Q&A with Allison Koehn: Chocolatier
Augustana senior Allison Koehn interned in a chocolate factory and museum in Peru last summer. We caught up with her to learn more.
Koehn is a fifth-year senior and basketball player from Brandon, South Dakota. She plans to graduate in the spring of 2018 with majors in communication studies, business administration and Spanish. Interested in studying abroad, Koehn was naturally drawn to Spanish-speaking countries. She collaborated with Maximo Nivel, a travel agency that specializes in volunteer, academic and internship trips in Latin America, to spend four weeks in Cusco, Peru, working at a chocolate museum and factory called ChocoMuseo.
"Before I left, I was nervous that four weeks would feel like an eternity, but the time flew by and I wish I would have had more time in Peru!" Koehn said.
Q. The chocolate! What were the different types and flavors? And, most importantly, did you get to sample it?
A. There were literally hundreds of flavors of chocolate bars, drinks, teas, coffee, ice cream, tarts, cakes and jams that I tasted at the factory — too many to list and name! Peru is known for its unique tropical fruit like aguaymanto, lucuma and chirimoya that they often include in their chocolate treats. Some of my favorite new chocolate combinations included a local plant grown in the Andes called coca. Coca is an herb that naturally helps to combat altitude sickness. ChocoMuseo puts coca leaves in some of their chocolate bars — making the chocolate green. I loved that flavor!
Q. What were your chief responsibilities during your internship?
A. ChocoMuseo has three main functions of their business: factory, museum and cafeteria. They produce chocolate to be sold in their museum store, shipped out to customers worldwide, and prepared in the form of desserts and beverages in their cafeteria. The museum provides visitors a tour of the facility that explains the chocolate process from bean to bar. The museum has many interactive components that allow the guests to see the different steps that make up the bean to bar process and also taste the chocolate in its different phases.
One of the best features of the museum is a chocolate bar workshop. After learning about the harvesting, drying, and preparation processes of the chocolate, tourists can make their own samples. The tourists spend three hours in the workshop following the professionals and individually make their own chocolate bars from the cacao bean to the bar. Lastly, each ChocoMuseo location has a cafeteria and a small store to sell and promote their products.
I was a volunteer/intern during my time at ChocoMuseo. I worked in four different departments of the business during my four-week internship. The first week, I was in the factory where I helped the production team make the chocolate, prepare the chocolate for the templates, and package the chocolate for the store or to be shipped out. While this sounds relatively easy, the process of making the chocolate (ensuring the correct temperatures, mixing time, cooling period, etc.) is very detailed and can be temperamental. The packaging is all done by hand and must be aesthetically appealing. Ribbons and tin foil are not the easiest materials to work with! I learned to appreciate the nature of hand-made delicatessens during this week.
The second week, I was placed in the kitchen/cafe. I helped the main chef prepare all of the desserts and chocolate beverages. Each morning we made hot chocolate and chocolate tea to be served in the museum for guests on their tours. The pastry chef taught me how she prepared tarts, croissants, brownies, cakes, mousse, coffee and creams. I also observed how the chef managed her inventory, priced the menu, presented the food, and her time management skills when preparing the treats. Additionally, I stepped in as a waitress and served the guests — speaking in both English and Spanish.
The third week, I was placed in the museum. I gave 20-minute tours to hundreds of guests and I had to learn the process from bean to bar myself to effectively give the tours. I mostly gave tours in English and was able to explain and translate the details between the museum workers and the tourists. Many of the museum workers only knew how to present the tour in English in a memorized format. What I loved most about this week was being able to teach the museum workers more phrases in English to help them guide their tours better. Additionally, they helped me learn new vocabulary about the chocolate-making process to use when I gave tours in Spanish.
The final week, I worked in the marketing department for ChocoMuseo. The director of the marketing department gave me a few tasks at the beginning of the week and asked me to provide input, strategize on areas of improvement, and ultimately provide a short list of actionable improvements that could be made to the day-to-day functions of the museum. In essence, I was tasked with preparing a small, informal marketing proposal based on my analysis of the previous three weeks and through study of the marketing position of ChocoMuseo during the fourth week.
Q. How did your internship come about?
A. I found Maximo Nivel on my own online through a couple study abroad websites that Augie promotes. Specifically, I used GoAbroad.com and looked for programs that had a Spanish-speaking emphasis. Maximo Nivel was one of the highest-rated institutes for their programs and services offered.
Q. What was it like living in Peru? Did you stay with a host family or did you find your own housing? How did you get around?
A. Living in Peru was an incredible experience. Cusco sits at an elevation of 11,000 feet. So, it took almost two full weeks for me to fully adjust to the altitude. That was an adventure itself!
I stayed with a host family that was provided through Maximo Nivel, which has a list of pre-qualified families in Cusco that regularly house students for their programs. I stayed with a family that consisted of a mother and her two adult children. They were incredibly kind and hospitable. My house-mother was an excellent cook and made all of our meals from scratch with organic produce!
I walked almost everywhere I went. I had a 20-minute walking commute one-way to Maximo Nivel and my internship. I used the walking commute as my form of exercise because any form of intense cardio exercise at that elevation puts travelers at risk for altitude sickness. The exchange rate for Peru is very favorable to the American dollar so there were many days that I took taxi for the 15-minute drive and it only cost me $1.20!
Q. How does the internship relate to your majors?
A. The internship was a "micro-business" internship in which I was required to use my Spanish language skills. My majors at Augustana — business administration, communications, and Spanish — were all utilized and developed during my time in Peru. During my private Spanish instruction, I studied the language like I would do in a lecture/class setting at Augie. However, I was able to apply my language abilities on an advanced level because I was forced to read, speak and write in Spanish everywhere I was for the whole month. It was a complete immersion experience and I loved that challenge.
As far as developing my business administration skills, I was able to observe how an international business operates, their management styles, day-to-day operations and I received a crash course in the tourism industry! I was able to converse with my coworkers and talk about their jobs and also to the management staff about the challenges of operating a international firm with a horizontal organizational structure. I believe my internship experience at ChocoMuseo taught me valuable lessons about the importance of attentive management and staff, the value of good customer service, and the complexity of operating an international tourist company.
Q. What did you learn during the experience that surprised you the most?
Each time I travel to a new country, I am awestruck by the culture and the uniqueness of the people. In Peru, I was even more amazed by the kindness, the generosity, and the family-centered nature of the indigenous people. The city of Cusco is the Incan capital of the world. The majority of the population are of Incan descent — they are called Cusqueñans. They are extremely down to earth, hardworking and resourceful people. Most Peruvians work 10-12 hours a day and many work two jobs. None of them complained and most I encountered were eager to share about their work, family and hobbies.
Q. What did the experience teach you about yourself?
A. I was most surprised at how comfortable and safe I felt during my travels. Beforehand, I was extremely nervous about traveling and navigating a new country alone. When I arrived in Peru, I immediately found people that I could trust. What I learned most about myself is that I am capable of adapting to new situations and making connections with complete strangers in order to make each day away from home enjoyable. I gained a deeper sense of self-confidence in my abilities to explore, work and live in a foreign country.
Q. What are your long-term career goals or, plans after graduation?
Mike Shafer '18
Intern, Augustana Marketing & Communications