TA: Any other updates or wins?

CM: Well, we did win an international chocolate award in France for cacao-producing countries in 2021. We have continued to separate micro-lots of cacao by origin, by elevation, by varietal and by fermentation. It’s been a lot of work.

TA: Looking at such an award and understanding that it is not just the result of a good product, how does such sorting of beans play into the success of your chocolate?

CM: Just like the vast array of apples that we know are available close to us within Michigan's "fruit belt," the cacao tree has different varieties and, like apples, responds to different micro-climates that enhance or change the flavor. 

When I look at the coffee bean or cacao bean, there is an overarching flavor that comes out of these global-producing areas. And then you have every farm operating with different micro-climates and soil structures and such. 

We are separating the cacao beans by the variety, which changes the flavor. Separating by the elevation, again, shifts the flavor. Even when we get to separating by the process of fermentation, we witness shifts to our flavor profile properties. It all has to be managed and it all changes the experience for the consumer. 

TA: In your piece, "Published Together: The heart opening journey of a superfood in our backyard", you wrote, "when we begin to untangle the centuries of supply chains that have hidden cacao's true roots and bloody history, then we can begin to restore its rightful power to the places it originated — as an indigenous superfood of the Americas." Can you explain this a bit and how it is evident in your work?

CM: Cacao, in its original form, wasn’t the product that we have today, where we see additives like palm oil and massive amounts of sugar being added to it. Back in time, the drink began as 100% cacao and they would add things from the surrounding area like flowers and peppers and vanilla. This concept is called Milpa. The family would sit around the hearth and grandmother would give a blessing. Side note, that was their cacao ceremony. It was a daily intention. It was, and is, a superfood. And then we went and bastardized it with sugar and slavery and palm oil and all the shit. But now we’re deconstructing — we’re going back to its original form. That is what this weekend's Lantern Coffee Bar & Lounge pop-up project is about.

TA: And the decolonization part?

CM: When we talk about decolonization, it really is kind of like taking us all back to the origin. In many ways, when approaching any origin story related to products, we think about getting back to the source. 

Differently, we are bringing our cacao partner here to present their own products to our customers. They get immediate feedback and the customer gets a real connection to the producers. This is called Tree-to-Bar.

TA: Can you expand upon how deconstruction factors into this weekend's Lantern Coffee Bar & Lounge's Atucún pop-up experience? (Deconstruction is a coffee industry term for breaking down drinks to their simplest forms.

CM: Yeah, absolutely [it's seen] in a lot of things when you go back to the producing countries [and see] it wasn’t the way we have it today.

TA: For example?

CM: Like bananas out of Central America that are exported all over the world, the bananas on our grocer shelves tend to be the ones that ship really well. They are not the ones that are very delicate nor the ones with the most flavor, and that’s essentially what happened to chocolate, too. 

TA: That makes sense. What can the consumer expect at the Lantern event?

CM: In the same way that coffee was 10 years ago where baristas asked us to try their coffee without cream and sugar, Lantern wants you to taste the chocolate first, without added sugar. The disruption moment is that the consumer is participating in creating their preferred hot chocolate experience. 

Right now wherever you go, whether Sparrows, Lantern, Switchback, etc., these shops all have their own recipe for mochas and other chocolate drinks that changes the flavor.

TA: So, I am guessing that every stop where your product is used, a unique experience awaits the consumer?

CM: Yes, try them all! However, you only have this weekend at Lantern for consumers to pick the sweetness level of their hot chocolate. Starting with100% cacao and the addition of milk or water, patrons will be asked to try the 100% drink first, and then add sugar by the teaspoon. The sugar will be pre-weighed to equal the amount of sugar normally included in a hot chocolate. While some customers will likely use all the sugar, we hope they learn something about themselves and chocolate. 

TA: It has been great catching up with you. I'd like to also share some local sources where folks can find your product line.

CM: First, Atucún has to acknowledge how grateful we are for the mentorship from Mokaya's Charles “Smitty” Golczynski, who has been a great partner from the beginning. Smitty taught me a lot about chocolate. 

So, you can find us at Mokaya, where they are selling an exclusive bar from us called Terrero Blanco — that is single-sourced from a farm in Honduras that is surrounded by coffee and sugar cane. 

TA: And other places?

CM: You can find us at Lantern (Heartside), Sparrows (East Hills, Creston), and Switchback (Creston). In addition, restaurant The Friesian (Midtown) has added Atucún to the menu and in very unique ways for West Michigan. We are also working directly to supply Midnite Patisserie — a start-up bakery working towards a couple of really cool pop-up events. And, one of my favorites is just steps from our family's home, The South East Market located in the Boston Square neighborhood. We are also on the eastside of Michigan at Hyperion Coffee (Ann Arbor & Ypsilanti).

And, I would be remiss not to share something really unique and exciting is how our local The Vitalist Institute, which offers breathwork and healing services, is using our cacao as part of their ceremonies. So, in many ways, cacao continues to evolve within Atucún as to what is possible.  

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The Lantern event is from Feb. 12 - 13 and is a limited pop-up experience with Atucún. Details on the event can be found on their Facebook page

Photos courtesy of Chad Morton for Roast Umber/Atucn.