Oliver Holecek has been knee-deep in dirt and gardens since his youth. After his mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness and took up a “pseudo-pastoral lifestyle,” the two bonded over gardening, flowering, and wildlife in Greene County. What Holecek didn’t know is that his connection to herbalism would drop him headfirst into the world of organic craft chocolate.
“I’ve been an herbalist since a young age,” he says — so it was no surprise he followed a career path in nutrition and whole foods in college. At SUNY Plattsburgh, Holecek was dissatisfied with the nutrition sciences and biology courses. “It wasn’t what I expected … [the majors] didn’t focus on the environmental impacts of human health,” reasons Holecek.
He shifted gears and decided to pursue anthropology for the “human focus,” and specifically studied in traditional agriculture and nutritional structures in Indigenous cultures. After graduating in 2012, Holecek knew he wanted to start a whole foods company at some point.
In 2017, things got a bit sweeter — literally. Holecek wanted to experiment in chocolate making (as a hobby) and called up his cousin, Jay, a chef by trade who has tons of experience in the complex treat. Instead of giving step-by-step instructions, his cousin provided an itinerary: they were flying to Costa Rica to make chocolate from scratch.
Soon after, the two cousins wandered through jungles and gathered cacao from farmers Jay knew.
“And that was how I made my first batch of chocolate. From the first time making it, I knew I could turn it into a business. I took the leap and went full into it… we’ve been growing and growing and growing cacao ever since,” explains Holecek.
Primo Botánica — the clever and triple-entendre-named chocolate shop — was born out of Holecek’s catalytic and spur-of-the-moment trip to the cacao-ridden country. The shop’s Spanish name hints its origins, sourcing, and roots in herbalism, Holecek says.
“It can mean ‘plant cousins,’ or ‘cousins’ apothecary,’ or ‘botanical cousins.’ There’s a lot of different interpretations. But for me, it essentially means ‘slingers of plants’ in all forms of the shop,” he continues.
In November 2020 (after four years of wholesale and selling online), Primo Botánica finally launched its first brick-and-mortar store in Troy, in collaboration with Alias Coffee and 518 Craft. The shop is the first bean-to-bar chocolate company in the Capital Region and takes the chocolate-making process very seriously.
Following Holecek’s mission in whole foods and nutritional values, the chocolate is gluten-, soy-, and dairy-free. It only incorporates unrefined sugars and therapeutic inclusion of ingredients, plus putting the earth first with biodegradable packaging.
Unlike lower-tier chocolate companies (think corporate quality, like Hershey’s), Primo Botánica’s craft process starts at sourcing raw cocoa beans from indigenous, Latin American farmers. Holecek believes that connecting with your resources and communities and knowing where your ingredients come from is ideal. Empowering people to their own land and means of production, while also trying to repair obstacles of climate change and violence is essential to Primo Botánica.
“Fundamentally, having direct connections with indigenous farmers is the core to our business,” Holecek says. “Actually seeing what the community needs — beyond just buying a cow — is the foundation of our business model.”
Transparency and support are also crucial.
“I don’t want to have a company that’s politically neutral — it’s important to be vocal. We try to amplify indigenous voices and show our community is trying to push forward,” he explains.
The Holeceks, plus their business partners and teams, often visit the cooperatives in Central and South America. They order their beans in small-batch quantities.
Each type of cacao is different — requiring varied treatment, temperature, and duration of roast, he says. Post-roast, the cacao is ground with Colombian panela (cane sugar) to make liquor. This liquor is then conched (when a mixer evenly distributes cacao butter within the chocolate) to produce a product that is smooth and flavorful.
In accordance with health and vegan standards, Primo Botánica doesn’t use typical dairy and gluten ingredients. It finds alternatives, like coconut milk powder, which makes the chocolate thicker than usual. This requires adding more cocoa butter, which is “more expensive for us, but worth it.” The presence of the cocoa butter gives the product a “creamy mouthfeel,” says Holecek. Instead of soy, the company uses sunflower lecithin (derived from a dehydrated sunflower’s gums).
Holecek adds his signature “botanical twist” to the chocolate, and infuses it with herbs, fungi, fruits, and spices. Some of the shop’s concoctions are based on nostalgic classics like Snickers and Kit Kats. The Keep Your Calm Snxckers have chamomile-infused nougat with mulberries, peanuts, and Mexican vanilla caramel incased in a cacao shell sourced from the Dominican Republic.
“Certain chocolate is a part of our childhood. For me, it’s bringing some of that nostalgia into my craft. Rather than just make esoteric chocolate bars, I want to make something that’s appealing to everyone but also brings in my twist of garden botanicals and wild, harvested fruits,” says Holecek.
Molé, a chocolate-flavored sauce from Northern Mexico, is also given the limelight at Primo Botánica. The Spicy Molé Crisp bar brings together Dominican beans and butter with toasted amaranth seeds and a molé spice blend, complete with a grocery list of ingredients like cinnamon, morita and cascabel chilies, and yellow corn tortillas. This treat would be a powerful pick-me-up in the winter especially.
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Craft chocolate lovers can feast their eyes on bars of varying textures and moods, whether that be dark mylk, fungi- or fruit-infused, or earthy/mapley delights. Along with bars and playful spins on cult favorites, Primo Botánica offers powders, confections (like the fruity Hot Dates and Orange-y Figs), cacao fruit soda, and a hemp series.
In April, the chocolate shop was named Downtown Troy BID’s Best New Business of the Year. Earlier this year, Primo Botánica received its first national award from the Good Food Awards — its chocolate bar, Mountain Cardamom, won in the chocolate category.
Though at first the shop’s biggest customers were craft chocolate enthusiasts (yes, they exist!), Troy customers “are definitely some of my biggest supporters,” Holecek says. And in the wake of the Support Small Businesses boom, he has noticed a big increase in local clientele. Primo Botánica’s products are available online and at select local retail spots, like Whole Foods in Troy, Honest Weight Food and Stacks Espresso Bar in Albany, Love Apple Farm in Ghent, plus other locations in Brooklyn, MA, CA, and CO.
This summer, Holecek hopes to bring in seasonal treats like milkshakes, cacao tea, and cold chocolate confections. An outdoor summer café and mini farmers’ markets on the weekends are all in the works.
Hudson Valleyites can find Primo Botánica at its storefront on 200 Broadway in Troy. It has a jungle-y feel to replicate its sourcing and roots, Holecek says. From Wednesday to Sunday, it operates out of 518 Craft along with Alias Coffee, which uses the bar before its opening hours.
200 Broadway, Troy