BITTERSWEET

This is a work of fiction. All characters and scenarios appearing in this story are purely fictitious and originate from the imagination of its author or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events and incidents, living or dead, past or present, is purely coincidental. Now gentle reader, “look at this tangle of thorns.”

Dramatis personae:

Dr. James Baldonado……………………………..World-renowned cacao geneticist.
Warner Barrett ……………………..Chairman and largest stakeholder of Kranebury Foods.
Gerald Beard……………. Proprietor of Beard’s Bestes Sweets, a craft chocolate maker.
G. Elwood Dickens………………………………………Chief Executive, Pluto Foods Industries, one of the largest confection companies in North America.
Enzo Fannuci……………. Heir and chief executive of Fannuci Proteins and Nuts SpA.
Marla Heartens…………………………………………… Educator and social activist.
Millard Holmby IV……………………………………Heir and chief executive of Holmby Company, based in Ohio and the largest chocolate manufacturer in the United States.
Franz Tannenbaum………………………………………………….Managing Director of Nectar SA of Lichenstein, makers of chocolate and producers of beverages.
Don Jose Traficante…………………………South American cacao plantation owner.
Abe Watson…………………Craft chocolate maker and founder of Cacao Rebel Fine Sweets.
Emma Watson…………….Co-founder of Cacao Rebel Fine Sweets and wife of Abe Watson.
Itzel Zacapa………………………………………………………………Cacao laborer.

PENTHOUSE FLOOR, HOTEL BATTISTA,
HAVANA, CUBA.

“I welcome you all to Cuba, and I thank you for momentarily placing aside our rivalries and sojourning here, not only for the warm yellow Caribbean sun and hospitable locals, but to discuss an issue that is a growing threat to all our interests,” G. Elwood Dickens smiled. “Mr. Holmby, of the Holmby Chocolate Company of Ohio. Signore Fannuci of Fannuci Proteins and Nuts. Mr. Warner Barrett, who has just taken majority control of Kranebury Foods. And Mr. Franz Tannenbaum, of Nectar, all the way from Lichtenstein.”

None of the men rose, but each nodded and smiled at each other.

“As you know, there has been a rising sea-change in attitudes in our markets. Our consumers are, quite annoyingly,” Dickens tightened his right hand into a fist, “starting to think for themselves.”

The other three men swayed their heads in disapproval as if one of the Cuban servers had toppled one of the tall drinks before them.
“This is true,” Warner Barrett interrupted. “Since purchasing control of Kranebury, our revenue in our top market lines have slowed and is threatening to flat-line.” Rolling his tongue in distaste, “In an environment of growing markets!”

“The main culprit,” G. Elwood Dickens stared hard ahead out of the window into Havana harbor, “is this so-called ‘craft chocolate’ movement. Those animals are raising the ceiling – and thus the floor – of consumer expectations.”

INTERNATIONAL SWEETS AND TREATS FESTIVAL, SHORES OF BOSTON HARBOR

“Tell me what you think of this one,” Marla Heartens told the audience. “Wait not yet! All together. Remember. See the texture first. Then smell it. Snap it off, then let it sit on your tongue.”

The group began to fish the pieces of chocolate in their white paper cups. One boy emptied the contents down his throat at once, his head titled back. He began to chew.

“It’s a bit plumy, almost citrusy. Bit of woodish? A cedarish taste to it.,” smiled one woman, looking up.

“IT TASTES GOOD!” the eager boy replied, getting up to ask for more. “Its not as sweet like the stuff they give out on Halloween! I’ve never had anything like it,” he said, palming more pieces from a cloth covered table.

“Its different because unlike the confections you typically purchase from the drug store or given on Valentines,” Heartens replied. “Its single-sourced. The cacao beans that are the primary ingredients come from just one farm. It has its own unique terroir, a flavor, genetics and history unique to that one region. Regular chocolate doesn’t have much chocolate. Perhaps a few percent. Its mostly fat and sugar that’s chocolate flavored.”

The audience were no longer chewing, their eyes bright and heads titled up.

“Regular candy that’s flavored as chocolate – every step of production wants to eliminate that uniqueness you just tasted. The goal is for their products to taste and look the same all the time. Its costs less to do that and people no longer expect other flavors, just the one they sell you.” Marla Heartens looked at the audience. They were smiling.“Single-sourced chocolate also has another sweet side I think you’ll love even more!” Heartens scanned the audience.

They looked up.

“There’s almost no slave or child labor used farming the cacao. The small craft manufacturers – most of them as far as I know – have very close relationships with the farmers. They pay them very fair prices for their beans and this helps them make a decent living without resorting to cutting corners.”
The audience was beaming, the hungry boy even more so.

THE TRAFICANTE ESTATE
SUCRE, VENEZUELA

“Don Traficante, thank you so much for hosting us again.” Gerald Beard smiled and with both hands offered a large uncovered box of chocolates.

“Welcome. How is your location? I hear the real estate is ‘hot’ in your particular location.” Jose Traficante took the box without looking and handed it to a pair of hands, also without looking.

“Very much so, Don Traficante. The borough is changing. The useless people are disappearing. Probably to jail. The smart and good-looking people are now settling. They’re bringing safety, cleanliness, as well as money. Most of our sales are local.” Gerald Beard smiled.

“I wish fortune would grant us the same here. Too many useless, lost souls. I find it my life’s mission to guide them. Without me, without my farm, there would be chaos. Anarchy. They steal. They fight. They rape. With me, they work. It is my burden to keep the nation in order. Very hard work.” Don Traficante stood up. Gerald Beard again smiled.

Itzel Zacapa bagged the last cacao pod that would fit in her sack, which the taller, older natives had snipped from the tree and deposited in a pile. Her mouth was dry. The water bucket was two thousand feet away beside the husking shed. Itzel wished she and the fifty pounds sack of fruit could simply levitate like a bird and get to the water bucket.
She closed her eyes. FLIGHT!
Her bare feet lifted from the leafy jungle floor and Itzel and the fifty pounds of cacao were released from friction and gravity.
Two men dumped more cacao into the pile.

“Joven,” Jose Traficante said, looking out into the endless tall green horizon, from the wide, clear windows of the vehicle, “You, Gerald, remind me of me. This is the action of a wise man.”

“Yes Don Traficante,” Gerald Beard nodded. “The other men, they care too much about the work preparing the chocolate. Work no one sees. We focus on what people understand. They understand packaging. They understand image. These others, the chocolate is their craft. That’s money. Us, our packaging is the craft. Ink costs less than chocolate.”

“And a man sees before he tastes.”

“They’re suckers, Don Traficante.” Gerald Beard laughed. A waiter moved with a silver tray of drinks. “I almost have as much fun watching them buy the products as raking in the cash.”

Juan Traficante eyes shot and narrowed on Gerald Beard.

“Perception becomes reality, Don Traficante.”

The waiter lingered a bit, then moved to refill Juan Traficante’s glass.

“No Manolo,” Traficante brushed the air with his hand. He turned to Gerald Beard. “You are a capable man who understands the pragmatic world. My men will clear one hundred more hectares for production with the new CCN51 breed. They are rugged plants, strong. They cannot be felled by the fungus. If you remember, our Brazilian friends to the south have suffered much loss from this. I will not allow this here.” Don Traficante’s jaw tightened.

“I hope not Senor Traficante. Twenty years ago, the Brazilians in Bahia were the second biggest export region globally. Now they’re not even top five.”

“The taste will not be an issue correct?” Juan Traficante glanced an eye towards Gerald.

“No issue Don Traficante. Your new CCN51 forests will let us to ramp up production to meet demand. We’re hiring a new package designer, he’s helped sell a lot of shoes with his great artwork in ads. The other small guys don’t stand a chance. We’ll kill them off hard one by one and we’ll look good for the big ones, when they decide to buy in. They’ll pick the strongest pup in the litter.” Gerald Beard took a sip of cold pineapple juice.

“You will get your seeds then. As much as necessary. I shall increase my stakes in our partnership another twenty percent. Si?” Juan Traficante’s eye aimed towards Gerald and right arm outstretched.

Gerald Beard removed his fashionable black, thick framed non-prescription glasses and touched his forehead on Traficante’s hand. “Yes Don Traficante.”

ABE AND EMMA WATSON RESIDENCE, HOME OF CACAO REBEL FINE SWEETS,
SPARTA, WISCONSIN

In one efficient motion, Abe Watson held the cacao bag over the stainless steel table and sliced one end open. The beans poured into a brown volcano. His hands caressed the edge of the pile and drew a handful of beans. Abe put his face closer and smiled – this batch looks clean again. His careful selection of reliable farmers and cultivation by friendship and paying well more than fair prices ensured most of the beans that followed him up to his basement were usually outstanding.

“Emma! They’re great! The beans look great!”

Emma was in the kitchen and smiled. She remembered how much time she and Abe had spent making their very first batch – with all their learning errors, it took twice as many beans to make the first five hundred bars, than it will this latest batch. Emma smiled again. That first tasting at the farmer’s market, the most common reaction to Abe’s and her efforts were ‘What the hell is this?’ That was a close run day. Both were praying to simply break even. Towards the end of the day, and nearly despondent at having not sold very many, a well-heeled couple happened on their narrow frail table and found the chocolates to their taste – and bought out the batch.

“Great! Need any help down there?”

“Maybe in a bit!”

Abe could certainly handle the crafting part. He was self-taught. He came from making pastries and learned to bake – bake well. Going out on the ledge, he decided to try make chocolate, straight from the cacao beans. First, he learned how to select the cacao. Learned to differentiate between good beans and not so good ones. Learned to roast the ones that made his cut. Learned to grind. Not to mention learning to build many of his machines himself. Before the inevitable competition when the stronger fish ate the less quick, less strong, less well-connected and less lucky fish, and had gotten bigger, stronger and meaner; the pond was full of small chocolate manufacturers like the Watsons. Most of them used purpose-made machines. But those days were gone. If they were lucky, they might find an antique online that was made when Woodrow Wilson was still in the White House, that the owner was selling for its scrap value. Abe could fix those. A person who couldn’t fix the machines could probably not run them well, either. It went with the job. Other times, he found machines that approximated close enough for what they needed. And with the sorter Abe was using now, that was half of her effort. She had sawed, hammered, nailed – built much of it. Emma headed down. When Abe was working, you could never get him out of the basement.

“How’s it going?”

Abe looked up from the beans. He smiled.

“Just finished the orders. We have buyers from Shanghai again!” Emma smiled.

“Great! I really wish we had a website in Chinese.”

Both nodded in unison. They knew that unlike the American palette, which for generations tapped to the sweet taste of Pluto, Nectar, and Holmby, the Chinese tongue appreciated bitterness. Cacao Rebel Fine Chocolates – theirs, used cane sugar. That was it. The best cacao they could find and sugar cane. Most chocolates had everything but chocolate. Also, the price tag on their chocolates were more in a way more suited for the Chinese, who bought them as gifts. Cacao Rebel Fine Chocolate’s domestic market was trained to see chocolate as a quick – and cheap – treat. Anything above $4 was a non-seller. Emma’s phone twirled.

“Look! Look!” she screamed

“What!” Abe looked up, hitting his head on the bean grinder.

“Someone gave $3000, we’ve met the Puntkicker goal!”

“We’ve got to book tickets soon.”

Emma smiled inside. Financially, the chocolate gig meant life hadn’t been easy. But they were more alive and free than ever, when both had ‘real’ jobs. ‘Real’ as in working for someone else. A captive. Told what they had to do, how to do it, when to do it. And having to force a smile. Sure they were well-fed and were had a home. But so does a wolf at the zoo. There was quite a gap between an animal behind the glass and one out in its element.

“Look at this,” Abe held up a belt buckle.

“Are you serious?” Emma’s jaw fell.

“I’m kidding.” Abe smiled.

Before the chocolate thing, they once went on a tour inside one of the big boys’ factory, while visiting her mom in Ohio. Everyone had a one task and one task only. Management had broken down the production of the candy bar into the most simply and basic steps possible. How would Van Gogh’s paintings look if each brush stroke was categorized by shade, texture, and placement and each assigned to one man. There would be a lot more Van Goghs but they wouldn’t be Van Goghs. Here the masterpiece was theirs to create for the world. Emma put down her laptop and dug her hands in the aromatic volcano.

“Move over will you,” she smiled.

DINING HALL, HOTEL BATISTA,
HAVANA, CUBA

“Gentlemen – colleagues – I present Dr. James Baldonado, one of the foremost cacao geneticist in the world, and consultant scientist of Pluto Foods Industries!”

“Thank you Mr. Dickens.” James Baldonado adjusted his yellow tie, which did not match his green jacket. “As most of you know, the global market for chocolate is fast expanding. There is a great gap between the cacao the world demands, and what the world can produce. This is about 1 million metric tons.”

The eyes in audience took in the scientist.

“In fifteen years, this gap will increase to two million tons.” Baldonado could sense his audience tensing with his words. “The price of the commodity, meanwhile, has increased as well. From 1993 to 2007, the prices of cacao was an average of $1,465 a ton. In the last seven years alone, it has shot up almost 90 percent.”

The audience’s eyes were now narrowed and smoldering.

“With the support of Pluto Foods Industries, my lab believes we have discovered a solution,” Baldonado beamed. “Pests and diseases can decimate a third to 80% of cacao crop yield.”

A drink glass tipped on the table and a small waterfall of liquid cascaded on the floor. Several Cuban attendants appeared at once and rushed to the wet spot.

“We have bred a series that we call Pluto 1, Pluto 4, and Pluto 6. These strains are resistant to all known cacao diseases and exceeds the CCN51 strain in terms of flavor.”

G. Elwood Dickens jumped up. “That is all Dr. Baldonado. You may go.”

Baldonado was rushed from the hall along with all the entire wait staff. Only the principles remained.

“This Pluto Series will be our weapon against the craft-chocolate threat,” Dickens smiled. “Unlike other strains, the Pluto Series are proprietary. Due to the work of others in this room,” Dickens paused and looked out.

The men from Nectar, Fannuci, Kranebury, and Holmby smiled.

“Due to your efforts – and funding – we have finally achieved an amiable political climate, and as a result of our work, cacao boards sympathetic to our views are now forming in all major growing regions. Not a single bean shall be sold without the permission of these boards. We will provide free but binding licenses for the Pluto series to all the regions. Gentlemen, we will achieve standardization. There will only be three strains, which belong to us,” G. Elwood Dickens beamed.

The room thundered in applause.

“This so-called ‘craft chocolate’ movement will have even narrower choices. Choices without any logistical infrastructure.”

The crowd laughed.

“They’ll now pay triple in freight what they bid for the beans.” G. Elwood Dickens smiled. “That or they could walk it out like pack mules.”

“I have a concern, “ Franz Tannebaum of Nectar SA stood up. “Many of these craft makers are attempting to save production costs by dispensing with conching. What are your views?”

“Yes, our accounting department projects a savings of sixty percent in energy costs compared to a conched product,” Spoke Millard Holmby, heir and head of the Holmby Chocolate Company.
“This is true.” Dickens nodded. “Craft chocolate is indeed producing un-conched product. From an accounting perspective, the savings are not insignificant, as Millard has pointed out. And there is a market for it. However,” Dickens took a sip from his glass. “By dancing to their tune, we will loose the initiative. We will never allow them to set the market tempo. Through conching, we dictate the taste of the consumer. They are used it. We define good taste. We will continue to turn its high cost into an advantage, for us! The cost of conching is a massive barrier to entry and competition. They’ll run out of blood long before we do.”

More laughter.

“Also gentlemen, we have a reliable source that has informed us that a certain partnership between one of the most strongest – but not the finest as I understand – craft-chocolate maker and an independent grower are hoping for a buyout, from us. Our source tell us they cast themselves as premium only in marketing and expect premium buyout prices.”

Boos in the crowd.

G. Elwood Dickens stretched both hands and arms out to placate the grumbling. “They expect a bidding war from us. But, we’re all friends, aren’t we?”

Laughter in the crowd.

“If that foolish hipster and old Venezuelan, or any of these fellows think they can pry open our checkbooks…”

“They’ll get the boot,” someone roared.

“A boot with killer fungal spore,” added another.

“We always win, gentlemen,” smiled G. Elwood Dickens. “Or at least we try.”

The crowd laughed.

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