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City Living: Chocolate treats give hope to women

Vancouver's Hot Chocolate Festival's sales help East Van Roasters

If Roald Dahl’s words “the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places” are to be believed, then it should come as no surprise to find a chocolate factory on Carrall Street between East Cordova and East Hastings.

The space inhabited by the East Van Roasters artisan chocolate and coffee shop is small — it was once the Brickyard’s backstage before the night club closed years ago — but the café is big-hearted.

Shelley Bolton, café managing director, combined her chocolate-making skills with pastry chef and chocolatier Merri Schwartz to provide a welcoming workplace for women who live upstairs in social housing at the Rainier Hotel. It was three years of planning before the cafe opened last April by the PHS Community Services Society, also known as the Portland Hotel Society.

“It takes a full week to make one batch of chocolate so every job here is equally as important as the other,” said Schwartz. “It’s a joy to work with and it’s a joy to serve to people. Working with something that naturally brings joy is obviously ideal but as it is a fairly labour-intensive operation, it naturally creates community.”

In the back kitchen of the East Van Roasters, Rainier residents Sheree McKay and Kathryn Grant winnowed roasted cacao beans, their fingers worked meticulously to rid the husks. The women do this for four hours at a time, which seems like a lot until you find out 22 kilograms of cacao nibs are required to make a batch of chocolate.

“It’s great working here because everybody’s in a good mood. Chocolate and coffee, right?” said McKay. “It’s just been such a great opportunity and Shelley is such a wonderful lady to work for. She’s a giver of hope.”

In the spirit of giving, the East Van Roasters are not only part of the month-long, fourth annual Hot Chocolate Festival but they will be the recipients of partial proceeds from mugs of chocolate sold in the city by the 25 participating cafes until Feb. 14.

The drinks include Beaucoup Bakery’s the Intimate Act made with Valrhona chocolate to Schokolade’s Big Bad Wolf featuring milk chocolate with gingerbread spices and, back to the East Van Roasters, the Hive made with Hives for Humanity honey (the café switches to Earl Grey drinking chocolate called High Society on Saturday for the festival’s last two weeks). Each mug of chocolate is also paired with a treat.

“We knew people liked the festival but we’re finding people are loving it. Our hot chocolate sales are going really amazingly well,” said Schwartz. “It’s a neat circle as we’ll be able to hire more women with the funds we get. It’s meaningful, too, in the small chocolate community to have everybody supporting one another.”

A map of the Hot Chocolate Festival can be found at cityfood.com/hotchocolate/

rblissett@telus.net