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Jinji Chocolate: The Sweetness of Intentionality

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Elena Volkova

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Two Baltimore-based Artists Receive Creative Capi [...]

The door cracks ajar and swirls the aroma of chocolate through the cozy violet storefront where we are crowded for a final photo. The stranger emerges into view, closes the unlocked door behind her, and is warmly greeted by Jinji Fraser.

“I’m glad that you stopped by,” she says happily, “And also,” her tone shifts to sympathy, “…we open tomorrow.” Jinji offers her a condolence-wrapped invitation as they share a big laugh to alleviate the tension.

“I remember you were in Belvedere, and I just wanted to find you,” the stranger says. “My mom lives close by, so I’ll be back.” She turns to leave us but stops before she reaches the door when Guy, Jinji’s Dad and co-founder of Jinji Chocolate, calls out to her. 

“What’s your name?” he asks.

She’s the second person to walk in during the hour and a half we’ve spent together, and both promise they will return. 

“People were so ready for a Greenmount upswing,” Jinji says about their new location in Waverly. “The support has been overwhelming.” 

Jinji Chocolate was a staple booth at Belvedere Square Market for ten years. The move to the Waverly neighborhood last October offers the long-standing business more space and autonomy. “We relied on other businesses for so long. We became very comfortable and accepting of being an afterthought. People would come for breakfast or lunch and then would realize there’s this chocolate shop,” Jinji shares.

“It didn’t feel like it was intentional as much as it was a happy coincidence to them. But now, everyone that walks into the door is intending to be here. They are meeting us with as much intention as we’re meeting them,” she says. The welcome change in atmosphere is suitable for an intention-centric business like Jinji’s, who started the business with her father, Guy, in 2012. 

It was when I started to meet farmers and see farms that I realized there is a bigger story to tell. Chocolate is the least of what we’re doing.
Jinji Fraser

Drawing from her experience working in nutrition and her dairy allergy, the intent was to produce a raw vegan chocolate product and to bridge the gap between refined food and holistic foods. When it comes to telling the story of food, the most essential element is sourcing. Jinji and Guy traveled to Paris for a chocolate conference to seek out an ethical chocolate source, where they found their first partners in Ecuador. 

The raw chocolate venture was quickly propelled in 2013 when Maryland changed its cottage food laws to exclude chocolate products made with raw cacao. Cottage food laws allow home food production of non-potentially hazardous food sold directly to consumers with low annual revenue. The change in the law had the father-daughter duo scrambling to find a commercial space. They eventually landed at the small kiosk in Belvedere Square with nothing more than a pop-up table in November 2013.

Although Jinji Chocolate started as a health venture, it quickly became an obsession of craft and sourcing. “Chocolate was a little bit random,” Jinji says. “I didn’t grow up loving chocolate… but the study of it, the whole [supply] chain, the origin and families just brings so many of the things we love together in a way that I don’t know another food, job, or path could.” 

Jinji stood at a crossroads in 2012 before founding the business. She was accepted into the NYU Food Anthropology program (today known as Master of Arts in Food Studies) and was a breath away from moving to New York, but she chose to stay in Baltimore and live the story as well as study it. “Maybe this was the education,” she says.

Shortly after moving to Belvedere Square, Jinji recruited long-time best friend Jonathan Seton to join the team. The buoyant duo has co-piloted the stall and chocolate manufacturing for nearly a decade together. With a trusted artisan at the wheel, Jinji branched out toward her original interest and started traveling to the sources of her chocolate. She met her producers in Ecuador in what she calls her “a-ha moment.” 

“It was simple. It was when I started to meet farmers and see farms that I realized there is a bigger story to tell. Chocolate is the least of what we’re doing,” she shares. 

Large scale cacao industry has faced considerable scrutiny in recent years for forced labor, deforestation, and child labor. In 2019, the Washington Post released an article titled Cocoa’s Child Laborers where the authors wrote,  “About two-thirds of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West Africa where, according to a 2015 US Labor Department report, more than 2 million children were engaged in dangerous labor in cocoa-growing regions.” 

Today, Jinji sources from a family owned farm, Golden Beans Estate, in Trinidad. It is run by a woman named Moana, the daughter of the family. Farming is often regarded as a job with little to no return, where risks often outweigh the rewards. Family farms struggle to continue a multi-generational handoff when jobs in cities and the Global North seem more lucrative to a farmer’s children. Pair that with patriarchal land titles and the struggle of women worldwide to obtain land, it can be very difficult to find women-led chocolate farms.

“The spiderweb of origin and farming that is cacao is so twisted and difficult to navigate,” Jinji shares of her quest to find a woman-led farm. “For me, the gender disparity was so glaringly disparate. Women-owned farms are like a needle in seven haystacks.”

Jinji met Moana in 2019 while touring cacao farms in Trinidad and now sources directly from her. “We’ve had lots of conversations with Moana about what her family needs and what they need to be paid per kilo, [to make a living],” Jinji shares their ethical pricing model. 

She and Moana often speak about the cacao’s fermentation process and pH levels and cost of production. Jinji is Moana’s only US client, which means that when it’s time to shipthe barrel of cacao in Jinji’s kitchen makes a long, lonely journey north. Typical chocolate supply chain sourcing would export cacao by the container load on a ship across the ocean. Jinji’s barrel of raw cacao is wrapped safely before being secured in the belly of an aircraft en route directly to BWI, where Jinji picks it up and shoves it into the back of her Toyota Rav-4. 

The 55-gallon blue barrel of Trinidadian cacao sits in the corner of the kitchen. That supply will last the shop through 2024. 

The raw cacao is hand-sorted, roasted then cooled before it is cracked and winnowed where the husks are separated from nibs. From there, the nibs go into the stone mill grinder, or melanger, with sugar, and are blended for two days before being tempered and molded into the final product.

Chocolate is just this nostalgic thing. You can describe it like memories.
Jinji Fraser

In the warm kitchen, a potent scent of chocolate radiates and seeps into the senses. Jonathan, who is elegantly covered in chocolate, dips tasting spoons into the melanger and offers us a tasting of horchata white chocolate. It’s silky and nuanced. “It’s a three-day refining process to get to that texture,” Jonathan shares. Natural granite wheels spin for seventy-two hours and grind the fresh-roasted cacao from crisp and chewy nibs to warm liquid silk. 

A test batch of hibiscus white chocolate turns in another melanger and the hazelnut spread has just finished. The new menu features a Cocoa-Chata drink of house-made rice and almond milk and freshly ground chocolate. The remaining rice pulp is dried and becomes the base of the white chocolate. It’s an ouroboros of chocolate creation. 

“We’re using every bit that we can and making delicious things all along the way,” Jonathan says proudly of the low-waste kitchen. 

Truffles, fudge, chocolate bars, figs and dates fill the display case and are all dairy-free and mostly vegan, with the exception of honey in some products. 

“People struggle to articulate the experience that they are having with it…they want to treat chocolate like wine and use this highfalutin language when that’s really unnecessary,” Jinji muses over the tasting experience. “Chocolate is just this nostalgic thing. You can describe it like memories.” 

Jinji Chocolate uses the material product of chocolate to tell stories. “We’ve told political stories or family stories,” Jonathan shares. Every summer, they make a Walker Avenue truffle, named after the street Jonathan grew up on. The dark chocolate truffle with concord grapes and a rosemary center is central to a childhood memory. “We had concord grapes growing in the backyardit’s very personal to me,” Jonathan shares. He’s even added cacao nibs for the texture of the “bumps in the road.”

“Anything that can be a focus of a story can also translate into a chocolate. When you think of storytelling, you think of the senses, the eyes… listening, but it can also be smells and flavors,” Jonathan shares.

Jonathan Seton

The move to Greenmount Avenue marks a significant milestone in the humble operation, now in its twelfth year. “Everything changed when we moved,” Jinji says, discussing the new logo and rebranding. The modern new logo and package design informed the space. The logo design is echoed in the counter that hooks around in a “J” shape.

The crew is still small. Jinji, her dad Guy, and her best friend Jonathan still run the business with a drop-in cast and countless other helping hands who have contributed to their success. “You never know what you’re preparing for [in life],” Jonathan says. 

The team offers authenticity, a closeness to the process, and an intimacy to artistry that can’t be mimicked. “This shop is us still on our way, but I don’t know to what,” Jinji says. “We are only here because of the bridges, connections, and relationships that we had, it’s 100% relationships.”

Jinji’s brother built the countertops, her husband painted the purple mud counterfront and lilac walls, and their neighbor moved their refrigerator and freezer. Jonathan, Jinji, and Guy have used their talents to lift the business, always with no motive other than propelling the story forward. “We didn’t have reserves of cash, so we had to use the resources we had,” Guy shares.

“It all connects. The value of maintaining connections and not burning bridges,” Jinji says just before the door cracks open. 

Guy’s warm and wizened voice reaches the stranger before she exits. 

“What’s your name?” he asks.

Caroline, she says. 

Guy.

Jinji.

Jonathan. 

Nani. 

Jill. 

Just like that, strangers become neighbors.

Jinji Fraser and Jonathan Seton
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