When Jinji Fraser began her chocolate company, she did not know the business had a dark side.

In 2012, Fraser stumbled across a chocolate-making class. Then a nutrition counselor, she planned to offer clients a health-conscious version of the sugary snack. Three months later, she opened Jinji Chocolate with her father, a retired government employee.

The store gained a following, moving from a 2013 stall in Belvedere Square Market to its own space in Waverly in October. In early February, The New York Times “T List” newsletter praised the duo for their signature drinking chocolates. Freelance writer Julekha Dash, who wrote the entry about Jinji, told The Banner she “was just blown away by the taste” of the truffles and admired the family’s initiative to showcase their Caribbean roots.

The store was a fun project for Fraser. Her relatives, who are Guyanese, were involved in the growing of cacao, the raw beans that have to be roasted into cocoa. But what she intended to be an interesting family venture has spiraled into a rallying cry against the industry.

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She had to learn what many chocolate-makers discover: The business is ridden with exploitation.

“It has a very sordid history,” she said. “It involves colonialism and enslaving people, robbing from the unwealthy. It’s a story that people like to glaze over.”

Jinji Fraser poses for a portrait at Jinji's Chocolate in Waverly on February 26, 2024
Jinji Fraser at her store in Waverly. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

In 2001, Mars, Nestle and Hershey agreed to weed out child labor in their production of cocoa, but the practice continues. Multiple lawsuits in the last two decades claimed that the companies aided in the enslavement of children. Human rights advocates lost one case that went before the Supreme Court in 2021.

Last year, advocates filed another federal lawsuit that requested a judge stop President Joe Biden from importing cocoa harvested by children in West Africa, a region that grows more than 60% of the world’s supply. The case remains pending.

Poverty among cocoa farms also continues to be an issue. In 2016, Fraser traveled to the Caribbean, expecting to jump between cacao fields and write anecdotes about each bean as part of a specialty item for loyal patrons. But the conditions left Fraser stunned.

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“They’re making pennies while the industry is making millions,” she said.

In Haiti, she discovered growers being compensated for a fraction of what they were producing. In some cases, farmers were paid about half of what their crop was worth, according to a 2016 USAID report.

Female farmers, who Fraser said appeared to carry out the majority of the labor, have been reported to work more hours and earn less than their male counterparts, according to a Fairtrade report. Few were in positions of leadership, which made the pursuit of a woman-owned farm all the more enticing to Fraser.

“I would ask about finding [a woman-owned farm], and they would look at me confused,” she said.

She found one in Trinidad and Tobago. But working with the farm was expensive: Labor and transportation costs began to drive up her prices. Whereas a Hershey’s chocolate bar can cost up to $2, Jinji Chocolate makes bars that can cost up to $9.

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It’s an adjustment that often requires an explanation for customers, but Fraser said people deserve that transparency, no matter what they are eating. She can share how each $4 fudge slice is sourced and how it comes as part of a larger movement to end pay disparities in a fraught industry.

Jinji has also joined the Cross-Atlantic Chocolate Collective, which invests in education for cocoa-farming communities. While cacao beans are profitable, growers make more money off cacao butter, powder or nibs, which require equipment that’s often inaccessible to the average grower, Fraser said. Her business and others involved in the collective meet up on a quarterly basis to find ways to get involved.

“It’s given me a pretty insatiable energy to give voice to those who have been silenced,” she said. “The people and families who work at farm level should be the heroes of any food story, and yet are voiceless in the chocolate world.”

Her mission is personal. In Georgetown, Guyana, there is a land trust over cacao-growing terrain that belongs to generations of relatives she has never met. Her grandfather, who visited there in the ′70s, did not tell Fraser what they did or how they were treated. She refers to Jinji Chocolate as her birthright — a critical step in understanding her own ancestry.

The chocolates on the menu are inspired by the Caribbean, with rich hazelnut spreads, Gianduja fudge and distinctive truffle flavors. Earlier this month, they debuted their Dreamy Rose Steamer, a warm, milky cup of sipping chocolate with black pepper and cardamom. They plan to switch between hot and cold drinking chocolates as the seasons change.

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Caribbean-inspired drinking chocolates and truffles are featured on Jinji Chocolate's menu. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Diana Emerson, the executive director of the Waverly Main Street Organization, said the neighborhood is “super excited” about the shop’s success.

“They [Jinji] blended right into our community as if they have been here for decades,” Emerson said.

After being called out in The New York Times, Fraser said, the business immediately saw a 200% uptick in online sales. Previously, the business has been featured in the Michelin Guide for its twist on casual chocolates and in Eater for its efforts to “decolonize the industry.”

In the coming year, Fraser plans to do collaborations with local businesses to provide lunch and dinner service at the shop. They invited a connoisseur of grilled cheeses last month, who brought their own stove top and incorporated Fraser’s chocolate into gooey sandwiches. On March 17, Fraser will be participating in a chocolate-themed dinner with the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, a nonprofit group supporting farms in the metro area.

The great irony, according to Fraser, is that she cares very little for eating chocolate. She wonders whether it makes sense to take part in an industry mired in exploitation. Is she doing more harm than good? At times, she said, it feels trivial to focus on chocolate when there’s so much in the world that needs changing.

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Then Fraser remembers her family and the relatives she will never meet.

“People whose stories were never really recorded or taken seriously … their stories are just lost to time,” she said. “What we’re left with is the food.”

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