As I listened to Aaron Koch tell me his story, I couldn’t help but compare it to an adventure, like something straight from a book or a movie. He lived in Singapore for 18 years, then Oregon for a few years. His next move was to Hawaii, where he built a 26 acre cacao farm by revamping the entire property and installing cacao trees across the many acres. Aaron actually lived in a treehouse, overseeing a property on the island. Wanting to start his own business and create a product like nothing else on the market, he let his past experiences inspire him.
He wanted to follow his passion and start his own business, drawing on his background as a cacao farmer.
While living in Hawaii, Aaron had a chance meeting with a business owner from Portland, Oregon who asked him to come out to the Northwest and work on a project that would bring chocolate into an existing business model. When this project fell through, Aaron decided to stay in Portland. He wanted to follow his passion and start his own business, drawing on his background as a cacao farmer. He founded Treehouse Chocolate, taking the name from his former living space in Hawaii. In September of 2013, Aaron purchased a shipping container and outfitted it as a production kitchen, where he could create and package his products in a space on SE Alder Street. He wanted to make his drinking chocolates in a contained environment to monitor quality assurance. By February of 2014, Aaron was selling his chocolate and established himself as the only producer of single serving premium drinking chocolates.
The former cacao farmer uses single origin, organic cacao beans from Northern Peru and runs production in small batches. Aaron rents time on a coffee roaster, roasts the beans, then brings them back to his kitchen where he cracks and winnows them (separates the husk from the bean). This creates cocoa nibs that he then puts into a red stone grinder for about three days. The chocolate turns into a smooth liquid, and he pours it into large metal pans where it cools and becomes blocks of chocolate. The blocks of chocolate are lovely to look at with an almost marble effect to them. Aaron breaks up the blocks and shaves them down to create a chocolate powder, which he then mixes with organic cocoa powder and organic skim milk to create the “Original” flavor. He takes it a step further with organic instant coffee to create “Camp.” For a vegan, dairy-free option, Aaron adds organic coconut milk powder and coconut sugar to make “Nectar.” My personal favorite is “Cherrywood,” featuring Jacobsen sea salt, a finishing salt harvested off the Oregon Coast. Because the different flavors are a single serving, only six ounces of hot water or milk are needed, which makes it a compliment to different activities at home or on any adventure.
“It’s always challenging. Things go wrong, but you can’t freak out. You have to stay even-keeled and have a good attitude.”
Aaron embraces the idea of living in the moment and feels the small victories are the most meaningful to him. He takes time to celebrate each of his accomplishments, like when he went to New Seasons in 2014 and they decided to sell his drinking chocolates in all of their Portland locations. He reveled in the experience of road trips to Seattle and San Francisco where he met with different retailers who said “yes” to carrying his products. One of his proudest moments was when someone asked him what he does for work and when he shared he created Treehouse Chocolate, they recognized the name and told him how much they enjoyed it. He loves seeing people’s reactions as they try his drinking chocolate. It makes his day when someone is excited about what he creates. “That validates what I do.”
It makes his day when someone is excited about what he creates. “That validates what I do.”
The Treehouse Chocolate founder appreciates the entrepreneurial and creative community in Portland. He has formed relationships with several mentors who have thriving businesses based out of the city and meets with them regularly to share ideas (and the occasional beer). Whether it’s talking with different business partners in the shared space on SE Alder, or sharing stories about fellow entrepreneurs he knows, he understands the value in making connections with people. It’s also his friendly and energetic demeanor that helps him quickly build rapport, and his personality can be felt in the Treehouse brand.
You can tell Aaron is continually thinking of new ideas to grow as a business owner. What’s next for him and for Treehouse? He is brainstorming new flavor combinations, like testing some Peruvian spices to pep up the drinking experience. He also recently received funding to remodel his space so he can increase production. While he currently works with a broker to buy his cacao beans, he wants to develop more trade relationships and buy directly from the cacao farmers. In the next five to ten years he hopes to be emulating his role models and business heroes. As Treehouse expands, he plans to be less involved in production and focus more on the marketing and promotion side. His vision is for his drinking chocolates to be a common household beverage.
“It’s always challenging. Things go wrong, but you can’t freak out. You have to stay even-keeled and have a good attitude.” This answer stuck with me, because it was an honest response from Aaron about the hardest parts of starting your own business. He doesn’t let the uncertainty bother him. Instead, he focuses on what he wants to do, like creating something by hand or using high quality ingredients that people will appreciate. Rather than making different products he can’t put his full time and attention into, he wants to focus solely on producing drinking chocolates and be the best in that category. He shared there are two key characteristics that differentiate him: 1) He creates the only single-serving, premium drinking chocolate on the market and 2) He started as a cacao farmer and has the knowledge of building and working on a 26 acre cacao farm. If I can add a third, 3) he has the spirit and drive that will keep bringing success his way.
In the next five to ten years he hopes to be emulating his role models and business heroes.
For anyone starting his or her own business or trying out a new route in life, it may be full of excitement, risk, or both, much like any endeavor. Head out and follow your passion…you never know what kind of adventure will be waiting for you.