As anyone who has recently bit into a candy Easter Bunny knows, there’s kid chocolate and then there’s grown-up chocolate. MADE Atlantic City Chocolate Bar is decidedly the latter. Not only is the chocolate bar an actual working bar (cacao-infused cocktails are a massive customer draw here), it’s also a craft-driven chocolate production site: chef-owners Mark and Deb Pellegrino do everything from the grinding and tempering to candy-making and brownie-baking. And it’s the one of the only places in New Jersey doing bean-to-bar chocolate, meaning they actually source and roast the beans themselves. It’s an unlikely business model on a formerly deserted city street—part of a hyper-local revitalization project from Atlantic City investor Mark Callazzo (Alpha Funding Solutions, The Iron Room).
More than a little curious about the hybrid bar-chocolate shop-café, we caught up with Mark and Deb—just back from their first-ever cacao-sourcing trip to Costa Rica—to talk bean-to-bar, kitsch-free chocolate cocktails, and selling chocolate authenticity in a casino city.
Table Hopping: You and Mark both had stable, high-gloss careers in casino dining. Mark worked for 14 years at Carmine’s in the Tropicana and you did 18 as executive pastry chef of Harrah’s, Caesars, and Bally’s. Why leave? Why chocolate?
Deb Pellegrino: We always wanted our own space together. Mark was actually a pastry chef before he was in savory, and I started as a savory chef. I didn’t want a bakery as much as he wanted one, and he didn’t want a restaurant. And Mark loves chocolate. Honestly, we felt like it was a great creative vehicle.
I met Mark Callazzo, an investor in the city, in 2017. He had a vision; he wanted a destination that was walkable. You don’t really have that in Atlantic City outside the casino. He calls us [one day] and says “I’ve got a bunch of storefronts on Tennessee Avenue.” It was a sketchy neighborhood when we first got there. We thought, “We’re a little crazy for doing this.” But the energy Mark gave off, his vision, I said to my husband, “If I stay with Caesars and this street blows up, I’m going to be so disappointed.” We opened MADE on April 27, 2018.
TH: Bean-to-bar is especially ambitious and labor-intensive. Why that route?
DP: Bean-to-bar is just so unique. It really lets you be creative as a chef. Before we started, we tried a ton of bean-to-bar chocolate and were disappointed with a big percentage of them. They were flat, not flavorful. And some bean-to-bar chocolates use lecithin emulsifiers, which takes away from the natural flavor of the bean. We wanted to create something that didn’t exist on the market.
TH: You just came back from your first sourcing trip, to Costa Rica, in March. Why take on the added task of sourcing cacao?
DP: We wanted to see where the product is grown and how it’s grown. It can be hard to do at our size—not every farmer wants to meet with you. It’s hard to make connections. But Jim McNamara, executive pastry chef for Caesars in Las Vegas, recommended a farm in Costa Rica—Finca La Amistad [in San Miguel]. Right now, they only export to Belgium and Switzerland, but we gave his plantation manager our chocolate bars and next thing I knew, the owner [Ernesto Brugger] was on the phone asking to speak with me. He said the guys loved the chocolate and they’d be happy to work with us, to import to the United States.
TH: Atlantic City isn’t known for its artisan goods scene. How do you introduce diners to your style of chocolate?
DP: I usually come right out and explain that it’s not going to be Hershey’s. A Hershey Bar has 13 ingredients. We have four: cocoa beans, organic cocoa butter, sugar, and milk powder. You can taste chocolate. You can taste all the notes. And I strongly suggest people let it melt on the tongue. We don’t use lecithins or high sugar content, so it takes longer to melt—but it’s well worth the wait.
TH: The space came with a liquor license. Was chocolate-plus-alcohol always the plan?
DP: We never thought about having a bar. Nor did we want to have a bar. But Mark said to us, “Well, if you want to use [the space] you’ve got a liquor license with the building,” and my mind started clicking. We started thinking about cocktails, making bon bons. But we don’t do gin and tonics and margaritas. We only do chocolate cocktails. We make an extract with the cacao beans [that] we infuse our cocktails with. There’s no thick, sweet chocolate sauce, just natural chocolate taste. And everyone’s going wild over them.
TH: So you’re roasting cacao beans and making cocktails in the same space?
DP: You can actually sit at the bar and watch. We have these huge glass windows, and we do production at night, when we’re open. Making chocolate, roasting beans, we do all that in front of everyone.
TH: Having a liquor license also allows you to do your “Chocolate Flights,” pairing wine and chocolate. How are those put together?
DP: People come in specifically for the Chocolate Flights. It’s what we sell the most of: four different wines, four chocolates that we make. And I’ll make them in different ways, a 40% [cacao] Chocolate Pudding, a 65% Sea Salt Truffle, an Orange Brownie Bar. We switch that up every month or so. Mark’s done a spirit flight, too. Patron actually did a special Añejo Tequila for us in a barrel. Mark makes this amazing spicy lime-chile or coconut-chile chocolate bar, and we paired it with that.
TH: Your anniversary just passed. What about year two?
DP: For year two, we’re really hoping to blow up big. Hopefully get into another location. What we didn’t realize when we opened is really no one is doing what we’re doing. Everyone loves chocolate, everyone loves cocktails and wine. We’re just pairing it together. People come in and they’re the just happiest. We’re bringing out the inner kid in everyone.
MADE Atlantic City Chocolate Bar is open Thursday through Sunday at 121 South Tennessee Avenue and has a small retail room, The Choc Shop. Their products are also available online and ship everywhere.Click here to leave a comment