Your first memory of chocolate depends on where you are from. It might be the milk chocolate of a Hershey bar melting on a s’more at Girl Scouts camp. It could be standing on your tiptoes to carefully pour Toll House chocolate chips into a bowl for a batch of grandma’s homemade cookies. Or it could be in the traditional manner that chocolate has been consumed for thousands of years: as a strong, rich, unsweetened (or lightly sweetened) cup of drinking chocolate.
Karla McNeil-Rueda’s exposure to chocolate was the latter. And it’s that sublime experience, very different from most Americans, that is fueling the success of her company, Cru Chocolate.
Unsweetened drinking cups were how chocolate was consumed where she was raised in the village of San Marcos de Colón in Honduras, along the southern border with Nicaragua. On visits to her grandfather’s coffee farm, she would help with milking the cows and be rewarded with a chocolate drink made with milk still warm from the cow’s teat.
Reached at her home/chocolate factory in Roseville, Cru Chocolate co-owner McNeil-Rueda talked about sacred-yet-everyday relationship Mesoamericans have with chocolate, an ingredient they created.
“There are thousands of drinks. Every town has many … when it’s cold you drink it a certain way, and then when it’s hot. You have a specific drink for each season.”
She was surprised to find when she immigrated to California in 2005 that chocolate was viewed as an ultra-sweet indulgence, rather than a nutritious substance that parents urged on to children to help them “get strong.”
A single mother of two, and a trained industrial engineer who broke barriers in Honduras as the first women to score top marks at her university, McNeil-Rueda struggled to find a job in her field in her new country.
She ruefully recounts applying for over 250 engineering jobs, and getting some favorable responses, only to have enthusiasm fade when potential employers heard her melodious accent over the phone. She took on factory work to support her family, but she found herself longing for the flexible schedule of the farming life she knew and missing time with her children.
By 2014 she had met her partner Eddie Houston in a yoga class she was teaching. He’s a computer engineer originally from Chico. They began looking for a business to start. She knew coffee well, but decided the Sacramento coffee market was oversaturated. She made chocolate for friends from cacao her mother brought from Honduras