by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Amanda Jo (A.J.) Wildey ’13 didn’t plan to major in anthropology and study abroad in Peru. She didn’t return to Peru to join in that country’s booming craft chocolate industry, nor to spark a must-see travel destination. But when those opportunities opened up, she was ready to dive in.
Wildey is the founder and co-owner of El Cacaotal, an artisanal chocolate shop/education center/tasting room/cafe that attracts celebrities, diplomats, royals and everyday travelers from around the world. Wildey recently visited campus and spoke about her passion for chocolate and sustainable development and her unexpected path to success.
Wildey came to Dickinson to major in Spanish and study abroad in Mexico. When a desired course was full, she enrolled in an introductory anthropology course and soon declared a double major in anthropology and Latin American, Latinx & Caribbean studies. After Dickinson’s Mexico study-abroad program was suspended due to local unrest, she spent her junior year in Peru and Bolivia instead.
While abroad, Wildey fell in love with Peru as she conducted fieldwork on changes in farming methods in Andean mountain communities. Back on campus, she secured a grant from Dickinson’s Community Studies Center to gather additional data in Peru for her senior theses; later, she presented her findings at a national conference. Those experiences helped her continue her research, on scholarship, at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.
She had 10 months to kill between graduation and the start of her graduate program. A Dickinson advisor suggested she use that time to explore an area she’d always been interested in, but that seemed impractical to pursue. “It was the best advice I’ve ever been given,” says Wildey. The avowed chocoholic soon had fingers in the dirt at a family cacao farm in Peru.
Between Commencement and grad school, Wildey interned at a remote cacao farm in Peru and discovered a calling.
During her second day in that remote Peruvian village, a government official arrived to speak about a pilot program to increase cacao production. As the months on the farm unfolded, Wildey identified flaws in the program—including the fact that the farmers had no outlets to sell the increased quantities of cacao. The Dickinson anthropologist wrote a 30-page report of her recommendations for the program and presented it to an official in Lima. Then she entered grad school as planned.
“But I just kept thinking about Peruvian cacao and chocolate,” she says. “So I switched the focus of my research.”
It was 2014, and Wildey’s work took her to a national chocolate expo, where she polled and networked with farmers and distributors. The following year, Peru was awarded top prize in an international chocolate competition for the first time. It was the start of a Peruvian chocolate boom, and Wildey had a growing network and a front-row seat.
Wildey opened El Cacaotal in 2017. Nestled in Lima’s trendy foodie district, in El Cacaotal was named by Lonely Planet as one of Peru’s top 10 destinations.
Visitors sample luxury-grade chocolates, learn about cacao production and craft chocolate and discover that, like wine, cacao flavors vary, depending on where the produce was grown. They also hear the stories behind the regional chocolates they sample. And the farmers receive a fair price for their work.
Wildey and her partner, Phillippe Aliaga, gave an on-campus presentation and tasting during the 2023 Alumni Weekend. Photo by Matt Getty.
A certified taster trained in sustainable development and commerce, Wildey curates the chocolates, holds group tastings and consults on sustainable chocolate production. Four years in, she joined forces with certified coffee taster Phillippe Aliaga to add coffee tastings to the mix. He’s now her partner in business and in life, and El Cacaotal includes a boutique coffee shop featuring Peruvian chocolate treats.
Ten years after graduation, Wildey gave a presentation and chocolate tasting during the 2023 Alumni Weekend. It was a full-circle moment.
“Dickinson is a huge part of who I am and what I do—it’s where this journey began,” she says. “So it was incredible to stand at a lectern that said ‘Dickinson College’ and share what I’m doing. It almost brought me to tears.”
Published August 3, 2023