Mark Burrows takes a quick break while preparing to open the Cocoa Club by early 2023. Photo by Jane Bachrach

In 2019, Carbondale’s master of many trades, Mark Burrows, began his chocolate-making career with Pollinator Chocolate. Since then, Pollinator has become the go-to for high-quality, single-source, small-batch chocolate bars, truffles and bonbons in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Burrows is now dipping into a highly-anticipated business venture with the opening of the aptly-named Cocoa Club. This soon-to-open venue is another expression of Burrows’s 20-year quest for the perfect bar of craft chocolate. The Cocoa Club, with an anticipated opening in January 2023 in Red Rock Plaza, next to Mana Foods, is an eclectic space that will satisfy your richest chocolate fantasies.

The decor features floors painted in a hexagonal honeycomb design that “gave us a lot of room to play with different colors,” Burrows explained. He referred to local artist Gabriela Meija as “the primary architect” of the unique design.

Chocolate bars, drinking chocolate and t-shirts are displayed on shelves with an eye-catching, copper penny-like mosaic tile background.

In what Burrows assured was “a happy coincidence,” the front of the 11-seat bar, with its shiny brown bricks, “made the bar look like chocolate bars.” Bar service will include chocolate-infused cocktails and non-alcoholic options like a cherry-chocolate soda or hot cocoa (of course).

Cafe seating has a cozy vibe with tables and chairs lit by sleek hanging pendants and clear glass wall sconces that resemble daisies. As Burrows described it, “At night, it’s a calm and subtle light.”

In the morning, the cafe will serve coffee, espresso, scones and Danish pastries. In the evening, table-side service will include cocktails and desserts like crème brûlée and tiramisu. Charcuterie platters with nuts, olives and locally-sourced meats are also on the menu for noshing.

Sitting at the bar, patrons can get a bird’s eye view through large windows of Pollinator’s in-house chocolate production.

Burrows, born and raised in the Denver area, moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1990 for a job in the audiovisual industry. “That just means I was the guy in the back of the room operating the slide and overhead projectors, the video projector cameras and the soundboard,” he said. Burrows noted that the frenetic pace of Aspen’s conference schedule led to him “getting burned out real quick.”

Then, while managing a department at an Aspen health food store, he gained a reputation among local chefs as knowledgeable about the growing organic and health food market.

In the mid-1990s, when Apple computers became popular, Burrows worked as a Macintosh support technician and was one of the originators of the KDNK radio show “Geekspeak”.

He moved on to photography “by buying some gear and putting my shingle out.” Specializing in portraits, his portfolio contains countless photos of mothers and newborns which have graced the cover of The Sopris Sun’s Mother’s Day issue “for a good 10 years,” he said.

Burrows then learned about the idiosyncratic behavior of bees, earning a certificate from the University of Montana’s online beekeeping program.

“I tend to throw myself into projects 100 percent,” he said of his Renaissance-like desire to learn. “I want to know everything I possibly can.”

The cocoa-themed dream began in earnest in 2019 with Pollinator Chocolate. Burrows said, “After a multi-year love affair with chocolate and not being happy with what I could find, I asked myself if I could even do it.”

After studying the details of the process and making a trip to England to visit chocolate makers, Burrows took the plunge.

At chocolate tastings, customers will receive an informal primer about the different regions of the world where cacao beans are grown. Burrows shared, “I have five different origins with five different flavors, from Bolivia, Ghana, Tanzania, Madagascar and the Dominican Republic.”

Cacao beans are traded internationally on commodity futures exchanges, like the New York Mercantile Exchange. Burrow’s process begins with ethically-sourced beans from importers that guarantee their farmers a living wage. “One of my main tenets is that I buy my raw beans from brokers that guarantee that there was no slave or child labor anywhere in the process,” Burrows said.

While Fairtrade labeling started becoming common in the late 1980s, Burrows said, “It doesn’t help a lot of the farmers because, while it does pay them more, it’s still not enough. I pay what’s known as farm gate pricing, the price the farmer requests, which is generally three to five times more than the commodity chocolate on the market, including Fairtrade.”

Once business gets rolling, Cocoa Club plans to host special events, like wine and beer pairings and cigar tastings. Burrows describes it as “a vibrant space that will change frequently.”

When The Sopris Sun asked Burrows why he chose to set up shop in Carbondale, he replied, “This is my home. This is my family. These are my friends. I will never leave Carbondale. I plan on doing a lot of traveling, but I will always come back here and spend the vast majority of my time here; this is my community.”

Cocoa Club also has a dedicated chocolatier making bonbons and truffles in a special production room. “I’m producing them by the hundreds, so they’ll be ready for the holiday markets,” Burrows said.