Have you ever wondered what it would be like if the world were made of chocolate? Well, two Austin entrepreneurs are working to make all our cocoa-based dreams come true.
“We want to let our customers express themselves in a unique fashion,” says Levi Lalla, co-owner of Piq Chocolates, “and I cannot think of a better canvas than chocolate.” Lalla and his business partner, University of Texas Austin graduate Donovan Crowley, are putting their professional engineering backgrounds to use producing custom-shaped chocolates using a 3D printer.
The idea to make a 3D printer for chocolate has been with Lalla for years, but the necessary technology wasn’t available until recently.
Back when Lalla was a mechanical engineering student at MIT, he earned a reputation for approaching cooking projects like a mad scientist. “I had easy access to a kitchen in our dorm,” he recalls, “so I was constantly experimenting with food.”
Some of his experiments included baking breads with different flours to see how protein content affects end result, making ice cream with liquid nitrogen and crafting together a sous-vide cooker out of found parts.
The idea to make a 3D printer for chocolate has been with Lalla for years, but the necessary technology wasn’t available until recently. Their current printer creates a plastic mold for the chocolate, but they’re also developing a direct 3D printer to be unveiled during the South by Southwest Interactive conference this March.
Unfortunately, he and Crowley aren’t yet satisfied with the quality of the printer’s designs. “If it can’t produce high-quality chocolate designs, then it's useless to me,” Lalla says.
The duo is also deeply concerned with how the chocolate tastes. “Our chocolate has to be able to stand on its own,” says Lalla. Actually, the main criterion for each new chocolate sample they try is whether or not his wife likes it. “If I leave some samples on the counter, and it doesn’t disappear, then it's not good enough,” Lalla jokes. The two have learned that they prefer single-origin chocolates, because those chocolate makers “take the time to roast it right, ferment it right and make a good quality bar.”
The main criterion for each new chocolate sample is whether or not Lalla's wife likes it. “If I leave some samples on the counter, and it doesn’t disappear, then its not good enough,” Lalla jokes.
The source of their chocolate is also of the utmost importance. Lalla and Crowley are “focused on sourcing only fair trade or ethically sourced chocolate.” Their dark chocolates have 65 to 70 percent cocoa content, and their milk chocolate usually contains about 50 percent.
Right now, Piq Chocolates is taking orders only for special events, but it has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to increase its output and accept more orders. The equipment the company uses is currently located all over Austin, adding to the time it takes to produce each item. If the company meets its goal, the money will help open a centralized production space and perhaps even a storefront.
To remove some of the intimidation some customers associate with creating an original design from scratch, Piq is also developing a unique online tool that will enable it to start with templates it can tweak to its liking.
“This is a new concept, to be able to customize chocolate,” says Lalla, “but I think it's really compelling to use it to design a personal message.”
You can back Piq Chocolates on Kickstarter until Monday, November 11.