We’ve become accustomed to restaurants with open kitchens, coffee shops with on-site roasters, taquerias where you can see the tortillas being made — but how about a shop where you can watch your chocolate go from bean to bar? That’s the case at LetterPress Chocolate’s new retail shop in Beverlywood, where you can see the entire bean-to-bar process in the open 1,800-square-foot location.
Husband-and-wife team David and Corey Menkes founded their company in 2014, making micro-batches of single origin chocolate in their two-bedroom Cheviot Hills apartment. After their operation outgrew their home, they moved into a nearby shared commercial kitchen and eventually took over the space. That location, in what used to be a wedding cake shop on Robertson Boulevard, just opened as their first retail chocolate store. The couple are still the Los Angeles company’s only employees, making 4,000 bars a month from start to finish on the premises.
The cozy storefront is decorated with the company’s namesake, made from reclaimed woodblock type, and paneled with reclaimed pallet wood. You can buy bars of chocolate ($10-$18), wrapped by hand and decorated with wrappers that David designed using a 1920s-era South American air mail stamp as a prototype. David is a former graphics designer and both he and Corey are docents at the International Printing Museum in Carson. (That design background came in handy with the ancillary merchandise, which includes T-shirts, made and printed in L.A., and messenger bags made from the burlap sacks the cacao beans arrive in.)
The entire operation is on display: bags of raw cacao beans, which the couple source from Central and South America, the Caribbean and Africa; the roaster; the proofer, where the roasted beans rest overnight; the winnower and vibratory sorter, both custom-made by a Santa Barbara chocolatier, where the beans are cracked and arranged; the huge melanger, where the beans are ground into liquid; the refrigerator, where the blocks of chocolate are aged for at least a month; the tempering machine, where the chocolate is tempered, or heated and cooled to control its structure; the table where the chocolate is injected (with a veterinary syringe) into molds; and the table where the bars are hand-wrapped and packaged.
“In L.A., there’s no metric for what we do,” David said one recent morning, as he checked on the 75 pounds of liquid chocolate spinning in a DCM 100 melanger in the production room. An operation like LetterPress, which makes chocolate from start to finish by hand, is a rarity, and it’s one of the reasons the Menkeses will be hosting tours.
Also in the works is an unusual beverage menu — no hot chocolate, but rather drinks built with cacao juice, the liquid from the pulp of the beans. It’s heady stuff that tastes not at all of chocolate, but a little like a fruity variation of coconut water. The juice will be paired with sparkling water or ginger beer and made into iced blended drinks. It’s something to drink with the bars of Ashanti chocolate from Ghana, Costa Esmeraldas chocolate from Ecuador or the award-winning Ucayali chocolate from Peru. LetterPress is also making bars with air-popped amaranth (“Imagine an adult Nestle Crunch bar,” says David), sea salt and Maya Mountain chocolate from Belize.
As Corey wraps bars by hand in the production room behind him, David breaks up chocolate into little tasting cups at the front counter. The chocolate is deeply aromatic, bright with notes of citrus and fruit, given depth with layers of earth and caramel, and none of the bitterness that too often saddens dark chocolate. With new equipment and increasing demand, David says they’re already close to outgrowing their new home. Still, it’s a whole lot more spacious than their laundry room.