Meet Elaine Read, co-founder/co-owner of the Atlanta-based chocolate company Xocolatl, and a woman who embodies the term “go-getter.” In 2012, Elaine and her husband Matt quit their jobs and moved to Costa Rica, where they stumbled upon a traditional chocolate recipe that inspired them to start their own chocolate-making operation. Two years later, they were back in the States making chocolate of their own. The rest is history.
We sat down with Elaine to hear about how she went from working full time as a new mother of two, to owning and operating a small-batch chocolate company. Here she shares the full story, as well as life lessons she learned along the way—about being opportunistic, committing to sustainability, and how mothers above all know how to get shit done.
1. What do you wear to feel the most free and confident?
I feel most confident in well-made pieces that are simple and draw the eye to my face rather than compete against me for attention. Clothes that encourage me to throw my shoulders back, stand tall and walk effortlessly without any details that weigh me down or constrict my movement will stay in my rotation forever.
2. How do you incorporate sustainability into your life?
When I graduated from college, I lived and worked in Malawi in eastern Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. Living in the bush without electricity and running water and in a society where nearly nothing material was wasted imprinted into the very core of me a need to not leave an unfairly large footprint on this planet. While we compost, drive an electric car and constantly search for ways for our company to reduce its carbon footprint, at the end of the day it boils down to just not taking more than our share. This principle drives our working relationships with the farmers and other partners we work with and almost every other choice we make. I once heard someone say, “If you feel like you need to give back to society, maybe you took too much” and I don’t want to wait until I’m old or have finally “made it” to look around and realize I took more than I needed. To me, this is the path to a sustainable life.
3. What’s the most recent book you’ve read and felt moved by?
I recently read “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor until his death in 180 AD. “Meditations” is a compilation of the private diaries he wrote during his two decades as Emperor. Before starting the book, I’d have assumed that the inner thoughts of an elite, ancient Roman male from almost two millennia ago would be completely foreign--a curiosity, an artifact of the past. And yet, as I read his descriptions of his daily struggles with the people in his life, the hypocrisy of politics, his own personal motivations and doubts, it became daylight clear that human nature hasn’t really changed over the last 2000 years. We are a species who wants and doubts and strives and tries to hold our own selves accountable and who loves and fears. Realizing that we are all this way and learning that we’ve maybe always been this way collapses the time between history and now and shrinks the space between people living elsewhere and people living here.
4. What is the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
I lived briefly in Venice, LA and would try to get up early most mornings with my longboard to surf for an hour before heading in to work. I’ve never been good at surfing but I loved being out in the water, usually by myself, usually not long after sunrise. As much as I loved trying, I was self-conscious about my skills and would try to find a spot for myself away from other surfers. One morning, the water even flatter than normal, I watched a man in his 50s or 60s ride tiny wave after tiny wave--waves I’d been letting pass by since they seemed hardly like waves at all. Noticing me watch him, he paddled behind me and with a total lack of judgment simply said, “Sometimes you have to be opportunistic,” and then paddled on. Like in a movie, I ended up catching more (tiny) waves that morning than any other time I’ve been out. Being “opportunistic” of course, can be harmful when there is a disregard to consequences and other people. But when the world is trying to give you something, whether imperfect, unplanned or not what you’re looking for, accept these gifts and try to ride them--they might have been made just for you.
5. What are you seeking more of this year?
In an earlier year, I’d have said quality time for myself. Women too often put themselves last on the list of people and things to take care of to the detriment of themselves and the people around them, myself included. Over the years, especially once our kids were born and my husband and I started Xocolatl, I came to see that I was no longer the best version of myself and hadn’t been for a while. Seeing how my reactions to stress impacted everyone around me (family, staff), I realized I needed to prioritize my well-being and started dedicating a part of every day just for me. The most surprising thing is just how quickly a little time each day to run, practice yoga, or just read on the porch with my dog helped steer me back to a better version of myself. It seems like a simple thing, but I’m guessing your readers understand very well how big a shift that is. With pride in that recent accomplishment, I’m now working on prioritizing time in my daily life for revitalizing friendships that I’ve let go dusty for too long.
6. You’ve spent a lot of time travelling the world—it’s one of the reasons Xocolatl got started in the first place. Out of all the places you’ve traveled to, which have you connected most to?
My passion is travel and I’ve never been anywhere where I felt a lack of connection but the place that always comes first to mind is a corner of the Morroccan Sahara. The indescribable immensity of the shifting desert and endless sky brought into focus how small and insignificant in time and space I am and oddly that realization sparked the most profoundly liberating sensation I’ve ever felt. If there were a desert caravan passing by, I’d have up and joined it.
7. Before you and your husband Matt started Xocolatl, you quit your jobs and moved to Costa Rica with your son in tow, without many concrete plans—what were you seeking at that time, and how did you decide it was the right time to make such a big move?
Matt and I had backpacked through parts of central America not long after we first met and passed through a sleepy town in Costa Rica where the jungle met the sea. We always planned one day to go back to that town. 10 years and two kids later, we were burnt out on our jobs and knew that we needed to get back to the place that still inspired our visions of what our future could be. A toddler, a newborn and a mortgage in Atlanta--all of it sounded imprudent but we knew waiting for the “perfect time” would likely only lead to dreams unlived.
8. At what point during your time in Central America did you realize that you wanted to make chocolate, professionally—was it something you had ever imagined?
When we moved to Costa Rica, we really had no plans other than to try to make our small savings last as long as they possibly could. On a shoestring budget, we did allow ourselves to buy a bar of locally made dark chocolate every Saturday at the farmer market in town. These chocolate bars were nothing like what we thought of as chocolate. If you could describe what “pure” tastes like, it was these bars. No filler, not much sugar and just an intensity of natural flavor. One morning it hit us that we could learn how to make this type of chocolate and bring it to Atlanta where we were sure other people would love it too.
9. It must have been a bit daunting to start a chocolate business without having had experience in the food or sweets industry. What advice do you have for others who might like to make such a dramatic pivot in the middle of their careers?
For sure. I still have moments of “imposter syndrome” that come from the knowledge that Matt and I are self-taught and not classically trained in chocolate. When those moments of self-doubt hit and I start thinking about the people out there who know more about chocolate than I do, I remind myself that I know what I want our company to be and that that is the most important thing anyone needs to know about their business. My advice to others is to know what you want the heart and soul of your endeavor to be and let that be your guiding light.
10. What has it been like to run a business with your partner?
I won’t lie--it was really tough at first. I’ve noticed that in a lot of businesses founded by a couple, one of them is the subject expert and the other runs the business. Matt and I were both new to chocolate making and entrepreneurship and the first few years we were stepping all over each other’s toes and just being redundant. It was brutal on our relationship. It took us two years to figure out that we needed to clearly divide the responsibilities between us and then trust each other’s judgment. And to not talk about work when we’re at home. Making those changes has definitely saved us from divorce! Now that we give each other freedom in our roles, I’m a lot more impressed by Matt’s successes and I know I have his total confidence in the things I’m responsible for. I would do it all over again.
11. As a mother and small business owner, what are your thoughts on how women can provide a sense of support and collectiveness for each other?
In my story about the guy who gave me surfing/life advice, I think it’s not surprising that in our society many men naturally get the concept of grabbing opportunities as they come while most women need to have an epiphany or get that same advice before they understand. I think women must encourage and enable each other to be “opportunistic” and then help each other when an extra push or hands are needed. That could be truly listening to and amplifying another woman’s voice, being their cheerleader or getting in to help when you see a woman struggling. And finally, recognizing that moms in particular are resourceful, competent and dynamic co-workers who know better than most how to get a lot of shit done.
12. What is one of the most surprising lessons you’ve learned during the process of starting your own business?
I think one of the most surprising things I’ve learned is just how quickly starting my own business has ruined me from ever being an employee again. It’s impossible to imagine not having the freedom to follow my own vision and create my own systems. To be clear, when we started I often wondered if I had built myself my own prison to live in because those first years of small business ownership are grueling. But as we built a team to help us make it through, that prison cell has turned into an open landscape full of opportunity I just need to keep seeing.
13. You learned to perfect your chocolate-making by training directly with farmers and producers in Costa Rica—can you tell us a bit about how your product stays true to and honors the Central American chocolate-making traditions?
Unsurprisingly, most industrial chocolate is made by taking the cheapest cacao beans available (which is usually extremely bitter and is often harvested with child labor and poverty-level wages), roasting the beans as dark as possible to make the naturally varying flavors of the cacao become uniform in flavor and then adding as much sugar, artificial vanilla and other fillers to make the chocolate palatable. It’s a grim reality, but unfortunately it’s the same story as most other industrially produced goods. In comparison, we source our cacao beans looking for flavor quality, environmental sustainability and a mutually beneficial trading relationship with the farmers we work with. Once we have the beans, we go through dozens of recipe tests to find the right roast profile to bring out the unique quality of the cacao beans from each of the regions we source from. We then only add enough sugar to bring out the specific flavor we want and we only use whole foods as flavor ingredients (like real vanilla and peppermint--never oils and artificial flavors) and we never use fillers. Through this artisanal process of making chocolate straight from the cacao bean, we seek to always be true to creating flavorful, honest, delicious and pure dark chocolate.
14. What’s your favorite of the Xocolatl bars? What makes it special?
My current favorite is our Peru 70% single origin bar, made of just organic cacao and organic cane sugar. Anyone who’s new to two-ingredient, craft dark chocolate will be surprised that you can taste flavors of cinnamon and hibiscus and dark berries that weren’t added to the chocolate but that are part of the natural flavor profile of the cacao itself which we tease out through careful roasting and grinding in a process that takes a week per batch. It’s also a multiple award winning bar made from native cacao we travel directly to Peruvian farms to source and we love the farmers there we work with, many of whom are women!
Learn more about Xocolatl and shop chocolate: here