Robert Cabeca remembers finding himself up to his elbows in flour when he was young. Much like he is today.
Cabeca, proprietor of two local businesses – the Chocolate Crust and Cocova – often assisted his mother in the kitchen when growing up. Her passion for baking would inspire his long-simmered career.
Baking all his life, Cabeca intermingled his avocation with a career as an IT professional and cook, baker and hotel food and beverage director. He began baking as a business 25 years ago, working out of his home. That would lead to a 10-year home-based wholesale bakery and chocolate-making enterprise in Jersey City, supplying nearly half of local cafes.
“Washington always felt like home,” Cabeca says, prompting his return to federal government consulting in 2006. He was simultaneously lured back into his kitchen, launching Robert’s Chocolates online – producing chocolate truffles, wedding and specialty cakes.
His handcrafted truffles often sit like jewels among a multi-purveyor selection under a glass-encased counter at Cabeca’s Dupont Circle chocolate shop Cocova. Nestled in a concourse-level storefront at 1904 18th St., N.W., steps south of U Street and Florida Avenue, Cabeca acquired an existing chocolate shop nearly three years ago as his first retail venture.
Cocova is a chocolate paradise, specializing in artisanal confections and cocoa products, many exclusive to the area – crafted of the highest-quality beans and natural ingredients by regional, domestic and international small-batch producers. The shop, managed by Marisol Slater and a knowledgeable staff of chocolate lovers, offers a wide array of cocoa products. In-store tasting events and classes are popular features.
In February, Cabeca opened Chocolate Crust at 5830 Georgia Ave., N.W., located at Georgia and Missouri avenues in the Brightwood neighborhood. Operating a 20-seat bakery and sandwich shop with an extensive menu was not what the entrepreneur had set out to do. Originally searching for a commercial kitchen to expand his chocolate-making and baking business, Cabeca discovered a deli for lease.
His preparation of pastries, chocolates, desserts and other food items for catering, special orders and sale to the trade suddenly became a storefront operation. No longer ensconced in a culinary laboratory, he darts from kitchen to cafe, assisting employees.
“I love watching customers biting into my creations – I live for that experience,” Cabeca explains. Online and phone orders are delivered within an expansive area. “I’m here to bake, doing what I love and sharing it with others.”
Chocolate Crust offers fresh-from-scratch breakfast and lunch items, many including chocolate as an ingredient. Flaky raspberry-and-Nutella chocolate Pop-Tarts, Cocoa French Toast with Chocolate Ginger Orange Bread, and a wide selection of morning-baked pastries, confections and breakfast foods bring Cabeca in to work at 2 a.m.
A specialty is his “Doissant” – deep-fried layers of pumpkin pastry dough dabbed with crème, and drizzled with chocolate caramel. Producing crunchy croissant flakiness in a donut shape, the labor-intensive process spans three days.
Chocolate crust pizzas are another specialty, infusing a surprisingly savory taste with dark chocolate, cocoa beans and powder in the dough. A selection of burgers, specialty sandwiches, salads and skillet-crusted Mac-n-Cheese interlaced with dark chocolate and cocoa nibs are highlights.
Cabeca anticipates that last week’s Walmart opening a half-block away “will have a positive impact – drawing attention to the up-and-coming area” north of Petworth. “I had no idea initially,” the recently dating 49-year-old Cabeca notes, “but the area is home to a growing number of gay and lesbian families.”
Cabeca is currently hunting downtown for a coffee shop spot for his next undertaking, also hoping to expand office-catering opportunities.
Like his ongoing kitchen experimentation, Cabeca’s entrepreneurship is a constantly evolving recipe of success.