Madhu Chocolate Shares the Sweet Side of Indian Spices
By: Valeria Ramos
Madhu Chocolate is an Austin-based company that infuses a variety of Indian spices, nuts, and flavors in its chocolate. They ethically source high-quality cacao beans with fair and transparent trading. Their facility operates on 100% renewable wind energy, and they compost a large number of their waste products in an ongoing effort to minimize their carbon footprint.
Founders and partners Harshit Gupta and Elliott Curelop recently joined us on Office Chats to discuss how they started the company, their inspiration for creating unique flavors, their advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, and more.
Q&A With Harshit Gupta and Elliott Curelop, Founders of Madhu Chocolate
Can you give us an overview of your career background?
Elliott: I got my bachelor’s degree in food science from the University of Hawaii and then started working as an intern with a chocolate company based in Honolulu. That was my jumping-off point to explore craft chocolate.
Harshit: I’m a software engineer by profession and currently have a full-time job at Salesforce. I’ve always been a chocolate enthusiast. I love everything chocolate. For me, dessert has to be chocolate. Elliott and I started making chocolate as a hobby at home. We got a small melanger, some cocoa butter, and nibs, and made some chocolate! Looking back, the first chocolate we made was so grainy, but it was such an exciting and fulfilling moment.
What drew you to creating a chocolate company in the first place?
Elliott: We went to India for Harshit’s cousin’s wedding and it was my first introduction to Indian sweets. There were so many amazing flavors that we don’t commonly taste in the U.S. and I thought the spices and floral flavors would pair well with chocolate. We started making chocolate in our home and had our friends try it. They gave us great feedback, so I started a business plan. Making a business plan is essential because it forces you to think about the less exciting aspects of starting a business. Oftentimes, when people start a business (especially one based on a hobby), they think they’re just going to do the fun stuff and make money off of it. The reality is, most of your time will not be spent doing the fun stuff (like making chocolate), but instead doing other administrative tasks. After we established a plan, we started selling at the farmer’s market and grew pretty quickly from there.
Harshit: The farmer’s market was the best decision we could have made to start our business. We received instant feedback from customers and made great relationships. This is important because once your product is in a retail store, you just don’t get that connection and feedback.
What is the meaning behind your brand name, Madhu?
Harshit: My mom’s name is Madhu. In Hindi, it means honey or sweet. She has been an inspiration throughout this entire journey. I grew up with her cooking and know how to cook today because of her. Her cooking style is like many mothers—you don’t use too many measuring cups and just do what looks right to you. She’s very into spices and makes a lot of beautiful desserts and savory foods. Our signature Masala Chai chocolate bar came from exactly how my mom makes her chai every morning back in India.
Can you tell us about the process of creating new flavors inspired by Indian cuisine?
Harshit: We take components of Indian desserts and infuse them into chocolate while also introducing new flavor profiles. For example, there is a common rice pudding in India called Kheer. Our Coconut Milk Cashew chocolate bar is our take on Kheer. There’s a lot of experimentation around creating new flavors. Our chocolate machines run for seventy-two hours, and during that time, some spices might mellow down or become overpowering because of the friction, heat, or oil being released.
What is something most people would be surprised to know about chocolate-making?
Harshit: Something that surprised me is the fact that chocolate is a fermented food. It comes from the cacao bean which grows on trees. When you open the pod, the beans have a white film on top, which has a very interesting texture and taste. When farmers remove cacao beans from pods, they go into fermentation blocks to develop flavor. Once the beans are dry, they come to us, and we begin our chocolate-making process. But when you first open those pods and see the beans with the white film, it looks like an alien is hatching out of there!
Elliott: Many people are surprised at how loud our chocolate-making equipment is. We have large vacuums that separate cacao husks from the nibs and I think it’s hilarious that I have to hand out earplugs in our tiny chocolate-making facility. There’s also a lot of disappointment that we don’t have Oompa-Loompas or rooms made out of edible materials!
Do you have any goals for Madhu in the coming years?
Harshit: We want to scale our production so that we can get into Whole Foods’ southeast region and also build more of a national presence. We are moving into a new space, which will create many opportunities for us. We’d like to host events, chocolate tastings, and chocolate-making courses. We’ve done chocolate-making classes before and they’re very popular because we’ve all grown up eating chocolate, but no one really knows how it’s made. We’d like to help change that.
Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone thinking of starting a business?
Harshit: Start with a business plan. It’s not the most exciting thing, but it will open up a lot of questions that you wouldn’t initially consider, so it gives you a holistic view of what starting your business will take.
Elliott: If you’re trying to pursue your hobby as a business and are serious about trying to live off of it, you can’t be emotionally attached to your ideas. There needs to be some wiggle room to adapt your idea. When you’re working on a business plan, you will be asked why no one else is selling your product or idea. A lot of people tend to think, “Well, I’m the first person to think of it.” However, someone else may have thought of it and it just didn’t catch on. So be objective with yourself and think critically about what you’re doing.
Portions of this article have been edited for clarity and brevity.