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A Healthy Taste of The Good Life

The unusual exterior of Cocoa Planet draws in tourists and locals who are looking for something different.

The unusual exterior of Cocoa Planet draws in tourists and locals who are looking for something different.

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For Anne McKibben, CEO of CocoaPlanet, a chocolate tasting cafe in Sonoma, chocolate is a way to make the world a better place. “If I had been a doctor,” she observed in the midst of her newly opened tasting room and cafe, “I could have treated hundreds, maybe a thousand people. But maybe millions of people can eat this and have a little treat that’s actually good for them.” Although ‘healthy chocolate’ seemed like an oxymoron to me, our interview soon proved that misconception wrong when it comes to CocoaPlanet’s product.

The chocolate is 64 percent cacao, what McKibben calls “the sweet spot” between an overwhelming amount of bitterness and too much sugar. According to scientific research, this kind of dark chocolates contains healthy antioxidants and can help prevent cardiovascular disease. The story of this unique chocolate and the tasting room that sells it begins way back in the 90s, with the growth of the World Wide Web and the beginning of McKibben’s mother’s struggle with diabetes.

Before McKibben ran CocoaPlanet, while she was making her mark in the tech world at Hewlett-Packard, she managed one of the first online premium chocolate distribution companies. Just as she was beginning to feel as though the worldwide supply of chocolate was getting repetitive, a health issue in her family made her turn her attention back home. Her mother was diagnosed with diabetes, which left her suddenly unable to eat many of the treats she used to enjoy. McKibben explains the connection: “I wanted to do something new for the chocolate industry, and make something my mom could actually eat.”

Thus, CocoaPlanet chocolate was born. It is doctor-recommended and safe for diabetics and others with restricted diets, containing only about 4 grams of sugar. McKibben says she is “especially proud of the trademarked Pearls of Flavor, the small circles of filling spread throughout the chocolate” It comes in circular disks, specially made for turning into a hot chocolate drink. And even for the chocolate layman, it lives up to the hype.

Susan Anderson and her husband, Brad, were just driving by one day when they spotted the store and decided it sounded interesting. Her impression fits perfectly with McKibben’s vision as she describes the product: “it tasted like it was much better quality, without a lot of junk in it.” The Andersons were drawn to the place due to its “interesting and unusual exterior” and found the inside “very clean and beautiful.” This sense of aestheticism is also central to the Cocoa Planet brand.

Inside, purple mood lighting illuminates the minimalist seating and the glass wall that separates the café from the factory. Patrons can admire the shiny steel machines as they order from the french-inspired menu or enjoy a chocolate tasting. This being Sonoma, there is also the option to pair flights of chocolate with flights of wine. Although the chocolate is at the forefront, the french café can be its own draw.

“People kept telling me I should come here because I’m gluten-free, and all the stuff in the restaurant [is] gluten-free,” explains another first-time customer, Jennifer Peck, “but the best part ended up being all the free chocolate.” Peck also enjoyed the low-key atmosphere, where she didn’t feel pressured into buying a ton of chocolate and had lots of options for what she could do.

For McKibben, this versatility came about almost by accident. She explains that she “had to go through 12 agencies just to get the licenses, and then they told me I wouldn’t get my liquor license unless I had more food. So then I was like, okay, we’ll have a french café.” Chocolate, however, has always been her focus. She was drawn to it because it was easy to explain, a universal language that everyone could appreciate. Combining her passion with her health focus and her desire to help her mother created a product with an unforgettable story.

Even new visitors to the tasting room soon learn about the history behind the slivers of sweetness on their plates. Peck enjoyed the added depth to the experience: “They told us the origin story, gave us lots of information. It wasn’t just like ‘hey what do you want?’” The extra explanation helps customers get a more complete experience, and it emphasizes the idea that this is not just your average chocolate.

And the evidence certainly shows that this is anything but average: other than the two sofi awards (the highest prize for a specialty food), the company has countless personal success stories. People who have struggled with finding treats they can eat due to their diabetes or other health problems have even started crying when they discover Cocoa Planet chocolates. To a person who does not struggle with health issues, this may seem unusual, but for those who have had to give up all sugary food, the discovery of a ‘safe’ dessert is anything but a laughing matter.

At the end of the day, this discovery is the reason McKibben created Cocoa Planet. Her idea lead to victories for people from all walks of life, from the novel evening tasting of the Andersons and the gluten-free dining of the Pecks to the healthy desserts of those for whom this is their only option. She reflects on her unconventional plan for helping the world as we finish our interview inside the limit-defying space: “You have to do your little thing for the world. If you have something, a gift, an idea, you have to give it back. And I don’t know, I don’t know if anyone else could have thought of this.”

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