A variety of chocolates was available to taste from the 28 vendors during the Chocolate Festival held on Jan. 22. Photo by Morgan Grana.

For Jeffrey B., UC Santa Cruz alumnus and former university employee associated with the Office of the Registrar, there was always something about the local charm of Santa Cruz that kept him coming back — and for the past five years, his visits have only gotten sweeter.

Jeffrey was among a bustling crowd of chocolate lovers last Sunday, including locals, newcomers and diehards strolling through the aromatic aisles of Santa Cruz’s fifth annual Chocolate Festival. The festival featured 28 vendors from as far away as Seattle, and ran from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s Cocoanut Grove.

“It’s a tradition,” Jeffrey said. “I miss Santa Cruz, so it’s nice to come back, and I love chocolate and sweets. I also love being back in Santa Cruz and seeing former colleagues from when I worked at UC Santa Cruz.”

Organized by the UCSC Women’s Club, the Santa Cruz Chocolate Festival serves as a fundraiser for re-entry students, or students who have left college for a period of years, to receive scholarships at UCSC. To date, the festival has raised over $50,000 in support of this cause. Tickets for the festival were made available to the public in mid-December through local businesses like Whole Foods, Bay Tree Bookstore and Bookshop Santa Cruz, and cost $12 for six tastings.

“[The festival] is the Women’s Club’s largest fundraiser, and I believe approximately $13,000 went to the scholarship fund last year,” said festival coordinator Ann Berry-Kline. “We typically are able to give away somewhere around $20,000 in scholarships.”

Current scholarship recipients who attended the festival include Merrill third-year Yuliana Vasquez and Stevenson fourth-year Jesse Avila. Vasquez and Avila are both among a group of UCSC re-entry students who have been awarded scholarships funded in part by past festivals.

The festival was first hosted by downtown Santa Cruz’s former Attic Café and Art Gallery in 2008, and was relocated to the Beach Boardwalk’s Cocoanut Grove in 2009. New additions to this year’s festival included a larger venue space and a cupcake decorating station for kids.

Organizers also brought back the silent auction after a two-year absence due to overcrowding and space limitations within the Cocoanut Grove venue. The addition of the Cocoanut Grove sun room this year allowed for a much more relaxed atmosphere, while accommodating the growth of the festival over the years.

“It started out as an idea to fundraise amongst a couple of the Women’s Club members, and they didn’t think anybody would really show up at the Attic,” Berry-Kline said. “It was pouring rain that day… [and] you couldn’t move in there one bit.”

Alongside tables lined with gourmet chocolate cupcakes were savory dishes, like chicken mole with chocolate mole sauce, served up by local Santa Cruz restaurant Chocolate. Featured vendors included healthy chocolate pioneers and three-year festival veterans Xoçai, who shifted the event’s guilt-ridden focus toward revealing the health benefits of the antioxidants found in raw dark chocolate.

The festival also hosted many new vendors, like Soquel-based day spa Sudzz, which offers chocolate spa treatments and products. Regardless of how long each vendor had been attending the festival, a common trend of chocolate entrepreneurship and local support served as one of the festival’s major themes.

“There are so many great things about chocolate — not just to eat, but for your skin,” said Sudzz representative Sarai Thomas. “I sponsored the festival in its first year and opened up Sudzz last August, and signing up to be a vendor seemed like a great way to showcase my business to people who love chocolate and are open to experiencing it in a different way.”

As the festival has continued to grow, the event has become an experience that keeps people coming back year after year.

“I heard about it from a friend and it seemed like a cool thing to do,” said Stevenson third-year Jeff Davis. “This [was] my first time and it’s really cool. There are a lot of local people around here and it’s cool to support your local businesses. [I’m] definitely coming back next year.”

With another successful year added to its budding reputation, the Santa Cruz Chocolate Festival has become a tradition for both the Santa Cruz community and tourists alike. As the event’s audience continues to grow, organizers hope to expand next year’s festival into a two-day event.

“I hope to make it a destination kind of thing in the future, and get the local hotels involved in a chocolate getaway weekend,” Berry-Kline said. “Hopefully we can raise more funds and be able to touch more scholarship recipients.”