This story is part of a series we are presenting about how local Santa Cruz businesses faced challenges of the last couple years with strength and perseverance. From the COVID pandemic shutdown which began in March 2020, to the CZU fires of August 2020, to the continuing pandemic rollercoaster in 2021, our community members have proven their resiliency.
Katy Oursler and Stephen Beaumier own and operate Mutari Craft Chocolate in downtown Santa Cruz. The shop carries a bounty of divine handcrafted chocolate offerings, all derived from ethically traded cacao beans. Their motto is “Bean to Bottle and Bar Craft Chocolate.” Oursler’s background includes organizing dinners for the prominent Outstanding in the Field, which presents farm-to-table dinners in outdoor settings like farms, vineyards, ranches, and beaches. Beaumier’s culinary experience includes Michelin-starred restaurants Cyrus, Quince and Noma.
When brothers Adam and Matt Armstrong originally started Mutari in 2013, the business mainly focused on “drinking chocolate” (sipping chocolate and hot chocolate) which was offered ready-to-drink and as take-home mixes. After Oursler and Beaumier bought Mutari in 2016, they transitioned to their current space at 504A Front St. and began using the commercial kitchen. They opened the retail shop at the same site soon after that. In 2017, Cecilia Bauer joined the staff, and Oursler and Beaumier refer to her as their ‘right hand’ and a stellar employee. “We consider ourselves a small but mighty team, and truly could not do what we do without her,” says Oursler. “She is like family to us.”
Mutari has greatly expanded over the years. Oursler and Beaumier now make single origin chocolate bars, seasonal and regional truffles, plant-based soft serve ice cream featuring their own chocolate plus vanilla beans they directly import from Uganda, and of course drinking chocolate. The truffles include collaborations with local artisans and farms. “We also make an epic brownie and single origin chocolate chunk cookie, with both having quite the fan following,” says Oursler.
Facing Challenges with Hard Work & Helping Hands
While 2020 was quite a challenging year, “…we were certainly no different than most food-related businesses,” says Beaumier. “It has been quite the ride, exhausting, that is for sure,” says Oursler. “Between COVID, laying off staff due to less income coming in, the fires, and an election year, what a doozie. We’ve worked every day, keeping up with the current state and county safety regulations, filling out applications for potential aid—all the while serving our amazing and continually supportive customer base who helped keep us in business.” Early on in the pandemic, a number of community members pre-purchased gift cards to support Mutari. “Also, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the generous support of our landlord Owen Lawlor,” says Oursler. “We feel extremely fortunate.”
Mutari received PPP and EIDL loans that helped in many ways including being “…monumental in keeping the lights on…coupled with our dedication to doing whatever it took to make it work, this turned out to be a successful formula,” says Oursler. PPP stands for Paycheck Protection Program; this loan was offered through the Small Business Administration. EIDL is a federal COVID-19 “Economic Injury Disaster Loan” that supports small businesses.
With the uncertainty of the future,they don’t feel like they are out of the woods. “With staffing and supply shortages, and the safety of our team and community at the forefront, we’re just trying to keep up,” says Oursler. “There are many matters to consider besides just keeping the lights on. The sustainability of owning a small integrous food business, the inherent nature of food production and scaling, the changing climate conditions, the cost of living in the Bay Area, these are all challenges that we grapple with.” All of these challenges notwithstanding, Oursler adds, they “…truly cannot imagine the past year and a half without such a wonderful community.” When asked to delve deeper into the meaning of ‘integrous,’ Oursler explains: “We source with integrity, pay two to four times above fair trade for beans, and pay a living wage to our team.”
Transforming Negative into Positive
Oursler and Beaumier needed to be resourceful when faced with pandemic-related revenue loss. They began Artisan Donut Popups; on select Sunday mornings, they offered products like Sea Salt & Nib Craft Chocolate Glazed Brioche Donuts and Cinnamon & Cocoa Morning Buns. Held several times during 2020 and early 2021, these events always sold out quickly.
They also introduced soft serve ice cream during the pandemic. “With the small business loan we secured, we bought a soft serve machine and are now rocking vegan soft serve that’s been a welcome addition for many folks,” says Oursler. They also offer soft serve sundaes.
Previously, Mutari’s environment was a retail shop/ café combination, and many customers stayed to enjoy their purchases. Now, Mutari is a takeout-focused business. “Though we’re still at the shop all of the time, with staffing shortages and putting safety measures in place the grab and go model is working best for us,” says Oursler. “With increasing overhead in the Bay Area, this is probably what we need to stick with as we move forward.”
It can be hard to stay positive amidst such a tumultuous time. “A myriad of things has helped, that is for sure,” says Oursler. “We definitely had to go deep within ourselves to find a source of strength—especially in the moments that we felt defeated, exhausted, and uncertain. Getting out in nature was essential. We are so fortunate that we are able to bike to the ocean or take a hike in the redwoods, which was our grounding force. We cannot imagine weathering the pandemic without the calm and inspiration of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay.”
Zoom calls with their families also helped, as did “cooking at home with our local CSAs like Sea to Sky and Real Good Fish, having WhatsApp chats with other chocolate makers worldwide, socially distanced walks with friends, and our committed customer base. We all kept one another going.”
Building Community During CZU Fires
Renowned chef José Andrés created the nonprofit World Central Kitchen in 2010. First, the organization worked to empower communities through a variety of initiatives and programs. Then in 2017, WCK served millions of meals to survivors of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and they added “Emergency Food Relief” as a major objective, providing meals to people in need worldwide after natural disasters. Because a family friend of Oursler’s works with Andrés, Mutari received a phone call one day after the CZU fires started. People were beginning to evacuate their homes; a WCK Chef Relief Team was coming into town to help and needed some assistance getting things going.
“So, we offered them a freshly cooked meal, internet, espresso, and of course chocolate at Mutari, and did what it took to help get them set up in town,” says Oursler. Within a few hours they were helping to execute about 250 meals for evacuees. “A few weeks later, when WCK left town and passed the baton to us, we were organizing and feeding up to 2,000 people a day,” she adds. “Stephen is a chef, and I helped to grow the farm to table movement locally, so it was an organic evolution that was within our wheelhouse. We wanted to work with as many local restaurants and farms as possible. Our local food shed was intact, so we wanted to build a cohesive local effort to support our community on multiple fronts. Local chefs, restaurants, farms, and small businesses rose to the occasion.”
Though it may seem cliche, Oursler says, surviving obstacles “… takes a village and Santa Cruz is a village to be proud of.” Working with others, they organized and facilitated thousands of evacuee meals out of Mutari’s factory and shop. “Our space became a hub for local chefs and farmers to safely reconnect after months of intense uncertainty and struggle due to COVID. There were many tears, and late nights prepping meals for those in greater need than ourselves. Those moments are forever a part of us all, they are the bond that builds community. Our customers, fellow small business owners, our landlords, the city, the downtown association, all of these folks supported one another with the common goal of getting through this intact and together.”