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95 Years in the Making, 2.5 Years in the South Bronx: A Conversation With Carlos Cortés, Owner of Chocobar Cortés BX

Naomi Banks | 29 May, 2024

            95 Years in the Making, 2.5 Years in the South Bronx: A Conversation With Carlos Cortés, Owner of Chocobar Cortés BX

We had the honor of speaking with Carlos Cortés, Owner of Chocobar Cortés BX, about Puerto Rican entrepreneurship and the impact of opening their South Bronx location in December 2021. As part of the 95-year-old Chocolate Cortés company, they ensure high-quality chocolate through a vertically-integrated process. Chocobar Cortés serves as a cultural hub, celebrating Puerto Rican heritage through food, music, and art. Their art foundation, Fundación Cortés, collaborates with artists like Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez (the creator of La Borinqueña super hero) and has impacted over 15,000 children with educational programs. Carlos Cortés emphasized the Puerto Rican Day Parade's role in showcasing Puerto Rican pride and contributions, highlighting the ongoing fight for cultural recognition and pride in their heritage.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity. Check out the short video clip from the interview on Instagram and TikTok by clicking the hyperlinks.

Purchase the only print signed by the owner to support a worthy cause. 100% of the proceeds of the signed print benefit the National Puerto Rican Day Parade Scholarship Fund.

With the opening of this Chocobar Cortés location in the Bronx, how does it feel to be able to bring the unique flavors and experiences of Puerto Rican chocolate to a new audience in New York City?

Cortés: To bring Puerto Rican chocolate to a new audience in New York City is an incredible honor for me. It's my family’s 95 year old chocolate manufacturing company. If you're Puerto Rican, or Dominican, you grew up with our chocolate and you know how delicious it is. To be able to bring that to a completely new audience is a dream come true.

One of the things that makes our chocolate special is that we are completely vertically-integrated, which means that we work directly with the farmers and make the chocolate ourselves through the entire chocolate making process. Then, here at the restaurant, we're able to serve it to you. That's really unique in the chocolate world because most companies don't have that direct connection with the source. That allows us to provide a high quality product. We have two factories in the Dominican Republic, one in Puerto Rico, and our bars are sold in PR, DR, and the US. Because we source all of our cacao from the Dominican Republic, we get to have a very robust flavor to our chocolate, which is what we're known for.

For four generations, Chocolate Cortés has provided a product that allows people to sit around the table, enjoy a delicious cup of hot chocolate, and share beautiful moments together. Now, at Chocobar, our hope is to provide that space for people to have those happy moments together through food, chocolate, and a welcoming ambiance.

The way that I got involved in the family business is pretty long and complicated, but I was in medical school when the first Chocobar opened. Then Hurricane Maria and the financial crisis happened. At that point, I had already been living in New York for 10/12 years and I had seen the way that the Puerto Rican community was so present, but at the same time, the neighborhoods where Puerto Rican communities were originally were changing – like Williamsburg, the Lower East Side.

I felt like there weren't enough Puerto Rican restaurants that represented the presence that the Puerto Rican community has here in New York. I started thinking that I wanted to do something to help Puerto Rico. I really saw that there was an opportunity, not just in New York, but in all of the United States to share the richness of our culture. You see our influence in other fields, like music and politics. We are super influential, but when it comes to food, brands, businesses, and entrepreneurship, I feel like there's a need there for more Puerto Rican representation.

How does Chocobar Cortés contribute to the celebration of Puerto Rican identity, both in Puerto Rico and now in the Bronx?

Cortés: Chocolate Cortes is a 95-year old brand that a lot of people grew up with. When people come to this space, Chocobar Cortés, they’re transported to their childhood. When they take that first sip of chocolate, they sometimes cry because the nostalgia is so deep – memories of their grandmother, family, hurricane season, or even a funeral. It's a product that brings a lot of warm feelings for people. To be able to keep that tradition alive and share it with the rest of the world means everything.

Chocobar Cortés in Puerto Rico has revitalized the image of the brand, which has always been super traditional. Now, we've created a space where more people can experience it in real life. At our Old San Juan location, we get people from all over the world who are amazed that we have this legacy, this history, and that there's a family behind it that's been doing it for so long. It's an honor to be a destination within a destination.

How has Chocobar Cortés contributed to the celebration of Puerto Rican and Caribbean culture?

Cortés: One of the ways that Chocobar Cortés contributes to Puerto Rican and Caribbean culture is by having this space and celebrating our flavors and our foods. When you come to this space, you’re going to hear Salsa, Reggaeton – we're celebrating our music. We're also celebrating our aesthetic, our architecture, our history.

The arts are really important to us. We have an Art Foundation in Puerto Rico, called from Fundación Cortés. The mission is to educate and inspire with our passion for the arts in the Caribbean. Through that foundation, we partnered with Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, who is the creator of the La Borinqueña super hero.

Through that collaboration, we were able to create a unique comic series that was inside of the wrapper of our chocolate bar. It tells the story of where chocolate comes from, the story of our company, the history of our art foundation, and how art is a superpower. There's a scene where they're out in the street of Old San Juan in front of Chocobar Cortés dancing bomba with the vejigante and just celebrating our culture. Recently, we worked with Edgardo Miranda again to put up a mural right outside of the restaurant that features different activists and superheroes – important people who are of Puerto Rican background from the Bronx. I invite you to come check that out.

Fundación Cortés has several programs, but the main one is called Educa Cortés. We work with classrooms and teachers all over the island, but most of them are from public schools and lower income neighborhoods. Using whatever exhibit we have, at the time, we create a custom program to integrate what they're learning in school with the art that they're seeing. It's really special because a lot of these kids have never been to a gallery, put in front of a work of art, and been asked to describe what they see, how it makes them feel, and why it makes them feel that way.

It's an impactful experience that sometimes changes the course of these kids' lives because otherwise they wouldn't have had that exposure to art in that way. They get to understand that art is a way to expand your knowledge, process your emotions, or express yourself. It’s a free program and we've impacted over 15,000 kids from all over the island.

What is your history with the Puerto Rican Day Parade and what message do you hope the parade conveys to the broader community in New York City?

Cortés: Historically, the Puerto Rican Day Parade has been this huge event that happens in the city every year. It takes over the city, everything's closed, there’s wild parties on the street, and more. I've walked through the parade before. I've been to different parties, in different parts of the city. There's so much energy and pride that is brought to life during the parade, but Puerto Rican pride is an everyday thing. It climaxes during the parade, but it's an ongoing thing. You see more Puerto Rican flags in New York than you do American flags. That's one thing about Puerto Ricans that everybody knows is that we're super proud.

On the importance of celebrating Puerto Rican pride, our history, and our contribution, I will talk about Evelina Antonetty, who's featured in the mural of superheroes that are Puerto Rican from the Bronx. She's responsible for creating a bilingual education program in the United States. Before her, we didn't have that. We absolutely needed that. We've been pioneers. We've had a huge impact in the way that this country has developed into the cultural melting pot that it is. It's a fight that we have to continue fighting every day. That's why celebrating the Puerto Rican Day Parade is so important to me.

Chocobar Cortés is located at 141 Alexander Ave, Bronx, NY 10454 and is currently open Wednesday and Thursday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., Friday from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. They are closed on Monday and Tuesday. (718) 841-9310.

Click the photo above for more information on the Chocobar Cortés signed print for the NPRDP Scholarship Fund.