Fergus Falls business collects international award as Minnesota's lone 'bean-to-bar' chocolatier - InForum | Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo news, weather and sports

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — TC Foods, LLC, is located on a short street behind a Fergus Falls Dairy Queen in a building which Google Maps still identifies as a cabinet and countertop business. There are no outside signs — not yet, anyway — that identify it.

But inside this 7,000-square-foot steel building, a small staff of workers are quietly but skillfully taking raw cacao beans shipped from across the globe and grinding, melting, mixing, molding and wrapping them into award-winning chocolate. Chocolate Bar Maker Machine

Fergus Falls business collects international award as Minnesota's lone 'bean-to-bar' chocolatier - InForum | Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo news, weather and sports

In 2021, TC Foods won its latest international award: a silver award for its Golden Milk Chocolate in the prominent International Chocolate Awards.

“It was the second best white chocolate in North America and South America…so it’s one of the best white chocolates in the world,” says Josh Mohagen, who started the company with wife, Kristin, after she hatched a dream to make small batches of craft chocolate in their hometown.

It’s an impressive feat for a company that was launched just nine years ago and, until recently, was operating out of the basement-turned-commercial kitchen in the farmhouse of Kristin’s parents, Rod and Alice Spidahl.

Then again, it’s a pretty Minnesota-Scandinavian way to handle things: To unassumingly do high-quality work while not getting too braggadocious about it.

But there has been plenty to boast about these days. The company recently hired a dynamic CEO, Kate LaBrosse, who has ambitious plans for growing the "bean-to-bar" company, which she says is the fastest-growing segment in chocolate today. "We are going to claim the space as the No. 1 bean-to-bar chocolate brand in 2027 and this team is the one to do it," LaBrosse said in an October Naturally Network pitch event.

They have plans to fork off into an additional “functional chocolate” line, infused with superfoods to enhance wellness, Josh says.

They have broadened their products’ presence by working with the nation’s two biggest natural grocery distributors. Their chocolate is slated to be carried by several national grocery chains, including HyVee, Natural Foods Co-op and Coborns Inc.

And they are in 800 boutiques in every state in the U.S., Josh says, including Fargo stores like Mint + Basil and Pinch & Pour.

It all started in 2013 during the Mohagens' honeymoon to Napa Valley. Their initial intent was to taste wine but they wound up being wowed more by the incredible flavors and complexity of chocolate being crafted by "bean-to-bar" chocolate makers in San Francisco.

They also found plenty of common ground between wine grapes and cocoa beans. Vintners talk a lot about "terroir" (pronounced "tehr-waar") — the philosophy that the environment, soil and air in which a grape was grown can shape a wine's character and "sense of place."

Craft chocolatemakers like Scharffen Berger and TCHO are pioneers who believe in the power of the cocoa bean in infusing its own sense of place in their chocolate.

Josh recalls their first time tasting different cocoa beans. “Kristin was just flabbergasted,” he says. “We tasted a cocoa bean from Madagascar and we tasted a cocoa bean from Ecuador and we couldn’t believe that both things were even chocolate. One was pungent, fruity and crazy. And the other was earthy and creamy. That’s what made her think, ‘OK, I want to play with cocoa beans. That’s what I want to do.’ So then we found a way to make a business out of it.”

Kristin had always liked to cook and, thanks to her family’s mission work in countries like Cameroon, had been exposed to different cuisines early in life.

Following high school, she graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Ariz., and later worked at a language school in France where she basked in her love of French food and culture.

After moving back to Fergus Falls and working as a chef for the PioneerCare Center, she bumped into Josh, a basketball coach, at a local coffee shop.

They actually already knew each other from middle school. Josh jokes he used to get in trouble for talking in class, until his eighth-grade teacher sat him next to Kristin, “which shut me right up.”

After reconnecting years later, Josh found words no longer eluded him. He asked her out and, as they like to say in their family, “the rest is chocolate.”

Following their chocolate-filled honeymoon, the couple returned home and began researching how to set up their own small-scale chocolate operation. They decided to call their chocolate "Terroir" to emphasize the sense of place of their carefully-selected cocoa beans. At first, Kristin handled everything from recipe development and chocolate-making to commercialization of product.

Her mom, Alice, was soon on board too, wrapping chocolate bars, filling molds or doing whatever else was needed.

In time, Josh also joined them and showed a gift for getting their new chocolate into area gift shops.

Initially, their small business was the only bean-to-bar operation in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin. Today, Wisconsin has added a few bean-to-bar businesses.

The venture grew steadily through the years until its most recent move to 504 S. Concord Street here. They now have ample space for offices as well as a production area for chocolate-making, bar-packaging, packing, loading, pick-up and delivery.

They’ve also expanded from a staff of three to a team of 25.

Today, TC Foods offers 14 varieties of chocolate bars, including exotic flavors like Lavender Latte Dark Milk, French Grey Sea Salt and Scorpion Pepper Dark. A popular variety is their Caramel Crack Dark Milk, which is loaded with tiny toffee bits and is the favorite of their two children, Klay, 5, and Nicole, 3. (Baby No. 3 is on its way.)

In keeping with the company’s “terroir” vibe, several varieties are infused with Minnesota flavors like Smoked Maple Brittle, Uffda Dark Chocolate, Coffee + Cream Milk Chocolate and Cardamom Krumkake Dark Milk.

Kristin says she thought of incorporating Scandinavian krumkake into a bar while brainstorming ways to add more crispy texture into their silky chocolate. Cardamom also seemed like an ideal spice, as it is used in various Scandinavian baked goods.

She bakes the krumkake base herself in giant sheet pans, which are then crumbled and folded into the chocolate.

All the while, Kristin chooses flavors that enhance the company’s high-quality, fair-trade cocoa beans, sourced from small rural growers in countries like Belize, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

It’s a departure from the bean favored by most of today’s mass-producers of chocolate. About 80% of the worldwide cocoa production comes from the forastero cocoa bean, which is the fastest-growing, most disease-resistant and most affordable.

But the Mohagens use a combination of rarer, more expensive beans, which can offer complex aromas and notes like tart raspberry, green tea or caramel.

“If you understand the difference between the bean used to make Folgers Coffee and the beans used by whoever’s roasting coffee in Fargo — Thunder, Youngblood — it’s the same deal,” Josh says.

Since Erik Vergiels started with TC Foods as part-time help back in 2017, he guesses he’s had a hand, in one way or another, in making nearly every bar of Terroir chocolate that has left the factory in the last five years.

Now he is chief chocolate maker. He is responsible for a complex, multi-step process which includes roasting the beans, removing the outer shells and then grinding the cocoa nibs into a paste called chocolate liquor.

The chocolate liquor (which is actually non-alcoholic) is then blended with cocoa butter in different proportions depending on whether it is milk, white or dark chocolate. On this day, he is making coffee chocolate, so sugar, milk powder and coffee have also been added. All ingredients used are organic.

The chocolate then goes through conching, a grinding process that transforms it from an uneven, gritty texture to a smooth, silky liquid. Higher-quality chocolates, like those made by Terroir, are typically conched for at least 72 hours, while cheaper chocolate might just be conched for four to six hours.

Employee Christi Jarland takes on the final steps of the chocolate-making process: tempering and molding.

Tempering is well-named, because a person needs an even temper to master it. The finicky process requires heating the chocolate, cooling it and then warming it again — all while agitating it to guarantee even temperature throughout. Every type of chocolate, from white to dark, reacts differently. The goal is to reduce all cocoa butter crystals to the same small size to give the chocolate its desired smooth, shiny appearance and crisp “snap” when broken. Improperly tempered chocolate will look cloudy and dull — and will crumble when broken.

“It’s not always easy. There’s almost like a relationship with the chocolate,” Jarland says.

The still-warm chocolate is poured into molds to harden. This part of the process is still done by hand; even so, Jarland estimates she makes up to 900 large chocolate bars per day.

From there, the chocolate is hand-wrapped in delicate foil by a tableful of workers.

The chocolate then heads to the packaging and shipping room, where each bar will be enclosed in the thin cardboard sleeves — emblazoned with soft pastels and the “TC” insignia in a posh font — that proclaim its brand.

Soon, however, the product will get a new name, which the Mohagens aren’t ready to share yet. “There will be a name change immediately in 2023, although the brand identity will really be the same,” Josh says. “Our name was Terroir chocolate. Nobody could say it. We loved it. We were too green in business, so we didn’t do all the business stuff we were going to do to have total access to it. So now we can have a name in which we own all access to it.”

The TC’s Food name will stay the same, even as its founders sometimes find themselves surprised by its success and growth. “It’s incredible because I never imagined it could grow like this,” Kristin says. “I just wanted to make good chocolate and have my own operation. To have so many people support and help us on each step…it’s exciting.”

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