A day at Endangered Species Chocolate 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARK LEE.

When you walk through the door of the Endangered Species' non-descript production facility on Indianapolis's west side, you're met with the overwhelming scent of chocolate. "We don't smell it anymore, it's really sad," laughs Kelly Meinken, who's been with the company since it relocated here in 2005. "I think it takes about three months working here, and then you just stop smelling it."

Eight years ago, when Indianapolis philanthropist Wayne Zink decided to purchase a company with an established "give-back" policy, a web search zeroed in on Endangered Species Chocolate. It was late 2004, and the company was in its eleventh year, headquartered in Talent, Ore. Its owner, John Stocking, had been ahead of his time environmentally. He started the 10 percent give-back program, and ran his boutique-sized organic chocolate company in an environmentally-conscious manner.

Zink bought into the company (he is now majority owner), and in 2005 moved the production facility to Indianapolis. Endangered Species had a cult following on the west coast, but the company wanted to push eastward, and a midwestern production location seemed like the logical way to accomplish his goal. Leadership found an old check-printing facility near I-465, gutted the building, brought in a single chocolate-molding machine and set up shop.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARK LEE.

Seven years later, the company has 40 employees and a production room outfitted with conveyor belt lines feeding various chocolate confections into molds and wrapping machines. Endangered Species now ships out 20 tons of chocolate per week to individuals, distributors, and stores across the country.

"We're always looking for ways to improve efficiency and cut down on waste without compromising quality," says Meinkin. She talks over the loud hum of a 1960s-era machine as it wraps chocolate bars in foil and paper with hypnotic speed and accuracy. "You can't find these anymore - everything is going to heat-sealed plastic, all the mainstream chocolate brands like Hershey's, because it's cheaper. We want to use foil for our bars, so we keep this machine."

When renovating their facility, Endangered Species originally planned to get LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, and completely revamped their HVAC system for that goal. But after the economic downturn the company decided to accomplish a more accessible checklist of environmentally-friendly design decisions. Offices are outfitted with only recycled or recyclable materials, and the company continue to make adjustments to production to allow for more eco-friendly options.

While lacking the space to be a "bean-to-bar" company, careful attention is given to production at every stage. The cacao beans are grown in the Ivory Coast and Ecuador; the farms, visited regularly by the company, are either certified organic (for the "organic" chocolate) or use sustainable practices (for the "natural" chocolate). Beans are grown ethically, with no slave labor, and are Rainforest Alliance certified. No preservatives or chemicals are used or added, and by late next year all but their milk chocolate products will be non-GMO (Meinken explains that sourcing certified non-GMO milk is a challenge they're still working to overcome).

The beans are fermented in their country of origin, using banana leaves and the heat of the sun. They're then shipped stateside, where a production facility works with proprietary recipes to create their different varieties of dark and milk chocolate, including the top-selling 88 percent dark, and the 72 percent variety used as a base for many of the bars with inclusions. The chocolate arrives in Indianapolis in large cakes, where it is re-tempered, additions mixed in, and molded.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARK LEE.

"The chocolate is mixed in what is like a giant slow-cooker - and the longer it's mixed the better the chocolate," Meinken explains. "Ours is mixed for about 7 days before it's cooled and shipped to us."

Zink, who stepped down as CEO in 2010 but is still head of the board, is as committed as ever to the philanthropic foundation of the company. Endangered Species continues to donate 10 percent of net profits each year (with a guaranteed $10,000 in years that are not profitable), split between two non-profit foundations chosen every three years. The requirements for the non-profits are that they must impact species, habitat, and community.

And while the typical customer, who might now find Endangered Species just as easily at Kroger as Whole Foods, might not know the philanthropic side of the company or the fact that it's local to Indianapolis, the resulting product bears out the company's commitment to detail and attention to sourcing. That's important for those of us who - unlike employees working in the production facility - can still smell the chocolate.

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