Cru Chocolate: small-batch cacao in Central America

With an education in science, Karla McNeil-Rueda has gone down different career paths – but, after digging into trade-based courses, she landed on the business of cacao.
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Karla McNeil-Rueda is the founder of Sacramento-based Cru Chocolate, launched in 2016 with her partner from their home. But being a chocolatier wasn't what she thought she'd end up doing while studying engineering and sustainability in her home country of Honduras. Cru is dedicated to producing and distributing high-quality, sustainably grown cacao products while joyfully promoting the origins and traditional practices of the plant. Partnering with individual farmers in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, Karla is focused on continuing their development by supporting education and supplies alongside fair pay. She's working to create a more stable economy for those whose livelihood is dependent on their cacao crops. 

Leaving home and hopping

Karla's first pivotal career moment was when she emigrated to the US from Honduras in 2005 at the age of 21. She soon realized her engineering and sustainability degrees weren't recognized by the US education system. ‘It took me time to let go of what I thought an engineer's career should look like,’ she says. As the sole provider for her young children, she couldn't afford the time to go back to school, so she spent the next few years job-hopping. Others felt her commitment to women's or workers' rights was radical and didn't understand why she left positions because of a lack of either. ‘I actually grew the most [during this period] because I was exposed to so many processes and companies,’ she says. ‘I developed a strong conviction to trust my gut. If it doesn't feel good, it's because it's not good. I learned to not give up, and to keep looking for ways to change my environment.’

A beginner's mindset 

Karla enrolled in short trade-based courses, studying everything from coffee to yoga and even shoemaking. But it was a cacao technology and fine-chocolate confectionery certification program in Cuba that triggered her next big move. Now she sees this sea change as a testament to the opportunity that shorter, specialized training can offer, as opposed to a traditional four-year degree program. ‘While learning these protocols of risk analysis in the food processes, they seemed so obvious and simple to me, but I realized that not everyone thought that way,’ she says. ‘It taught me to not make assumptions about what others know. Accepting the basics and the simplicity of a job was very humbling and rewarding at the same time. I had to let go of valuing the overcomplicated.’

Creating Cru

Karla knew that chocolate was what she wanted to focus on and, rather than using her chocolatier certification to work as a specialist within a larger company, she decided to use her training alongside her experience of growing up on coffee farms in Honduras to start her own chocolate company. Cru is committed to sourcing, manufacturing, packing and shipping all of its products itself. ‘The heart of a company is in the hands of the people making the products,’ she says. ‘Many brands can look all equitable and sustainable, but those values don't always transmit to the production floor or the farm.’ Karla also uses Cru to showcase the long-standing indigenous history of cacao, and works to dispel the story that chocolate is a guilty pleasure. ‘A cacao drink is a container of our culture, delivered as nourishment. I feel honored to help people find the chocolate they need,’ she says.

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