COCOA FUN: Customers can buy artisanal chocolates or even make their own creations at Menchaca Chocolates, the new shop opened by Pete Menchaca (above left at table) and Leanne Iverson. | Credit: Courtesy

When I stepped onto the patio of Menchaca Chocolates, the first thing I noticed was a scent: a sultry concoction of roasting cacao beans and caramelizing oat milk. Walking into the establishment, located in El Mercado Plaza on Upper State Street, the second thing I noticed was the vibrant artwork that adorned the walls and packaging, created by artist and co-owner Leanne Iverson. The logo of Menchaca Chocolates — an amorous couple embracing a glowing cacao bean in a tropical locale — is emblematic of what this business stands for: a wholesome, artful product forged with love. 

Iverson and Pete Menchaca are Santa Barbara natives with a love story that spans decades. They met as teenagers at the wrong place and time, and went their separate ways: Pete enjoying an extensive career in the fire protection industry and Leanne teaching art while pursuing multiple entrepreneurial endeavors. They found each other 37 years later, rekindling their relationship and paving a dream that is embodied in Menchaca Chocolates. 

“I like to say that this was kind of a dare,” explains Iverson. “Pete would say, ‘We can’t own a chocolate business!’” Lo and behold, Menchaca was born out of experimentation and tenacity. “We haven’t even scratched the surface,” said Menchaca of the inventive flavors they’re infusing into plant-based chocolate, like habanero-sea salt and rosemary-cacao nib. Each micro batch of milk, white, and strawberry chocolate is tempered with oat milk, a decision based on the owner’s preference of the flavor above all. “Personally, I’m not a vegan,” said Menchaca. “I just like good food.” 

The product speaks for itself: it doesn’t need dairy, and for those who delight in dark chocolate, Menchaca offers products with up to a 90 percent cacao content. The direct-trade beans are sourced straight from Guatemala and Ecuador, a quality imbued in the flavor of the chocolate as well as the ethical climate of the business. This is reassured by Menchaca’s commitment to sustainability, wasting nothing down to the husk of the bean, which is used to create a coffee-like, caffeine-free tea available for purchase and consumption on site. 

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What more can be hoped for in a chocolate business? How about art? 

On Fridays and Saturdays, Menchaca offers customers the opportunity to design their own bars, barks, and boxes, emphasizing the customization of the packaging and product. During my visit, I sampled various chocolates and drank cups of husk tea as I painted an ocean theme on the frame of what would become a pistachio-banana bark. It was heavenly. 

“There’s so much visual need for chocolate,” said Iverson of using all five senses to enjoy these treats, “so packaging is really important.” This visual need is brought to the forefront of what Menchaca offers: a fusion of chocolate and art in which the public can participate. This holiday season, expect personalized advent calendars and chocolate boxes from your friends. When you ask them how they did it, they’ll simply say. “Menchaca Chocolates.” 

4141 State St.; (646) 369-7277;

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