The Unknown History of Theo Chocolate

The unusual story behind the chocolatiers hits the sweet spot, nonetheless.

Theo Chocolate was voted Best Chocolatier in the 2015 Best of Seattle Reader Poll. To view the other winners, go here.

Anyone who loves chocolate in Seattle is well acquainted with Theo, whether you buy the local confectioner’s bars in stores like Metropolitan Market (and even Bartell Drugs) or have taken one of its popular factory tours in Fremont. You might also know that Theo was the first certified organic, fair-trade chocolatier in North America, and that Theo advocates for a better quality of life for cocoa farmers all over the world.

What you likely don’t know is that Theo’s owners and founders, Joe Whinney and Debra Music, were formerly married and have a 19-year-old son. In their forthcoming cookbook, Theo Chocolate: Recipes & Sweet Secrets (Sasquatch Books, $24.95), the business partners open up publicly for the first time about their marriage, divorce, and subsequent move from Massachusetts to start Theo. What’s especially interesting about the couple’s personal story is that they moved here together after the divorce, their 8-year-old son in tow.

While it might seem puzzling that the business owners would choose to expose themselves so openly, the chapter proves crucial in understanding the underlying ethos of Theo.

It was after four years of marriage that Debra and Joe decided to divorce, writing in the book that “they were not meant to be a married couple.” Yet when the opportunity to start Theo—way out in Seattle—was presented to Joe, the first person he called was Debra. He was not going to move unless she too was willing to pack up and head west as well. To the surprise—and in some cases even anger—of her friends and family, she said yes, though it wasn’t, understandably, an easy decision to make as a 41-year-old single mom with a good job in marketing.

“There was definitely a mixture of fear and excitement,” she recalls. “But there were reasons why I was ready to move. The thought of a change was important for me in my own life. I’ll never forget this feeling: like the lid had been taken off my life. And I was under this great big Seattle sky and had this entirely new sense of myself. Suddenly there were new possibilities. I didn’t know what they were, but as frightening as that could be, I felt like I could breathe again.”

One of those possibilities, perhaps even more shocking than her move with her ex, was Joe’s invitation to join the company. She said yes again, though that decision has also come with difficulties. “Our boundaries are very different than a regular working relationship,” she says. “We just aren’t always professional with each other. We work really hard on that, and it’s unbelievably challenging to get that right. The good thing is that there’s this great trust, and a kind of creative friction that comes from it. There are times when he pisses me off because he’s fighting for something I disagree with. One of us will back down. But when it’s really critical for our business, we?ll fight it out until we get to the sweet spot where we agree.”

Part of their ability to work things out stems from a mutual understanding of who they are and what their company is born out of. “We both have this North Star and are upstream swimmers. . . . We believe things are possible beyond the path of least resistance.” That bond—as well as the bond of their child—has kept them firmly planted in each other’s lives and helps form the backbone of Theo, a brand that is focused on connecting its customer with the human beings behind the product, farmers in particular.

It’s that commitment to transparency that led Debra and Joe to reveal their history. “People are yearning for connections, human stories, whether it’s me or Joe or our head chocolatier or a farmer.” She admits that they are private people by nature, and that in the beginning they wanted to focus on their business vision, not on themselves. “But at the same time we both realized there is a kernel of our story that is emblematic of our idealism. We were two people who loved each other profoundly at one point, so why throw the baby out with the bathwater? What’s salvageable? There’s something about that that is very intrinsic to the business.”

Though Debra has been happily remarried for 10 years, she says that she and Joe have an incredibly rich history together—one that each of them details in the intro to the book. Those passages are beautiful, and speak to two incredibly mature and sensitive individuals who rose above the misconceptions of what divorce should look like and instead forged a healthy, vibrant new union as co-parents, business partners, and friends.

Knowing what they’ve been through, to my mind, makes their chocolate all the sweeter.

nsprinkle@seattleweekly.com

Theo Chocolate: Recipes & Sweet Secrets goes on sale September 22.

 
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