The gift of chocolate

Creativity, conscientiousness, and commitment to quality are evident in each step Sam and Starr Ratto take at Videri Chocolate Factory in Raleigh.

Starr Ratto is a natural-born giver. She possesses the unique talent of knowing the exact right gift to give. “She gets me presents I didn’t even know I wanted, and it’s always the right thing,” said Sam Ratto.

Starr employed that instinct in the form of a cacao bean sorting experience for Sam over five years ago after the then engaged couple moved to Raleigh.

“I moved to North Carolina to go to NC State for their professional golf management program,” said Sam. “I was raised by farmers, and I wanted to get into some sort of land management or working on the land kind of thing, and I liked playing golf and being outside so I thought this seems great,” said Sam. As it often does, fate had other plans after Starr took a job at a local bean-to-bar business. She came home and told Sam about the sorting process. “When he got his hands in beans he thought ‘I was born to do this and I can do this for the rest of my life,'” said Starr.

Videri Chocolate Factory was born when Sam began working with cacao beans and was cultivated on a road trip when Sam’s father asked him who he would hire if he were to open a business. “It was the first time I’d ever thought about being a business owner – it kicked my brain over – I quit my job, I wrote a business plan, I got funding, and then we opened the doors.”

Their origin story could sound like smooth sailing, but the hard work and striving toward excellence was always underlying their endeavor. That, and the Rattos found out they were pregnant one month into their venture. “It’s been crazy – it’s been five years, and we have a four-year-old,” said Sam. “When I look back – I was coming to work seven days a week and making chocolate bars and trying to take care of my newly pregnant wife who had crazy morning sickness.”

Sam can’t help but find the reflection sweet, “Coming from that place to being here where Starr’s mom is watching our son right now, and we’re chilling together at work – still stressful and crazy but we’re in a pretty great place now.”

From the beginning, the Rattos have been purposeful in their commitment to a sustainable business, their employment practices, and the quality of their product. The beans they buy are fair trade and organic, and after they are used to make that delicious chocolate the husk of the cacao bean goes on to have another life. “We make a cocoa tea out of the husks, we sell them here in the store and to brewers for beer, and the big pieces of the husk we give away as mulch so we can be waste free,” said Starr.

Hiring and retaining talent in a thriving employment community means Sam must also focus on the how-to of management. “If the people inside of the organization are not happy and trained well you can’t maintain the consistency of your product – making chocolate is one thing, but making a really good work environment is even more important,” said Sam. “I want to come into a place that I love to work, and I want the people that work here to love coming here too.”

Job joy and creativity were alive in the confectioner’s work space where Miriam Weirich was carefully fashioning a new creation in the form of a chocolate sesame ball. “The consistency is similar to peanut butter,” said Weirich. “It’s an adult version of a peanut-butter cup.”

The reason they are using sesame and not peanut butter is because Videri is a nut-free facility down to the oat milk they use at the coffee bar. Starr describes that decision as a non-decision domino effect. “When we opened Videri everything was brand new so we had that moment of we can do it (use nuts), but once you do you can never go back,” said Starr. “What was a ‘yeah, let’s be nut-free’ decision seemed easy for us, and now it’s become something that people count on.”The result of running a nut-free chocolate company is payback in tears, “if it’s a mom of a child allergic to nuts they almost always cry, because this is a safe space.”In 2011 Videri had four employees producing three different types of chocolate bars. Today there are 27 people creating 25 different varieties of bean-to-bar chocolate. The company made several large-scale chocolate bars to celebrate their anniversary and delivered them to local partner businesses as a thank you. Because they infuse imagination and innovation into all they do, this process has led to a potential new product. “The next thing from this poster project is the introduction of wedding, anniversary, or any sort of celebration poster,” said Sam. “A two-pound block of chocolate that has whatever image you want on it.”

Looking toward their chocolate future, Sam doesn’t see things through the lens of milestones marked. “I don’t look at it in years, it’s more the accomplishment of working to consistently make good chocolate.”

Sam recently invented a cacao roasting machine, meaning he can now take on the title of inventor along with entrepreneur, artist, and chocolate-maker. The roasting machine invention boasts Surry County pink granite and is assembled in Greensboro. Starr describes her husband as, “exactly one-half Italian and one-half German, he’s got this combo of really clean and neat organization with an ability to dream big.”

Sam’s calling found him, and we are all the fortunate recipients of the gift Starr gave her husband.