The first thing to notice when walking through the doors of Maribea Craft Chocolates is the scent of the in-store made chocolates. Maribea has been a dream of owner and operator, Mark Merritt, for several years. Since the shop became a reality in April, Merritt, and his business partner, Joseph Gabaldon, have spent hours with the chocolate creating a fresh flavor for the Permian Basin.
Maribea’s products are crafted from cacao beans that are carefully sorted, roasted, winnowed, grinded, conched and molded into bars. The process takes three to four days, according to Merritt.
“Most chocolates are industrial chocolates,” he said. “Their process, from a raw bean to a finished bar, is probably two to three hours, and they look for their chocolate to taste the same every day, every batch, year after year. We look to bring out the unique flavors of each bean, and how it tastes in that variety. How it comes out this time, this year, next year’s batch is probably going to taste totally different.”
Merritt spent five or six years learning about the chocolate-making process and experimenting with different recipes. It was only last year that he decided to commercialize it.
There is so much involved in making chocolate, he said.
“There is chemistry in the fermentation. There is physics in how you grind it and how you roast it,” Merritt said. “Then you use all of your senses for knowing when it’s right: how it tastes, how it smells, how it looks, how it feels.”
Merritt described Maribea’s chocolate as “something really new that people can experience that they are probably not going to experience unless they go to some really distant places.”
Maribea sells its chocolate to Odessa and Midland businesses, such as Bean & Grape, Garlic Press, Homemade Wines and Corporal Rays. Maribea is planning a wine and chocolate pairing with Bean & Grape on Sept. 17, and during the summer, the owners have been attending farmer’s markets on Saturdays. They plan to attend upcoming local festivals and fairs and hope to put together gift baskets in the winter months.
Maribea, which is looking to expand to online sales, also offers two kinds of tea — orange cacao tea and chia cacao tea — and diabetic-friendly chocolate, which is made with allulose.
“Allulose is a rare sugar with the same chemical formula as fructose,” Merritt said. “Because it isn’t metabolized by the body, it does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels and provides minimal calories.”
How it all began
The business partners met through their connection to the University of Texas of the Permian Basin.
“I graduated from (Angelo State University) with a BBA in marketing, and worked on a MBA and a little engineering at UTPB,” Merritt said. “I met Joseph through my contacts at UTPB in the College of Business.”
Merritt said he hired Gabaldon, who graduated from UTPB with a bachelor’s of business administration in management, because of his business foundation.
“That foundation is based on his degree in business from UTPB and his pleasant personality that is not easily beaten back,” Merritt said. “Both are important when starting a business from the ground up because there are thousands of obstacles to overcome. There are thousands of pieces that have to come together.
“Most entrepreneurs will find the start-up road too difficult and stop. Joseph gets hit and keeps getting back in the game, and that is what it takes to start a new small business,” he said.
Gabaldon said Merritt asked him if he “would like to start this chocolate business, and I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ … (I)t’s been almost a year now since we started” the process of opening Maribea.
That process included selecting a name for the business.
Merritt spent some time brainstorming ideas for the name of the store before he decided on his wife’s name.
“When I was thinking of a name … I tried all different sorts of names, like Odessa Chocolate and Permian Basin, and a lot of names that were regional. And the more I looked at it, the more I noticed that companies that did really well, have the person’s name – they are associated with someone, like Hershey’s, Mars, Campbell’s Soup, Heinz, Kraft. All of them have someone’s name,” he said.
Merritt said his first name didn’t sound quite right, so he decided to use Maribea “because it’s unique and a little different.”
The Maribea (pronounced Marry-bee) image is also something exclusive to the business. When deciding on an image for the brand, Merritt knew he wanted one that would convey Maribea’s character. The shop’s image started as a lithograph, which he bought in the 1980s, of a lady sitting on a sea wall.
After spending weeks trying to find the artist behind the image, Merritt discovered it was created by William Baggett, a retired art professor who resides in Mississippi. Baggett agreed to let Merritt use the image and he adapted it to fit Maribea’s packaging.
Maribea recently received a grant from the Odessa Business Challenge. The funds will be used to purchase machinery and cacao beans, Merritt said.
Merritt, a native Odessan, returned home to work after graduating from ASU, and after about eight years he started a machinery business, Westech Seal Inc. He also is a pilot.
“When I started Westech Seal in ’87, my partner at that time was a pilot, and he got me interested in airplanes. So by ’88 or ’89 I had my license, and I’ve been flying since then.”
Merritt said his other business venture is in an industry that is still young and not many people are doing it. Maribea is the only store of its kind in the Permian Basin, he said.
“People just need to try craft chocolate,” Merritt said. “I think they would really enjoy it.”