Autumn Martin Hot Cakes

Seattle Washington

When it comes to the culinary community, there’s always been an interesting correlation at play: the stronger the calling, the more unlikely the origin story. Gordon Ramsay attributes his foray into the kitchen to a freak football accident. Bobby Flay took up cooking as soon as he dropped out of high school. Rachael Ray’s cooking segments on the local news were later developed for national syndication.

For Autumn Martin, serendipity was made all the sweeter thanks to a handful of Ziploc baggies.

“I remember I was working as a pastry chef at Canlis, and this chocolate company’s distribution representative would come visit me with these plastic bags, each one with a name and percentage scribbled on in permanent marker,” says Autumn Martin, founder of Hot Cakes.

“As a newbie, it was all so cryptic. So one day I swallowed my pride and asked her to explain it all to me, and she began with, ‘Well, chocolate is the seed of a fruit that’s grown all over the world, close to the equator and farmers machete the fruits down…’. I was shocked at how chocolate’s exotic, natural origins were both agricultural and artistic. It was in that moment that I mentally made the shift from pastry chef to chocolatier.”

Chosen By Chocolate

Before she was a pastry chef, a master chocolatier, or a restaurateur, Autumn was an ambitious young woman at a crossroads. She could go to art school to study ceramics, jewelry, and glass – three art forms she was captivated by  – or she could go to culinary school and learn more about the native Washington land she already knew well through organic farming, local agriculture, and cooking. Thanks to Honey Bear Bakery, a hometown cafe Autumn worked at after traveling overseas to Spain and Europe, she opted for culinary school, where a third of her education was covered by the bakery.

The eureka moment Autumn credits to plastic baggies and raw cacao was the moment it all became clear that chocolate was a medium with a message, something mysterious and pliable that could be shaped in artistic ways and sourced in meaningful ones. Soon after chocolate became her focus, Autumn went on to become head chocolatier Theo Chocolate, a Seattle-based chocolate company and first organic fair trade certified cocoa producer in the United States.

“Since I devoted my life to chocolate, a lot of things have gone right, as evidenced by all of our amazing menu items,” Autumn muses with a laugh. “But it hasn’t been glamorous by any means. When I was working at Theo, we made our first batch of chocolate ever and it was sitting in the holding tank. The valve had gotten kicked and long story short, we ended up with thousands of pounds of chocolate all over the factory floor. It was like something straight out of Willy Wonka.”

Founded in 2006 by Jeff Fairhall and Joe Whinney, Theo is widely considered the most knowledgeable chocolate company in North America, not only for its superior chocolate production but also its conscious chocolate sourcing in countries like Peru and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Today, Autumn’s former employer is now her supplier, sending more than 18,000 pounds of chocolate to Hot Cakes each year, a 50/50 blend of cocoa beans from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South American countries like Ecuador, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.

Because Theo is a company whose quality Autumn can personally vouch for, she doesn’t have to expend her energy hunting down reputable distributors, pressing for details on ethics, or visiting farms in person. Instead, she can focus on doing what she was drawn to do: melt, bake and craft luscious creations that have put her molten cake concept on the map.

“Since I was 19, I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with people that are always learning about consumption, not just eating. The people I’ve worked with and for throughout the years understand that it’s everything that comes before and everything that comes after consumption that really matters,” Autumn explains, leaning into words and phrases like soil care, preservation, human rights, and agricultural worth. “I never learned to make the cheapest thing and profit off of it. I learned about the entire food cycle, from farmer to customer, and I think you really can taste the difference in Hot Cakes’ products.”

A Jarring Change in Course

In the fall of 2008, another a-ha moment changed the course of Autumn’s life when she joined a team supplying desserts to a charity dinner hosted on a nearby farm. Little did she know that the charity’s lucky guests were the first to taste-test the very first batch of the molten chocolate cakes that Hot Cakes is known for, cleverly served in mason jars. Guests went wild putting in their orders for more. She soon began selling the same cakes at Seattle farmer’s markets, where happy sighs and exclamations of “oh wow!” provided all the proof of concept that Autumn needed to know she was on to something big.

Today, Hot Cakes stays true to its roots by measuring a new product’s quality based on the number of “oh wow” reactions they get from customers – something they officially call the “Oh, Wow” stamp of approval.

As Autumn explains, the wow-worthy desserts she and her team create are all due in part to the quality of the ingredients they hand source and hand craft. Organic and local always take precedent, with locally sourced eggs, cream, and milk from a nearby farm, as well as flour from a group of farmers whose grains thrive in lovingly enriched soil.

Full-Circle Food

This past year, Autumn has committed 10% of Hot Cakes Wilderness Collection proceeds to three Washington state nonprofits who spent their time preserving and protecting wildlife in the most wild of places. The nonprofits – Fortera, Washington Wild, and Washington Trails Association – regularly fight against land use, needless deforestation, and pollution of rivers, streams, and the Puget Sound.

Like her own relationship with chocolate, Autumn knows it’s all full circle when it comes to food.

“The birds and the bees that help out the plants that grow the food are dependent on an ecosystem that can only exist in a wild place. For us, better land is a direct line to better products. Giving back to these nonprofits is our way of making sure the cycle of conservation continues.”

Organic is a word that continually makes its way into the conversation, even down to Hot Cakes’ gotta-try-it reputation. As local customers and eager tourists trickled into both its Ballard and Capitol Hill locations, word about the decadent cakes, cookies, and drinking chocolates had spread like wildfire. Apart from a handful of national press pieces, Autumn attributes Hot Cakes’ brick-and-mortar success to happy customers fueling the brand’s organic growth.

“We don’t do any advertising, so we’re trying to be more intentional about how we’re presenting ourselves, telling our story, and educating our customers since first opening four years ago,” she says. “I think part of it has to do with the experience we offer. It’s unique and fun, and you can’t find any other molten chocolate cakery in the U.S., which makes us really one of a kind. I also think more people are learning about what we’re doing and how we’re progressive in helping the planet and people, which makes us much more than just a bakery or sweet shop.”

You’d think that living, breathing, and eating chocolate would eventually take a toll on your metabolism. For Autumn, whose slender figure remains intact, her body not only craves chocolate but thrives on the health benefits that pure, unrefined products offers.

“People might think I don’t crave chocolate because I’m around it all day but the secret is out: I totally do,” she laughs. “Because we intentionally keep our ingredients list so short, there’s no corn syrup, stabilizers, gums or anything like that, which makes our cakes easy to digest, especially for those who are gluten sensitive. We serve purely organic ingredients in a way that makes it seem really over the top, but honestly? This is about as pure as it gets.”

Since Hot Cakes launched in 2008, the company has diversified its product line with speciality sauces, cookies, pocket pies, and more. You can get your Hot Cakes fix at two Seattle locations (Ballard, Capitol Hill), shop its line of goods online, or send someone special our “Roasted” themed gift box featuring Hot Cakes chocolate espresso beans and peanut butter bites.