Friendship and food make a sweet combination for one local business

by Karina Coombs

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Julie MacQueen and Carrie Raho at work. (Photo by Karina Coombs) 

In a small commercial kitchen in the center of town, two friends have discovered a winning recipe for a successful business: a love of cooking and a passion for healthy eating. Carlisle resident Julie MacQueen and her business partner Carrie Raho of Bedford are the co-founders of Pure7 Chocolate. Together they handcraft a variety of honey-sweetened chocolate bars that are sold in more than 60 stores throughout Massachusetts. And they are just getting started.

For the love of chocolate

It was MacQueen’s love of chocolate and strict dietary restrictions that first led her to experiment with making her own chocolate. “I was really picky about my diet [and] about what foods we ate in my family,” she says, adding that she follows both the Paleo and GAPS diets—both of which focus on unprocessed, wholesome and natural foods for improved overall health. 

Following both diets would necessitate a natural chocolate free of dairy, gluten, soy and refined sugar. It also had to taste good. Working in her kitchen with a small pot and a candy thermometer, MacQueen started making chocolate that was sweetened with honey, and gave it out to family and friends. With dozens of small businesses under her belt, MacQueen knew she was on to something and approached Raho about forming a partnership. 

Pure7 

MacQueen and Raho had met at a local park when they both lived in Bedford and quickly discovered a shared interest in healthful food and gourmet cooking. In 2012 the two began quietly and earnestly working on recipes, packaging, a website and a name. They decided on Pure7.

The number seven holds a lot of meaning for the pair. They have been friends for seven years and between them have seven children. The original Pure7 bars also had seven ingredients. They also believe the word “pure” represents the company’s aesthetic and what they are trying to create. “I thought pure is what we’re all about. It represents what we are doing,” says MacQueen.

Getting started

While the partners understood the basics of cooking and baking, making a quality chocolate was a different skill altogether and at first proved intimidating. With no formal training they began experimenting with ingredients and practiced hand tempering in MacQueen’s kitchen. They also reached out to chocolatiers around the country and asked a lot of questions. 

“When we started this there were so many obstacles in the way, so many people telling us this can’t be done,” explains MacQueen. “Everyone [was] telling us, ‘you can’t sweeten chocolate with honey. That’s not chocolate.’” But both MacQueen and Raho found a way to make it work. “I like honey as a sweetener,” says MacQueen. “It’s the purest form of sugar for your body if you’re going to eat sugar.” 

Chocolate is good for you

As self-described foodies, MacQueen and Raho are very particular about all of the ingredients they use. “Our ingredients matter,” says MacQueen. “[They] are so important to us and you can taste it. It’s real food.” Their honey comes from a local supplier while the cacao used is Ecuadorian and Fair Trade. Pure7 also boasts an exceptionally high content of Cacao as compared to other chocolate bars—85% or higher depending on the particular flavor.

The ingredients and chocolate are also raw, meaning they are not exposed to traditionally high temperatures. “An important factor for our chocolate is we want all of the vitamins and minerals still to be present,” says Raho. “Chocolate is good for you. There’s nothing bad in [it],” adds MacQueen. “If we keep it raw you are still getting the benefits of the dark chocolate. We’re just not adding all the bad stuff that goes in. We’re adding the good stuff.” 

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Part of the Pure7 display at Whole Foods in Bedford. (Photo by Karina Coombs) 

From production to sales

Working with a residential kitchen license, MacQueen and Raho created four flavors of chocolate and in September 2013 began making sales. Both women were admittedly nervous when they began approaching stores, wondering about the reception their product would receive and if first orders would turn into reorders. “There’s a huge element of putting yourself out there. There’s risk involved and people are going to criticize you and you have to be okay with that,” says Raho.

Their first sale went to Larry Bearfield of Ferns Country Store, who purchased one case of each bar. Boutique stores in Boston and surrounding communities would soon follow before Whole Foods Market came on board with 32 of its stores. MacQueen and Raho had discovered a niche. “The reception for everything has been amazing,” says Raho. “People want a natural sweetener in their chocolate. Once they try it people are sold.” 

An enviable commute

After eight months of sales, the business had grown enough to justify expansion. Pure7 moved from MacQueen’s home kitchen to her barn where a 500-square-foot commercial kitchen was created. During the period of construction, MacQueen and Raho traveled back and forth from Carlisle to  Shirley where they borrowed kitchen space from the Golden Girl Granola Company to keep up with orders. Now with construction complete, the partners are relieved to be in one space and with everything they need. MacQueen is particularly happy with her commute across the lawn.

Using a small chocolate tempering machine-—on loan from one of their Boston wholesale customers—MacQueen and Raho are currently able to produce 300 chocolate bars per day. The process, which still involves a lot of hand tempering and mixing, takes about four hours depending on the ingredients used and the number of interruptions from their children, some of whom are not yet school age. Raho explains she and MacQueen are running the business without additional childcare. The product line has now increased to five flavors and they are preparing to release several new ones shortly.

Growing the business

MacQueen and Raho have also started hiring employees and now have several “wrappers” who wrap the bars and bit-sized pieces called “bites.” They also have “demo reps” who travel to various stores offering samples and pushing sales. But when it comes to getting new accounts and expanding, the partners acknowledge they have reached the point of what they can manage alone. “We’re at a funny point [in our business] I think,” says Raho. “We need to bump it up if we want to keep on growing.” 

And they do plan on growing. MacQueen and Raho are currently working to create sales teams and have also discussed hiring a chocolatier to get Raho out of the kitchen to help run the business and create new product lines. They also have been talking to a number of small business owners and other connections that have provided support and advice for growth. “We have so many people who have guided us,” says MacQueen. “I’m really grateful for [them].” They have also relied on each other for support through it all. “So many times I would have said, ‘I’m done,’ [if not for Carrie],” says MacQueen. “I felt more obligated to not let her down.”

“I just think of where we could go in another year. Where will we be next year?” asks MacQueen, who has set her sights on going national. To begin this process, the pair is traveling to New York City for a sales push and researching the west coast market, with a focus on the Los Angeles area. But while they look to expand, they also want to stay true to their origins. “We want to keep control,” says Raho. “We want to grow at a rate where we can stay true to our roots. It’s important.”

Friends and partners

While Raho and MacQueen have been too busy to properly celebrate their accomplishments, they have given a lot of thought to their friendship—something they were warned might suffer as business partners. “People ask, ‘How’s it being friends and business partners?’ I can see how it wouldn’t work for some people, [but] we’re better friends because of it,” says MacQueen. “We were good friends before and now we’re the best of friends.”

Pure7 was recently featured in the magazine Edible Boston. MacQueen and Raho also have an upcoming feature in the Food Section of the Boston Globe. For more information on their chocolate and raw honey, visit their website at http://www.pure7chocolate.com.   ∆