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Alumni Spotlight // Business

FROM COLLEGE DEAN TO CHOCOLATE KING

Entrepreneur Romeo Obrador Garcia `01 left higher education to pursue his passion: chocolate!

Chocolatier Romeo Obrador Garcia `01 serves artisanal bonbons and truffles at Romeo Chocolates
Chocolatier Romeo Obrador Garcia `01 serves artisanal bonbons and truffles at Romeo Chocolates, opening in Long Beach, California this winter.

This year, life got a whole lot sweeter for culinary entrepreneur Romeo Obrador Garcia `01.

After running a home-based chocolatier cottage business providing pop-up events and private catering for two years, Garcia is proud to announce the grand opening of his first brick-and-mortar artisanal chocolate and confectionary store Romeo Chocolates on Pine Avenue in Long Beach, California.

Opening this winter, Garcia’s business will sell bonbons and truffles, as well as desserts and drinks inspired by his travels through Europe and the South Pacific – all infused with regional ingredients in collaboration with other local confectioners. Romeo Chocolates will also host special wine-and-beer pairing events and chocolate-making workshops for adults and kids.

Kids attending Romeo Chocolate workshop.
A hands-on chocolate-making experience for kids attending Romeo Chocolate workshops in Long Beach, California. (Photo courtesy of Romeo Garcia `01)

For 14 years, Garcia worked in higher education administration and counseling, leading student services and programs advocating for access, opportunity and post-secondary completion for underrepresented low income communities and first generation students on the West Coast.

Garcia served as director of student support and the TriO Program at Cañada College, interim dean of counseling at Coastline Community College and dean of special programs and grants at Merritt College. Garcia graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in Asian American studies and a minor in Black Studies. He earned his master’s degree in education, with a concentration on equity and social justice, from San Francisco State University, where he also attended the doctor of education program in educational leadership.

Assorted chocolates on display.
Art meets plate: Belgian-trained chocolatier Romeo Garcia `01 creates sweets inspired by travel, culture and diverse communities.

For six years, as a way to relax from long hours at the office, Garcia took culinary courses. He developed a love of the meditative quality of kitchen work and decided to take on chocolate-making full-time. Garcia took a creative sabbatical and travelled the world to pursue his passion for food. He went on to graduate from the Master Chocolatier Program at the Ecole Professional School of Chocolate Arts in Belgium, and attended the Chocolate Academy in Chicago. He also studied under renowned chocolatier Chef Melissa Coppel at the Atelier Melissa Coppel in Las Vegas, Nevada.

In this Alumni Q&A, Garcia talks about the impact of his UCSB experience and how he dared to switch careers to chase his love of chocolate.

Chocolatier Romeo Garcia `01 in the kitchen. Chocolatier Romeo Garcia `01 in the kitchen.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Batangas, Philippines and immigrated to the United States when I was 4 years old. We grew up in Southern California in a small town, Oxnard. Our city was very diverse, and I always loved learning about cultures and community.

Growing up here was a major cultural shift. All six of us kids grew up in the Philippines. We came in not knowing the language. I grew up in a very supportive family that nurtured our professional curiosity and valued education – especially since my mom was a teacher and my stoic dad supported our ambitions. Both our parents worked long hours to support us. Oxnard is a beautiful working-class community – people go to college but we had to actively seek the information and opportunities to access the education we needed. There are a lot of supportive people, but as a first generation college student, I needed help understanding the nuts and bolts of applying and actually getting accepted.

Why did you choose to study at UC Santa Barbara? What was it like during your early days at UCSB?

I had great mentors in high school who thought I was college material even before I believed it myself. I’m a first generation college student, and my older sister really set the bar high by being the very first in our family to go not only to college, but to also to finish law school. She inspired the rest of us to pursue a college degree. All six of us were able to complete a college and venture into our own exciting professions.

I chose UC Santa Barbara because I loved the campus, the proximity to my hometown, the balance of academic rigor and social life. It has everything, including an awesome college town -- Isla Vista.

There was an advisor from UCSB who came to my high school. This advisor connected me to the Educational Opportunity Program. They encouraged me, with academic counselling, to attend the summer bridge program. I am really grateful for my EOP counsellors for making it happen.

I felt so “utang ng loob” – a debt of gratitude – for all those who guided me during those early days. I eventually became an RA for the summer bridge program and also worked as a counsellor.

For my first year, it was a real struggle, I didn’t feel a sense of community right away. Then, I had a mental shift – eventually, student life at UCSB got me out of my shell! I stayed in touch with Summer Bridge friends. I attended events at the Multicultural Center, concerts on campus, sporting activities at the Thunderdome, and jogged with friends along the bluffs of Isla Vista. I played drums and ukulele for Ia Orana Te Otea Polynesian Club. I joined Zeta Phi Rho and started volunteering at the Isla Vista Teen Center.

From growing up in a big family, you want to help out in any way you can. That’s why I volunteered – I wanted to feel connected to the local community, particularly the vibrant Latino families that resided in Isla Vista. I wanted to contribute by offering spaces for free tutoring, organizing enrichment events like Dia De Los Muertos and Dia De Los Niños, and reaching out to young people about higher education – just like someone did for me.

I also met a lot of the UCSB Filipino community through different events. We have all stayed great friends. My friend Roland Navarro, who I met at our fraternity, has been helping me through the nuts and bolts of how I can launch my chocolate company.

How did you decide on your major – and how did your UCSB experience help build your career?

I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I started as major in business administration. I enjoyed it but got drawn into the humanities – Chican@ Studies and Black Studies, especially. I liked studying the liberation movements and how they changed lives in communities.

So I graduated with a major in Asian American studies and a minor in Black Studies. By then, I knew I wanted to work in student affairs. My first job, I worked as a college advisor for UC San Diego. I served the east San Diego community, helping lower income middle school and high students achieve their education goals.

Doing the same gesture for other students, making that pathway clear, was very fulfilling for me. That was ultimately the hard part and the most amazing part about working in higher education. There was definitely a love and passion for working with students, but financially it’s challenging. Being an educator is really about getting satisfaction from the work itself, and the impact you make on others.

I continued my education and completed my masters degree in education with a concentration in equity and social justice. Through that degree, I was able to get promoted to executive director of programs – and was able to make even more impact on a macro scale at Cañada College and in my roles as dean at other colleges.

Romeo Obrador Garcia holding cacao drying on a plantation
Romeo Obrador Garcia `01 traveled the world to research ingredients and techniques for his new passion: chocolate-making.

What made you decide to change careers from higher education to chocolate-making?

There was a moment, at the pinnacle of my higher education career. I was a dean at Merritt College. I loved doing it, but it was time-consuming – just days and days of extremely long hours and meetings. I felt a need to take a pause and reflect – and see if I did truly set out for all the professional goals I wanted in my life.

I started taking culinary courses in San Francisco. It was very meditative and very relaxing. I stuck with it for six years, off and on.

Then, I was in a doctoral program for educational leadership, at San Francisco State. I was aspiring to be a vice president some day. There I was, in higher education leadership for 15 years…but I also had this passion for food and chocolate – both of which were just as fulfilling.

So I took a sabbatical and pursued this other ambition full-time. I couldn’t wait until I retired from higher education. I wanted to seek this opportunity at the very moment when I had drive and energy. I didn’t want to go wondering “what if” and have any regrets.

In Belgium, they had a program to master the art of chocolate making. I wanted to learn the traditional, elevated techniques. I went to the chocolate shops. I studied the craft and developed a sense of building a business from this passion to be a chocolatier -- it’s exciting!

My ambitions are to continue learning about the chocolate industry, inside and out. Other professional chocolatiers have been studying this craft since they were 13 years old. I know there’s so much more for me to learn, and I want to do it right – especiall if I am carrying the integrity of the programs and chefs who have paved this direction for me and offered me guidance to advance as a chocolatier.

Three piecies of Romeo chocolate
East meets West at Romeo Chocolates, where chocolatier Romeo Garcia infuses influences from Europe and the South Pacific. (Photo courtesy of Romeo Garcia `01)

What drives you to do what you do?

Living with purpose and utmost passion. I was born with a severely damaged heart, lungs, diaphragm, and internal organs, called Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia (CDH); and I required surgery for most of my infanthood. My parents were instructed to plan my funeral even before getting a chance to plan my first birthday. I underwent abdomen and heart surgery, fell into a coma a year afterward, so I was in the hospital for most of infanthood.

Every day, I am reminded of this time by two 10 inch scars across my chest to my back and across my abdomen. I am much better now, and in the best of health. I don’t take it for granted though. Helping young people and communities become even more resilient inspires me. Practicing self care and wellness inspires me. Living life joyfully and with gratitude inspires me.

After UCSB, I graduated when I was 21 years old, and I was beyond grateful for that milestone. I truly never thought I would live to witness and experience that. I am humbled by life, breath, and opportunity. I want to live my life with intention and meaning.

How important is it for alumni to mentor students – especially those who want to follow your same career path?

I think it’s critical for an older generation to mentor, influence, and inspire new students. Not necessarily follow my career path(s), but to live their own personal ambition fully in however that manifests for them; to seek those adventures and life courses as non-linear as it may be; to reflect back in gratitude for all the big and small milestones along the way, and to live joyfully. As an alumnus, I encourage students to not only seek those opportunities but fight for it if it doesn’t exist, and cherish those friendships and networks you make at UCSB - many of which end up being lifelong friends and professional support systems.

Stay in touch with Romeo Garcia on Facebook and Instagram. Learn more Romeo Chocolates at www.romeochocolates.com

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