Making island life sweeter, one gourmet truffle at a time, is chocolatier Joanne Mogridge, owner and operator of Cocoa West chocolates.Along with her artist husband Carlos Vela-Martinez, she has created one of the most popular establishments on Bowen Island. On July 6, Cocoa West will be celebrating its 10th year in business, a feat worth celebrating in this economic climate.
Located in Artisan Square, Cocoa West opened its doors to the public in 2002 and has been producing gourmet organic chocolates, serving delicious hot chocolate and scooping mounds of decadent ice cream ever since. "The opening day was our busiest day for that entire year," Mogridge recalls. After five years as a professional photographer in Toronto, Mogridge decided to reinvent herself and pour her creative energy into learning the business and craft of making chocolates. She worked at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, apprenticed at Chocolate Arts in Vancouver and then was chosen to participate in the Venture Program at B.C.I.T. Graduating with honors, Mogridge was one of a small group of graduates who received financing to help her with her new venture.
The first six months of business were tough, according to Mogridge. Most of the summer people were skeptical of the longevity of the business but hoped they would see them again the following year. Cocoa West endured 13 power outages and once had to suffer through 44 hours without power which for a business that was just starting out proved to be very challenging. In 2010, they used a Toyota Prius to power their cash register and used a campfire to make hot chocolate for their customers, "you do what it takes to stay in business," says Mogridge.
Six weeks after they had opened, Mogridge discovered she was pregnant with her daughter Eden. "We instinctively went into survival mode, the idea of starting a business and a family at the same time was overwhelming," says Mogridge. Working 100-hour-weeks was the norm and being pregnant as well proved very tiresome. Mogridge worked right up until going into labor, then they closed the shop for five days and went to the city for the birth.
Eden was born 10 days before the Easter long weekend, which for a chocolate shop is one of the busiest times of the year. The hospital kept the mother and daughter for four days as they knew Mogridge would immediately return to work. Sure enough, after leaving the hospital with her child in her arms,Mogridge was back wrapping bunnies for the Easter rush. Eden came to the store with her and the locals nicknamed her the chocolate baby. "Some customers would come to the store when they knew Eden would be fussy so they could hold her for awhile - a real community effort," says Mogridge.
In 2006, the couple were part of an exhibition held at the Gallery at Artisan Square titled Meltdown: artwork in chocolate. They helped local artists visualize and create works of art made of chocolate. The show proved very popular and had one of the largest opening nights ever.
To complement their current business, Mogridge and Vela-Martinez designed and built the Chocolate Suite, which is a romantic get-away located only steps from the Cocoa West cafe. Even the paintings on the wall were created and designed by the couple. "Guests come from all over the world to stay here; we've had marriage proposals and even anniversaries with rose petals," states Mogridge.
She also teaches the art of making chocolates. "I've been teaching for eight years and [the students] come from all over the world, Dubai, China, USA, Guatemala and even Bermuda" says Mogridge.
Mogridge now works a normal 40 to 45 hour work week with the help of a team. She plans to revisit the original business plan and intends to sell more chocolate off island, including a top secret chocolate bar that will be released soon. Cocoa West currently manufactures everything on Bowen and distributes hot chocolate to a variety of places on the mainland such as Urban Fair.
Serving an impressive 200,000 customers in the last 10 years, Cocoa West definitely has lots to be proud of and has planned some special events to celebrate in style. For more information about Cocoa West, visit www.cocoawest.com.