Ryan Lee ’12 | The Freedom to Explore (Alumni in Food Businesses)

Alumni in Food Businesses: Ryan Lee '12

One day, he was filming underwater with Great White sharks in Mexico for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Throw in a pandemic full stop and Cinematographer Ryan Lee soon reinvented himself as one of Toronto’s trendiest chocolate makers and founder of Chachalate in the exclusive category of bean-to-bar chocolate making.

Always a chocolate lover, Ryan first began making his ethically sourced Chachalate (pronounced Cha-cha-lit) chocolate in his condo kitchen, but before long he was renting commercial space in a catering kitchen. Bean-to- bar production means that he does it all—roasting, grinding and tempering (a heating-cooling-heating process). There are only three others doing it in the city.

The switch from video production to chocolate entrepreneur came from a combination of necessity, curiosity and, of course, passion. “Food was always a big part of our family,” he says. “At home, we hardly ever ate at restaurants and vacations were built around finding great places to eat.” Places like Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and California. Everyone cooked. The eldest of three boys, Ryan’s specialty was chocolate.

“Video is an in-person industry, so it came to a complete halt with COVID,” he says. With more time on his hands, the chocolate beckoned. But as one who reads deeply about his interests and harbours a keen social conscience, he was aware of problems with large-scale production of commodity chocolate. Pressure to keep prices down creates conditions that have led to child labour, slave labour and over-farming, causing soil degradation, water contamination, and deforestation.

By chance, he’d recently worked on a video promotional project with a spice company that introduced him to “transparent trade”, where producers buy directly from farmers, paying a premium even over fair trade prices but cutting out intermediaries and gaining access to farms where the focus is on quality and not quantity. Where your ingredients come from is traceable.

Ryan put transparent procurement into practice. He pays three to five times the fair trade price, and as he started experimenting, he found the quality benefits gave him a distinct competitive edge as well. “It really opened my eyes to the depth, complexity, and flavour variations in cocoa,” he says. He chose to focus his chocolate on the bright, fruity notes that big producers can’t achieve.

There was a lot of entrepreneurial grit to getting Chachalate off the ground. Acquiring equipment, designing packaging, making boxes with a cutting and scoring machine, building a website and—a key to success—getting out to farmers’ markets, educating customers about ethical chocolate and meeting customers face to face—all during a pandemic.

Ryan says he owes a lot of his success to curiosity and a willingness to be flexible, something he learned at Lakefield. He was on a medical school track in those days, but he also joined clubs and became interested in video production. He started making videos for the school’s promotions and events, even getting paid for it in his senior year. “That kicked off my entrepreneurial instincts,” he says. When he went to Queen’s University, he always kept film as a major area of study and eventually established his video production agency.

“Lakefield encourages you to explore, so it was natural for me when COVID hit to explore my other interests. It was an excuse to explore.”

Ryan is in the middle of new plans for Chachalate as it hits its growth spurt. A new co-branding agreement with W Hotel to supply its in-room “mixed bars” as well as the hotel’s cafe marks an entry into retailing. He also wants to add employees and get into a larger facility.

“Paying a premium for ingredients means higher selling prices, but chocolate should not be as cheap as it often is,” he says. “But we’re still very small. With growth we’ll become more efficient. With new equipment and a bigger production facility, you can fill in some of the gap. It’s a balancing act.”

Written by: John Southerst