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Roll Chocolates

From issue 19 • Words/images: Heidi Swift

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I was laying on a table having my chi rearranged when my accupressurist mentioned that two women she knew had started a business making some of the best handmade chocolates she’d every tasted. They were also diehard skaters. The company was called Roll Chocolates.

Skateboarding chocolatiers? Sign me up.

As is often the case, once Roll Chocolates had been put on my radar. I seemed to hear about it everywhere I went. With limited distribution and a relatively small volume of chocolates produced weekly, it was a bit hard to put my hands on the stuff. I finally snagged a box at CorksCru wine shop in downtown Portland, Oregon, and instantly understood what all the fuss was about: perfect squares of smooth, shiny chocolate filled with caramel and topped with locally-sourced sea salt— not too sweet, with a silky texture.

A week later I meet Heidi Kreis and Melissa Ballantyne, the women behind the handcrafted delicacies.

The Passion
Cool fall morning and the sky is mercifully clear. Underneath the Burnside Bridge 30, or so skaters are taking turns dropping in to one of the most famous bowls in the United States. I find Kreis and Ballantyne immediately because they’re the only women on the scene. Kreis lays her skateboard against one of the steep walls so I can grab the truck and scramble up. I shoot. They skate. Then we duck into a nearby restaurant and talk chocolate.

Kreis is excitable. Vibrating with energy, she seems to constantly exude euphoria and stoke. She’s a handful. She’s unapologetically bold. She’s an ass-kicker. Don’t get in her way, don’t feed her after midnight, and whatever you do, never ever give her coffee.

Ballantyne offers a balancing factor to offset Kreis’s frenetic pace. Tattooed and carefully spoken, she talks about making chocolate with the quiet reverence of a true craftswoman. She lives with a big dog in a small apartment. She loves heavy metal.

The two women met at a barbecue in Portland a few years ago and hit it off immediately, bonding quickly over their passion for skating. Originally from Franklin, Massachusetts, Ballantyne spent seven years building skate parks around the world, doing everything from pouring concrete to welding, site layout and skid-steer operation. Kreis hails from Southern California where she competed in small, local arenas as well as World Cup-level skateboarding competitions. “I don’t do that crazy stuff anymore now that I’m an old lady,” 30-year-old Kreis tells me.

It wasn’t long before they realized that they shared another passion: chocolate. But not just any chocolate—extremely fresh, ultra-premium and lovingly handmade chocolate. Kreis convinced Ballantyne that they should name the company Roll Chocolates to honor their mutual devotion to the deck. The rest is history. In May of 2011 they made their first dollar at the Lake Oswego Farmer’s Market.

Kreis graduated from California State University Long Beach with degrees in Business Marketing and Business Management and has a natural entrepreneurial spirit (as a child she had a year-round lemonade stand and often spent her profits on … chocolate). Ballantyne discovered her love of cooking and baking early and attended a vocational high school where she specialized her studies around culinary arts and pastry. She then went on to graduate from Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, with a degree in Baking and Pastry Arts.

With Kreis driving the business side of things and Ballantyne developing an ever-growing line of flavors like Cardamom Caramel and Dark Chocolate Walnut, they’ve chosen to evolve slowly, maintain the integrity of the product and work on making better chocolate for chocolate’s sake.

Precision and Essence
Kreis and Ballantyne spend late nights and weekends in their kitchen, cranking out a few hundred chocolates at a time. Both women hold down day jobs working for Bowery Bagels where Kreis is the wholesale account manager and Ballantyne is the shop manager. They average about 800 chocolates per month, but most of their volume occurs from November to January.

Using Valrhona chocolate from France, Nielsen Massey vanilla and a 70% single origin dark chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Roll Chocolates puts a premium on ingredients in order to produce the purest flavors and superior textures. Organic evaporated cane juice and fresh dairy combine to create an elevated chocolate experience that sets Roll apart.

But there’s more to it than what you put in the bowl. Ballantyne manipulates the ingredients with the essential precision of a chemist and the innate sensibility of an artist. “The atmospheric temperature and humidity … everything effects the way the chocolate will act. You have to react to what’s going on around you. Even with as many variables as we control, every batch is different.”

From start to finish, the process is detailed and meticulous: time-consuming, fussy, painstaking, elaborate and intricate. Polycarbonate molds are even polished first with a cotton ball and then with a microfiber cloth to ensure that the outside of the chocolates have a pristine, glassy surface.

As with most craft, it’s a labor of love—a challenge undertaken in the name of putting something meaningful into the world. An expression. A deliciously edible expression. The Romantics believed that a work of art, properly executed, carries within it an invisible, living essence. Roll produces chocolate that transcends the finer points of the finicky and complicated production process—chocolates that are infused with the kind of qualities that bring two skateboarders together in business and friendship: stoke, spontaneity, fearlessness, boldness and flat-out joy.

They’re also the product of commitment and ambition. Ballantyne is an obvious perfectionist: “I want to keep pushing the chocolate to be better and better. I always wish I had more time to spend experimenting with new flavors and processes … to get really crazy with things. I want this to be even more high-end and upscale. I know that marketing and all these other parts of doing business are important, but I feel like at the end of the day it should just be about the chocolate. The chocolate is the most important thing.”

She’ll get no arguments from me: chocolate is always the most important thing—next to activities that involve wheels and speed, of course. Take the two things and put them together? Chocolates with soul. Chocolates infused with the essence of awesome. Get some.

Try Them
These little gems aren’t easy to track down, but if you’re in the Portland area CorksCru Wine Merchants usually has a stash and they can sometimes be had at the Made in Oregon store.

From issue 19. Buy it here.