East Van Roasters Makes Chocolate with Heart

Words by Sara Harowitz

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Walking into East Van Roasters, the smell hits you before anything else. Sweet, velvety, mouth-watering. The scent of happy memories, of indulgence. Of treating yourself. It’s unmistakably, smile-inducing, want-to-wrap-yourself-up-in-it chocolate.

This is truly bean-to-bar: the Vancouver-based chocolatier sources organic fair-trade beans from ethical producers and does all of the sorting, roasting, and crafting-into-goodies in its own facilities (there is a cafe with small production space, as well as a larger production operation across the street). It’s a level of quality not often seen in the city’s chocolate offerings, and it has won the brand a bevy of International Chocolate Awards—but what makes this place truly special isn’t the treats themselves. It’s the people who make them.

Located in Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside, East Van Roasters is a social enterprise that employs marginalized women living in single-room occupancy housing that sits above the cafe. Operated by local non-profit PHS Community Services Society, the endeavor is revolutionary in its approach, which at is essence is really quite simple: give at-risk women a chance.

East Van Roasters

“The idea was that for women living upstairs, there’s little to no barrier to get downstairs to go to work—you don’t have to take the bus,” says managing director and head chocolate maker Shelley Bolton, who is masked up and standing beside a whirring machine swirling fresh liquid chocolate in the cafe’s production room. “And we didn’t need people to have a resume with a ton of things on it. It was more that you showed up for an orientation, where we talked about the types of jobs that we do here, and that you went to your Foodsafe course and you passed; and if you didn’t pass, you got another chance. And then if you showed up for your first four-hour trial, you basically got slotted in.”

Women are usually more marginalized than men in the Downtown Eastside for a variety of reasons: they are often fleeing violent relationships; they are more likely to have children to look after; and they tend to have fewer job opportunities, which can encourage them to seek out unsafe work to supplement their incomes. Many of the women in the East Van Roasters ecosystem are on disability, have mental illness, are recovering drug addicts, or are active users. East Van Roasters welcomes them all, working with each individual woman to give her shifts that work for her—whether that be two hours sporadically or four hours every Tuesday. Designed as transitional employment, the company helps women get back on their feet, providing them with income stability, transferable skills, and a sense of community.

“I’ve had lots of stories from the women saying, ‘You know, I’d be dead right now if it wasn’t for this program. Just having this to come to every day makes a big difference to me,’” says Bolton. Some women spend just a few months at the chocolatier, while others stay on for years and move into full-time employment when they are ready. The main thing is that East Van Roasters provides a safe, inclusive space for each woman, regardless of what stage of life she is at.

East Van Roasters

Which means the cafe is equipped to serve its employees’ unique needs, including around substance use. As many of the women are active users when they join the team, there is a heart monitor in the staff washroom; if someone’s heart stops beating, it alerts the front room so that another team member can perform a health check.

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly not made things any easier for this small but mighty enterprise, as they have temporarily closed the in-house cafe and are only offering takeaway. To supplement this, Bolton and her team launched an online store that ships its chocolates (and coffee, and cookies—which are their own masterful delight) across Canada. This author was given a sneak peek of the Valentine’s Day offerings, which include a heart-shaped box of delectable truffles, a negroni-inspired chocolate bar, and a chocolate-covered nub of black licorice topped with a few tiny flecks of sea salt (perfection).

Using only natural ingredients like honey and real cream instead of cheaper preservative-filled alternatives, East Van Roasters offers a difference in quality that can be tasted in every bite. And because they store and roast their own beans, head chocolatier Gizelle Paré is in constant conversation with her raw materials.

“Big manufacturing is very consistent—so you as the maker don’t really have to adapt to your ingredients, because your ingredients have been adapted to you, for you,” she says from behind her mask, taking a break from piping a fruity filling into heart-shaped chocolate shells. “It’s such a unique experience here, where the product is constantly changing. Seasonality, temperature, and storage can affect the product, so every batch is slightly different. And then I have to adapt to it instead of it being adapted to me, which is what keeps it really interesting and super fun.”

East Van Roasters

If you’re going to indulge in chocolate, you want it to be made with the best ingredients, right? Going a step further, why wouldn’t you want it made by a company that supports its community in tangible, effective, and holistic ways? You’ve heard of chocolate hearts, but this is chocolate with heart.

“We’ve had women who have not felt like there was going to be much of a future for them—they were pretty depressed—and then ended up going back to school, into university, and feeling really proud that they’ve been able to accomplish that. And then go on to get jobs outside of the Downtown Eastside,” says Bolton. “We had one woman whose child was in care when she started here, and then after a couple years of being here and moving out of social housing—into supportive housing, but independent—she was able to get her daughter back, and is now living with her. And they’re still doing well now. She had been to detox seven times. And that seventh time, she had her job here when she went to detox, and she knew she could come back to it. And that’s what made the difference.”