Nestled beneath towering palm trees, Matt Weyandt and Elaine Read swayed in a hammock, nibbling on a locally made chocolate bar.
Earlier that year, they had quit their high-pressure careers in Atlanta and moved to Costa Rica, setting up house with their two children in a bungalow called Casa Tranquila, tranquil house. They were living a life many people dream about, abandoning the rat race for a slower pace in a tiny seaside town on the southeastern coast of Costa Rica.
But their dream was coming to an end in the fall of 2013. Money was running out. So Matt, 34, and Elaine, 37, decided to just enjoy the time they had left until they had to return to Atlanta and find jobs.
As they sipped red wine and savored the earthy, mellow squares of dark chocolate, they couldn’t have imagined they were already holding the key to their futures and an enduring link to Costa Rica.
Time for a change
The high-pressure, fast-paced world of presidential politics was the backdrop for the couple’s rom-com-worthy meet cute. They were both working for a grassroots campaign to raise money for the Democratic National Committee during the George W. Bush-John Kerry presidential race. They first met in Union Station in Washington, D.C. Tall, wiry Matt was dressed in tattered jeans and sneakers held together by duct tape. Pretty, petite Elaine was perfectly put-together in a button down shirt and skirt.
Their connection was immediate.
And they had a lot in common. They shared progressive values, abhorred consumerism and loved world travel.
A graduate of Grady High School and Emory University, Matt studied abroad his junior year in Kenya and Tanzania. Elaine, who grew up in Virginia and studied English at the university in Charlottesville, joined the Peace Corps after graduation and lived in Malawi.
On election night in 2004, Matt watched the results roll in as Kerry lost the election. After everyone else had gone to bed, he sunk into a chair, sipping whiskey and watching CNN until 3 a.m. The election had been called hours earlier. Utterly exhausted, he felt numb.
After the election, Matt and Elaine got married in Nicaragua, and Elaine left politics to work for humanitarian organizations. Matt remained in the political world, became the executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia and worked with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in Georgia. Although Obama didn’t win Georgia, it was a historic win for the country and Matt was thrilled to be a part of it.
But there were many more tough losses to come.
The most staggering one came in 2010. Still at the helm of the Democratic Party in Georgia, Matt watched as Republicans won a clean sweep of races in the state, from U.S. Senate, governor and lieutenant governor to attorney general, secretary of state and state school superintendent.
“We got slaughtered up and down the ticket,” he said.
But then he go to work with one of his heroes, civil-rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis, in his run for reelection in 2012. Matt felt privileged to work on his campaign. But the days were long. The couple had a child now, a boy named Ronan. Elaine felt like a single mother. They both wanted more time together and as a family.
After Lewis won the primary election, Matt couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for another political race. He was done.
One day he met a professional contact for lunch at a café in downtown Atlanta to talk about the next step in his career. He was thinking maybe something in advocacy or renewable energy.
You don’t seem very happy, his lunch companion said.
She was right. He was burnt out. And he wasn’t the only one considering a life change, either. Elaine was between jobs and feeling restless.
Something in that moment sparked a memory. Years ago, early in their courtship, Matt and Elaine had backpacked throughout Central America. They always talked about someday returning to Puerto Viejo, a tiny town on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. But life has a way of putting dreams on hold. You get married. You start a family. You build a career. You have responsibilities, bills to pay, and a to-do list that stretches into infinity.
This was especially true for Matt and Elaine, parents to a toddler son and another baby on the way. They had less than $7,000 in savings.
“I can go right or left at this fork,” he recalls thinking at the time, “but you can also walk off the path.”
After the meeting concluded, Matt hopped on his bike and, metaphorically speaking, veered off the path. Feeling almost weightless, he pedaled home, exuberant.
He swung open the front door to his family’s intown loft, his heart racing. He turned to Elaine with a dazzling smile.
Seated at the dining room table feeding their son at the time, Elaine sensed Matt was about to make a pronouncement. She had a feeling he was going to say exactly what she wanted to hear.
Let’s move to Costa Rica.
Family members were both impressed and concerned by the couple’s decision, especially considering Elaine’s pregnancy.
Matt and Elaine sublet their in-town loft to people in the film industry. They gave their car to a recently immigrated family from Sudan. And before they left, they started a T-shirt printing business, working mainly with county recreation departments to make shirts for sports teams and summer camps.
They waited until baby Evabelle was 3 months old and left the country in February 2013.
Life in Costa Rica
Casa Tranquila became their new home. The 500-square-foot wooden bungalow, built on stilts with sea-foam green trim, was tucked into the jungle of Costa Rica.
They reveled in riding their bikes into town and returning by moonlight, pedaling slowly to avoid running over the swarms of crabs that crossed the road. They would walk the last stretch home along a dirt path beneath a canopy of lush, tropical greenery, rich in the scents of wild orchids and plumerias.
They spent nearly every afternoon at the beach, exploring an 11-mile stretch of sandy coves. Matt and Elaine would take turns with baby Evabelle, who just sitting up and starting to crawl, while the other played in the water with Ronan (pictured in contributed photo, with Elaine in Costa Rica), who was learning to balance on a boogie board.
And every Saturday, they shopped at the local farmer’s market, filling their cloth bags with bananas, limes, mangoes and turmeric.
They had hoped the T-shirt business would help sustain them, but within a couple months they found themselves working too many hours for too small a profit margin. They decided to close the business, live on their savings as long as they could and take advantage of their time left in Costa Rica just being together as a family.
One day at the farmer’s market they discovered a stand selling locally made bean-to-bar chocolate. Each bar contained two ingredients: cacao and cane sugar.
“I remember biting into it and it immediately registering that it was like nothing I’d ever had before. It had this intensity to it,” said Elaine.
Chocolate became their special treat, part of a daily ritual for Matt and Elaine. Every night after the kids went to bed, the couple retreated to the porch to sip wine and indulge in a few squares of sweet, mellow chocolate.
They became so enamored with the local confection, they toured Caribeans, a local candy-making company. Hiking up a path to a hillside in the forest, they plucked elongated, cylindrical pods from the cacao trees, removed the thick husk and sucked the white, slimy pulp covering the beans. The fruit was sweet, tart, exotic.
Life in Costa Rica was not entirely idyllic. Encounters with scorpions and snakes were common. The electricity went out often. And the lush greenery that surrounded them was the result of near-constant rain. Everything seemed perpetually damp. Even the sheets on their beds never fully dried. But they were adapting. At first Elaine would slip into a funk when it poured. Then one day she was standing outside talking to a neighbor when it started to drizzle. The two continued to talk as rain drops soaked them. That’s when it hit her: So what if you get wet?
But their savings continued to dwindle. Their time in Cosa Rica was coming to a close.
One day Matt stopped by Tasty Waves Cantina with Ronan for some tacos. There they spotted Paul Johnson of Caribeans.
Matt told Johnson he and his family were planning to return to the States soon.
I don’t know what we are going to do when we go back, he said.
They needed jobs, but they didn’t just want to pay the bills. They wanted to do something they were passionate about.
Johnson had an idea: Make chocolate.
The art of chocolate
Matt and Elaine devoted their last two months in Costa Rica to learning everything there was to know about making chocolate. They filled spiral notebooks with their ideas, values and priorities for the business. “Do No Harm” they wrote in big letters.
They wouldn’t buy beans from large-scale farmers who cleared forest so they can plant more trees and produce higher yields. Instead, they would work with farmers who protected the forest by growing cacao in the shade of existing trees. They committed to fair-trade and sustainable practices.
They apprenticed with local chocolate makers, one who built his own winnowing machine using a shop vac and PVC tubing; the other used bowls and a floor fan.
“If these guys can pull this off down in the jungle with limited resources,” Matt recalled thinking, “then we can figure out how to do this back in the States.”
So they set out to learn the painstaking process of making chocolate. They learned how to sort cacao beans, eliminating flattened or broken beans and any trace of debris. They learned how to crush the beans into nibs, which are ground into a thick, silky liquid. And they learned how to temper the chocolate, a delicate, tricky process of heating it to a precise point at which the fats and solids align correctly and then lowering the temperature to allow the chocolate to re-form. The end result was a firm, glossy chocolate bar that melts in the mouth.
In January 2014, Matt, now 35, and Elaine, now 38, returned to Atlanta with two duffel bags stuffed with 50 pounds of chocolate beans. They roasted the beans in their oven at home, purchased tabletop grinders and tempered chocolate in pots on the stove. Friends helped wrap the bars in white butcher paper.
That spring, their chocolate company, Xocolatl Small Batch Chococlate, was born, debuting at the Inman Park Festival. Each chocolate bar was made from single-origin chocolate. Beans from different regions were fermented using different processes, which resulted in bars with different taste profiles. The Madagascar bean had a bright fruity flavor; the Bolivian bean, a dark smoky flavor; the Costa Rica bean was sweet and slightly earthy. Elaine hand-wrote the origin of each chocolate bar on the packages in red, green and purple ink.
They quickly sold all 300 bars.
Up and running
As the holiday season approached, Matt and Elaine prepared to kick Xocolatl (pronounced CHOCK-oh-lattle) into high gear.
They rented space at Krog Street Marketand made plans to set up a micro-factory onsite. Their goal was to move in a month before opening day to practice using their new equipment and build up some inventory before the holiday shopping season started. But they faced many delays, and the power wasn’t turned on until the day before Thanksgiving.
“We had spent every dime and extended every line of credit we had to try and launch this thing, and we were at the point where we had to sell some chocolate bars,” said Matt.
Instead of joining family members for a turkey dinner, Matt and Elaine spent Thanksgiving Day transporting supplies from their Old Fourth Ward loft to Krog Street Market. They had no car, so they had to make multiple trips pushing supplies on hand trucks down a hill — paper towels, glass jars, cacao beans.
This is so ridiculous, Elaine told herself as she pushed a 150-pound bin of organic sugar slowly down the empty street. She felt like crying. Her kids were with Matt’s parents celebrating the holiday. She wanted to be there, too, and so did Matt.
But when she and Matt passed each other on Irwin Street with their hand trucks, they burst into laughter.
“We were a real team,” said Elaine,” and “I mostly felt grateful that this was really happening.”
Around 9 p.m. that night, a friend stopped by the market with leftover turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes. Elaine and Matt leaned against the black walnut counter top at their new shop, took a few bites of lukewarm food and called it a day. They would open the next day, Black Friday, although they had none of their own chocolate bars to sell. Instead, they had no choice but to sell other artisan chocolates.
Within a couple days, the firstXocolatl bars hit the shelves in brightly colored wrappers — orange, violet, yellow. The bars were made with beans from Trinidad, Peru, Bolivia, Madagascar and Costa Rica.
That first holiday season they worked long days, often staying up until 2 or 3 a.m., but they found joy in the chocolate-making process.
“You get to use all of your senses, your sense of smell, taste, the visuals,” said Matt. “I like to focus on each step in the process. At the end of the day, I am creating something.”
It is a time-consuming process. One batch of 450 chocolate bars takes about a week to make from start from finish.
Their biggest challenge now is keeping up with customer demand.
Plans to expand
Nine employees were hired to help with production and sales. Matt’s retired dad helped, too.
Within a month or two, the company began to turn a profit. But Matt and Elaine still face loans and debt they incurred to get the business launched. Currently their production capacity is limited by their small, 250-square-foot work space at Krog Street Market. So they plan to open a second location with more production space and a cafe serving coffee and pastries. Then they can move into expanding online sales and retail sales.
They still occasionally travel to exotic locations, only now they’re meeting with small farmers and buying cacao beans. A recent bean-buying trip they took to the Amazon region of Peru was filmed by director Tim Shephard, who is making a documentary called “Setting the Bar: A Craft Chocolate Origin Story.”
One recent morning, Elaine, wearing a flowery apron, reviewed the inventory of chocolate bars in the store while Matt sorted through a tray of dry cacao beans. The sound of 95 pounds of chocolate churning in the grinder hummed in the background.
“There are moments when I’m opening a new bag of cacao or smelling the beans roasting or we’re hiking through the Amazon visiting a remote village of farmers or I am explaining to someone where chocolate comes from and how it is made,” said Matt, “and I see the look on their face as they realize everything that goes into this food that they’ve eaten their entire life, and I get a sense of euphoria that the future is wide open.”
When faced with a juncture a few years ago, Matt and Elaine could have stayed on the familiar path. It’s easy to find reasons to avoid change, eschew risk. But sometimes, they learned, it pays off to veer from the path and see where it leads.
Matt and Elaine still have a great respect for people who are involved in politics, but they don’t miss it, especially during the recent bitter race for the White House.
The way Matt sees it, “we’re not going to save the world by making chocolate, but if we can have honest and fair partnerships with farmers, our staff, and our customers, then maybe we can bring just a little positivity to this world.”
ABOUT THE STORY
I was working on a Valentine’s Day story about local chocolate makers when I first met Elaine Read and Matt Weyandt. While learning how their bean-to-bar chocolates are made, I discovered the couple’s fascinating backstory and the circuitous route they took to their new profession. Their courage to undertake such a dramatic life change and their passion to make the world a better place with chocolate makes for an inspiring story.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Helena Oliviero joined the AJC in 2002 as a features writer. Previously she worked for the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Knight Ridder as a correspondent in Mexico. She was educated at the University of San Francisco. This is her 19th Personal Journey.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
David Barnes is a student at the University of Georgia who has worked on The Red & Black student newspaper as a photographer and photo editor. He has interned with UGA’s Athletic Association and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as well as covered the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro for the Associated Press.