By Lavina Melwani | February 8 2018 | Khabar

The humble grinder of idli batter is now a chocolate-making machine

Mr. and Mrs. Balu started out selling grinders for idli-dosa batter. Improvising from there, and finding a market niche, they launched CocoaTown, which is now a recognized catalyst for the “bean-to-bar” industry amongst small scale chocolate makers.

While the inspiration of India is visible in the use of Indian spices like turmeric, cardamom, and saffron, and even chilies and chai in chocolates, it was at the show that I first got to learn about the invisible hand of an Indian-American couple in providing the machinery for making artisan chocolates. This delicious bit of information was provided to me by Robert Bowden, a New Jersey chocolatier who put me in touch with Dr. M. Balu and his wife Andal Balu of Atlanta who, he informed me, were providing equipment to several chocolatiers in the U.S. and abroad for the last 15 years.

Their chocolate-making machine first started out—believe it or not—as a grinder for making idli batter!

I connected with the Balus and learned some intriguing facts about the innovation and can-do attitude of Indian-American entrepreneurs. It is hard to believe that this couple that is originally from Tamil Nadu is such a big resource for hundreds of small scale chocolatiers across the world.



Andal Balu did her Masters in Coimbatore before working as an Agricultural Research Scientist. She came to the U.S. after marrying Dr. Balu M. Balasubramanian, a chemist. They formed Inno Concepts Inc., and started out by getting a dealership for grinders from India for grinding idli and dosa batter.

Andal, though, wasn’t satisfied simply selling the grinders. She kept asking the company to make modifications to their grinders based on her clients’ feedback. Recalls Andal, “I traveled to India to learn more about the grinders and how to fix them. They were surprised that a lady wanted to handle the tools, but they taught me how to assemble and repair the units. I was working from home when we imported our first batch of machines. I used to open each and every machine, and reassemble it to make sure everything would work the way it was supposed to!”

It was this ingenuity and level of engagement that helped the Balus make a transition from suppliers of grinders for South Asian households to becoming a supplier of chocolate-making machines for many earnest chocolatiers around the world. 

  In 2007, when the economy plummeted, the Balus wanted to diversify. That’s when chocolate came into their
  lives. They found out that an increasing number of people interested in chocolate-making had the know-how to 
  make it, but faced a big barrier in terms of the equipment. They had to import vintage machines from Europe          and   refurbish them. Small scale chocolate-makers were often held back mainly due to the scarcity of                    equipment  for  their needs.

  Seeing an opportunity in this gap, the Balus started making machines to make about 10 to 12 lbs of chocolate        liquor per batch (compared to industrial equipment which makes one ton or more of chocolate liquor in a batch).    Then they came up with bigger machines to make 100 lbs of chocolate per batch, so the customers could scale      up.

They started with modifying existing idli-dosa grinders for the chocolate industry. The idli-dosa grinders or wet grinders run for 20 to 30 minute batches, but the cocoa nibs have to be ground for 2 to 3 days. So they modified the machine to suit the chocolate industry. Andal says, “Our customers loved our equipment and we were catalysts for the growth of the ‘bean to bar’ industry.

Over the years, they started making other machines specifically needed for the small batch chocolate industry. They already have one patent and are working on a couple more. According to Andal, their company CocoaTown is the only company that makes a series of machines for the bean-to-bar industry for three different levels—laboratory scale for entering or exploring the bean-to-bar business, professional scale to exhibit and showcase the chocolate making process, and commercial scale to expand the business.

These grinders sold by CocoaTown have been a savior for artisan chocolate makers, letting them do something which would have been impossible without these machines.

“The biggest satisfaction of our work is when our customers tell us that we enabled them to start their business with minimum investment and they can just concentrate on making chocolate instead of focusing on refurbishing or repurposing machines from different industries.”

The Balus travel to chocolate shows globally and are surprised to find their machines being used in many countries. Not surprisingly, in 2013, the Balus were awarded for “Innovation in Fine Chocolate Production Category” by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. 

Published by Lavina Melwani on Khabar | Original article:  Chocolate-Sutra