For The Love Of Cocoa

Mike and Jen's Cocoa Mix is the perfect gift for the winter season. Photo courtesy of Mike and Jen's Cocoa Mix
Mike and Jen's Cocoa Mix is the perfect gift for the winter season. Photo courtesy of Mike and Jen's Cocoa Mix

Mike and Jen’s Cocoa Mix is the perfect gift for the winter season. Photo courtesy of Mike and Jen’s Cocoa Mix

Dean Packingham shares the sweet story of how he started his Duluth-based hot chocolate company, Mike & Jen’s Cocoa Mix.

If you’re a fan of hot chocolate (which, let’s face it, we all are in this six-month-long-winter state), you might have noticed something about most instant hot chocolate mixes on the shelf: you can’t pronounce half of the ingredient list. Like all processed foods, instant hot chocolate mix is loaded with chemicals.

While Dean Packingham was serving up a mug of cozy hot cocoa for his daughter, Jen, he read over the ingredients and decided that he and his family deserve better than an endless list of chemicals. In fact, he decided everyone deserves better. So with the help of his then-13-year-old son, Mike, and then-9-year-old Jen, Packingham made his own hot chocolate mix.

Amanda Cunningham, left, and Dean Packingham, right, are the owners of Mike and Jen’s Cocoa Mix. Photo courtesy of Mike and Jen’s Cocoa Mix

“I said to Jen that we should make our own hot cocoa mix, and she said ‘YEAH!’ Then I said we should make the best in the world, and she said ‘YEAH!’ Because I told her I was going to make the best in the world, I purchased more than 60 cocoa powders from around the world,” Packingham says. “I also wanted it rich and creamy with just water, something I had never found in a mix, so I selected a rich and creamy whole milk powder for the mix.”

Once Packingham came up with the perfect hot chocolate mix recipe, he and co-owner Amanda Cunningham founded Mike & Jen’s Cocoa Mix.

“We have been best friends and co-workers for about 15 years. We knew we worked well together and after finding out that she loves spreadsheets, and I hate them, I knew it was a match! Since then, we’ve been on many crazy adventures and are still best friends. We call ourselves Lucy and Ethel. I’m Lucy because I come up with the crazy ideas, and she is my Ethel,” Packingham says.

Mike & Jen’s Cocoa Mix is now available throughout the Upper Midwest, especially in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Packingham says it’s also stocked in about 300 stores, including Lund’s and Byerly’s and Kowalski’s in the Twin Cities. It is also available for purchase on Amazon for those outside of the Midwest (or those who just don’t want to make the trek to the nearest grocery store).

In addition to being on shelves throughout the Midwest and online, Packingham says he also likes to be involved in events throughout the community, especially in the winter months, which is what led to his next big idea: a food truck.

“When you own a hot cocoa business, you get invited to a lot of cold weather events. After being out in the cold on one too many occasions, we decided we needed a food truck! We couldn’t decide on what to call a hot cocoa food truck, so we call it our Cocoa Mobile,” he says. “We go to a lot of large events, and it has proven to be an incredible PR tool.”

Not only is Mike & Jen’s Cocoa Mix (and its Cocoa Mobile) an important part of the Duluth community (hot cocoa capital of the world), but Packingham says as a member of the GLBT community, it’s important to represent the community as a small business owner.

“It’s incredibly important to me as a small business owner. I came out later in life, and my kids have been nothing but supportive. My responsibility as a member of the GLBT community is to do everything I can as ethically as possible. It’s important to me that we give back to causes that are supportive of GLBT issues,” Packingham says.

In addition to the classic Mike & Jen’s hot cocoa mix (all you need is 3 tablespoons of mix and 8 oz. of water), Packingham has expanded to other hot cocoa-inspired delicacies. Here are some recipes (courtesy of Mike & Jen’s Cocoa Mix) recommended for every chocolate lover:

Frozen Hot Cocoa
1. Fill 8 oz. mug halfway with water and microwave for 1 minute.
2. Add a pack of Mike & Jen’s Single Serve Cocoa Mix (3 tablespoons cocoa mix) and stir until dissolved.
3. Fill the rest of the mug with cold water and stir again.
4. For iced cocoa, pour into an ice-filled glass or add to a blender with 1 cup of ice and blend until smooth. Enjoy!

Peppermint Hot Cocoa
1. Start with The Classic (3 tablespoons mix, 8 ounces water).
2. Add crushed candy cane, Andes Mints or—for the grown-ups—peppermint schnapps. Enjoy!

Mexican Hot Cocoa
1. Start with The Classic (3 tablespoons mix, 8 ounces water).
2. Add a pinch of cayenne pepper and ground cinnamon to the party.
3. Feeling really bold? Go for more than a pinch. Enjoy!

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