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Puna chocolate brings taste of Hawaii to Wauconda

Chocolate maker Teri Potter holds up some farm-to-bar chocolate bars made with 70 percent Hawaiian cacao that she sells at the Puna Chocolate Co. on Main Street in Wauconda.
Chocolate maker Teri Potter holds up some farm-to-bar chocolate bars made with 70 percent Hawaiian cacao that she sells at the Puna Chocolate Co. on Main Street in Wauconda.

WAUCONDA – The first thing one notices upon entering Puna Chocolate is the smell: The rich, velvety aroma of roasted cocoa bean invades the senses and conjures images of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

If it’s roasting day at Puna, the aroma spills out onto Wauconda’s Main Street from a vent in the front window, filling the air and luring people into the chocolate shop in search of the source of the delectable smell.

Chocolate maker Teri Potter stands before her new Artisan 6 bean roaster in the corner of the small storefront she runs with one other employee and explains how the machinery has allowed them to truly step up their production to 2,000 to 3,000 bars a month. 

“We used to have to [roast cocoa beans] with this little tiny dinky hand roaster sort of thing where it was like one or two pounds at a time, so this is a big step up for us, but this machine has taken us up to that next level of production,” Potter says.

Puna Chocolate opened in October and is considered a “bean to bar” chocolate maker.

The title is granted only to those chocolate makers who oversee every aspect of chocolate making – first growing and harvesting cocoa beans, then roasting, winnowing and tempering those beans to create their own artisanal, craft chocolates.

There are currently fewer than 200 “bean to bar” chocolate makers in the United States. 

“One of the things with growing cacao is that wherever it’s grown, it’s kind of like wine and the grapes,” Potter says. “It will take on attributes of the soil and the climate and even how it’s handled. That will manifest itself in the taste of the bean, so it really is baby-sitting the entire process until you come up with a chocolate. The three of us – Ben, Adam and me – we’re the sort of people who love that process.”

In 2012, Potter joined her brother Adam Potter and their friend Ben VanEgtern – the owners of Puna Chocolate – in a venture that quickly transformed into a successful business.

“[Adam and Ben] are very much engineer, tinkerer types,” Teri Potter says, palming a dried cocoa bean roughly the size of a football. “They like to deconstruct, put together, and stuff like that, and they’re very hardworking, hard-driven sort of guys. When they got the ball rolling with planting cacao, they reached out to me.”

The Wauconda chocolate shop is the second store Puna Chocolate has opened. The first is located on the Big Island of Hawaii, where it grows and harvests its own cacao beans for its unique chocolate products – from your standard bar and truffle to the more exotic drinking chocolate pucks and chocolate tea blends. The business is named for the area of the island where their cacao trees are grown: Puna, located on the windward side of the island. 

When Adam Potter and VanEgtern began searching for the perfect place to plant their cacao trees, they knew it had to be in Hawaii. Cacao trees flourish in one specific region on the planet – either 20 degrees north or 20 degrees south of the equator. Hawaii is the northernmost point on the globe – and the only state in the country – with the climate and environment these trees require to grow. 

Puna receives more than 160 inches of rainfall annually and as such is the wettest region of the United States. The tropical environment makes it the ideal place to grow and harvest cacao beans. It is also farther north than almost all other global locations that grow cacao. Puna Chocolate says “this means our beans have more fat, or cocoa butter, to keep them warm … (and) a silkier, smoother dark chocolate from the extra cocoa butter plus the amazing ‘pop’ from the newest soil on earth.” 

Potter says her brother and VanEgtern spend roughly half the year in Hawaii overseeing their cacao trees and harvesting the beans for production before transporting them to her in Wauconda so she can make the chocolate. 

It took about two years and countless batches of chocolate for Puna Chocolate to create its signature blends of chocolate that now fill the shop. 

Today, they sell products from their two store locations as well as through larger retailers throughout the country. 

With Valentine’s Day approaching, Potter says business is expected to pick up for her in Wauconda, and she is busy creating special Valentine’s truffles for patrons to pick up for their special someone. 

For the Potters and VanEgtern, the entrepreneurial spirit that drove their first batch of chocolate continues to flourish and they experiment with new flavors and products, including cacao tea, handcrafted cocktail bitters and unique variations on the traditional chocolate bar.

The key, for Teri Potter, is to never stop trying new things and seeing what comes out of them.  

“We were self-taught,” Potter says. “We researched (and) it’s almost funny cause it’s kind of like, you know, just grab the equipment, go in your garage and you figure it out.”

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