The City Helps Romeo Bring World-Class Chocolate to Long Beach
"You Deserve Chocolate," says the sign outside Romeo Chocolates on Pine Avenue; and, for shop owner Romeo Garcia, this is no idle statement.
Romeo, a master purveyor of the fruits of the Theabromo Cacao (Fruit of the Gods) tree, took huge risks a few years ago in a drastic shift from a successful career in higher education to become a chocolatier. His shop reflects his lifetime appreciation of chocolate and the journey he's been on in his quest for it.
"We do focus on our hand-made, hand-painted truffles and chocolate bars," said Chaya, Team Leader and Concierge Assistant at Romeo Chocolates. "We have gift boxes and assortment boxes, but we also do experiences, where people can take chocolate to a more advanced level.”
Romeo Chocolates hosts various types of events for the entire family. Whether it’s a wine and chocolate pairing or fun workshops for the kids, they have it all.
“We're constantly creating new experiences around chocolate making," said Chaya.
To see the Romeo truffles in person is to see culinary works of art. The hardest part is ruining their beautiful appearance with a bite, but that feeling is soon dispelled by the many sensory joys of fine chocolate.
"We want to present our truffles like jewelry, and give them a gemstone shine, so we hand-paint different colors on there, and one by one we hand-pipe soft-center filling and close it off with a smooth finish on the very bottom," Romeo explained.
Romeo grew up in the Philippines, and in the mid-'80s his parents came to the United States a year before Romeo and his five siblings did. This is when he began his life-long love affair with chocolate.
"What my parents did to make sure we knew they didn't forget about us was to send us a gift box every month, and there was always chocolate in it," said Romeo. "It was my go-to treat, and it always evokes a sense of nostalgia.”
Romeo and his family eventually settled in Oxnard, California, where he began pursuing an educational path in Equity and Social Justice. He did his undergraduate work at the University of California, Santa Barbara and earned his Master's Degree at San Francisco State University. He then began his career as a teacher at the Higher Education level.
About eight years ago, in San Francisco, Romeo decided on a whim to take some chocolate making classes.
Soon after that, he had an epiphany: "It's time for a permanent shift."
Now armed with chocolatier know-how, Romeo settled in Long Beach to live closer to his family, which was now living in the South Bay. He cashed in his teacher's retirement fund, sold his house, flew directly to Belgium, and became a student at the Chocolate Academy in Antwerp.
Romeo fell in love with Downtown Long Beach and, after getting his chocolate handiwork to the people through pop-up stores, restaurants and to wedding clients, he decided to open a brick-and-mortar shop on Pine Avenue.
"One of the things I learned is, there are so many hidden costs in terms of opening a brick-and-mortar shop," said Romeo, "and it was at that point where I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to finish construction.”
When Romero was working on getting his business off the ground, the City of Long Beach Economic Development Department reached out to him to help.
“They were really amazing because I thought this wasn't going to come to fruition,” he said. “I had the energy and the grit to make it happen; I just needed the mentors to really guide me through. This wouldn't have happened without them."
The City encouraged Romeo to apply for its Microenterprise Loan Program, which is designed to support entrepreneurs who may have a hard time accessing capital through commercial banks. Romeo was fortunate enough to apply for the program and received two loans for his business.
"Romeo’s commitment to this craft and community is what makes him the ideal borrower," said Semira Araya, Business Development Specialist for the City of Long Beach Economic Development Department. "At the time of his application, he had successfully completed business training available through both the Small Business Development Center and Downtown Long Beach Alliance. Furthermore, Romeo has traveled overseas to train as a chocolatier, showing that he is fully committed to delivering the best quality products to his customers."
Romeo does indeed bring a global approach to chocolate sourcing. He travels from Honduras to Ecuador to the Dominican Republic and beyond, gathering the finest cacao possible and seeing personally that the farmers, workers, and merchants are all engaging in fair trade, direct pay and using the most sustainable farming methods.
"Farmers are hand-picking our cacao and gathering the cacao beans," said Romeo. "To be able to see it grow, and the kind of stewardship of the land and the communities they're in is a very humbling experience."
In his shop, the personable and articulate Romeo and his very sharp employees are constantly conveying the class and care of a world-class chocolatier.
Guiding a guest through a "mindful chocolate tasting," Romeo points out the multi-sensory qualities that fine chocolate possesses, and he encourages his guests to pause, forget their stress, and savor his chocolates to the fullest.
Romeo seeks to maximize his location in Downtown Long Beach.
"Not only are we hoping to bring in tourists," he said, "but we're really a company for locals, and we want our location here on north Pine Avenue to demonstrate that."