It is a wet day in Carroll County -- not too welcoming. But in the kitchen of Pete Truby's Sykesville
house, the scenario is considerably cozier. For starters, there are his dogs -- a beagle named
Molly and a vizsla known as Murphy, who enthusiastically greet a b reporter and photographer.
Samples of his chocolates are set out on his kitchen island, while Truby works on a new batch on the stove.
Truby is the brains behind Salazon Chocolate, a two-year-old line of organic, fair-trade, dark chocolate that has carved out its niche by featuring natural sea salt. Traditionally, chocolate candy has no salt in it, but Truby's foodie inclinations and background in the food industry led him to a sweet-savory discovery: He liked the concept of adding sea salt to enhance the flavors in the chocolate. And he does so by hand at the very end of the process, so that you cannot miss this ingredient. It's visible and is not mixed into the bar.
Salazon -- Spanish for "salted" -- began innocently enough, when Truby and friends were hiking in Colorado in early 2009. "I'd always liked the combination of salt and sweet foods," says Truby, decked out in jeans and a Salazon T-shirt that features the logo Truby and his brother designed. "And I found myself mixing trail mix with ordinary chocolate."
Still, it wasn't quite what the laid-back, bespectacled 34-year-old Truby really wanted. Not even close.
Then, lightning struck. "It hit me that there was not a good organic dark chocolate with sea salt on the market," he says. "I wanted it, I couldn't find it, so I decided to do it myself."
That's something he could pull off. Truby has a business degree from Shepherd University in West Virginia and an M.B.A. from the University of Maryland, College Park. He's built his career in the food industry -- including a stint at Honest Tea, the Bethesda-based company that makes Barack Obama's favorite drink, Black Forest Berry. Yet even when he visited gourmet grocers while working for other employers, the chocolate section was "the area that always interested me. I would go do my job, then check out the chocolate aisle, try different things." Over the course of his travels, he had tasted literally hundreds of varieties of chocolate.
So this husband and father of a 10-year-old quit his day job and spent months immersing himself. Family and friends -- and a loan through the Carroll County Small Business Development Center -- helped pay the way.
He was looking for something simple, he says, as he stirs away. Not complicated like, say, truffles.
Truby began by picking the brains of helpful chocolatiers in Pennsylvania. "Everyone knows Hershey, but candy-making in this country really got its start in Pennsylvania," he notes. "People in the business were really helpful to me."
Truby didn't know what he was going to make but was intent on creating a niche around dark chocolate with sea salt.
He began by traveling to the cacao farms in the Dominican Republic and learning about harvesting the beans. He also got up to speed on sea salt farms, where solar energy is used to evaporate the water, leaving salt that has a distinctive flavor, largely from the traces of minerals that remain.
He also spent plenty of time "messing around" in his kitchen. Family and friends tested the chocolate -- which he views not as candy, but as a gourmet food item. Getting the right recipe was tricky. Milk chocolate is too sweet to work well with sea salt, yet some dark chocolates are too bitter for sea salt. And, while Truby is open to experimenting, he's not convinced that all the chocolate trends these days are right for Salazon. "Chocolate and cayenne pepper are popular right now, but I just didn't like it," he says.
Truby ultimately found a plant in Pennsylvania that would translate his recipe into Salazon Chocolate Co.'s Organic Dark Chocolate with Natural Sea Salt.
Still, there was more: Truby had to find a company to make the distinctive plastic mold -- one that features workers in a sea salt farm in Asia -- for his bars of chocolate. "I wanted something different," he says; he was determined that his chocolate look beautiful, like a piece of art.
Truby has now rolled Salazon out to 400-500 gourmet and natural-food stores as far south as Georgia, north to Maine and west to Colorado. It's even carried by a grocery chain in California. Truby is excited that Wegmans has just agreed to carry it. It retails online for $3.59 a bar.
Typical buyers are "well-educated women," says Truby. "These are people who are concerned with the information on the label, what is in the product and what is the background story."
So far Truby -- at this point he is a one-man operation -- won't quantify annual sales but says that in 2011 he expects to double his output from 2010, his first full year in operation.
Truby foresees plenty of change as his company grows. He's at work now on a fifth chocolate variety. "In this industry you always have to come up with more products and something new," he says. "This is Salazon's niche."