Sometimes it’s the smaller, more elegant competitors that rise to the top in turmoil.
Chocolate consumption has been gaining in popularity for the last three years, and premium chocolate is growing at an even faster rate, according to a new report by Packaged Facts, “Chocolate and Candy in the U.S.”
But is our country’s sweet obsession getting more costly? Cocoa prices have risen steadily in the past year, according to the International Cocoa Organization, and chocolate behemoths The Hershey Co., Mars Inc. and Nestlé have all increased prices this year in response to this change.
French company CEMOI Inc. has had to increase its prices slightly due to the significant cost increase of cocoa, but using its own beans has helped to lessen the damage. The global chocolatier runs its own bean-processing plant in Ivory Coast, where it gets most of its ingredients. “We are able to control the whole cocoa process from the bean to the bar,” CEMOI’s Stephanie Kyereme says.
However, CEMOI also uses premium beans from South America, which carry a heftier price tag. Despite this, it has not let prices compromise its product; CEMOI has not changed where it sources its beans or modified its ingredients.
Chocolate sales have still increased for the company and hope to further grow with its introduction of European tastes to the North American market and a greater emphasis on sustainable chocolate.
“More consumers are looking for premium-quality, gourmet and innovative chocolates,” Kyereme says.
Tonet Tibay of Marti Chocolatt, a small chocolate company in Los Angeles, recognizes chocolate’s growing popularity, which she attributes to more consumers learning about its health benefits as well as its increased cultural capital.
“It has become the guilt-free sweet treat,” she says.
Increased awareness of health benefits has helped market luxury chocolate as a desirable commodity.
“Chocolate has risen in the culinary stage like fine wine,” Tibay says, describing festivals and tasting events that give people the chance to meet with farmers and chocolatiers to learn about the many different varieties of products. “People have become aware of how it’s a prized commodity.”
Marti Chocolatt, which also uses single-origin beans for some of its chocolate, has been able to maintain its prices so far in the face of cocoa price increases. Costs of other ingredients remain low, as the company purchases from local farmers. Sales have increased, which allows Marti Chocolatt to experiment and innovate.
“The smaller producers get creative by offering varieties,” Tibay explains, echoing a finding in the Packaged Facts report that shows how chocolate producers are catering to creativity-minded consumers with new, exciting products.
Marti Chocolatt’s products, which include offerings with single-origin chocolate and local fruits and herbs, stand out by illuminating Tibay’s Filipino background mixed with an education in French chocolate-making. The chocolatier admits a new year may affect prices, but, like CEMOI, the quality will stay the same.
While large confectionery companies are trying to insulate themselves from taking a hit from cocoa price increases, small California-based company Valenza Chocolatier has stayed out of harm’s way due to the very nature of its cocoa. It has been able to maintain its prices without changing its products because it has not faced ingredient price hikes such as those on the commodities market.
“It really goes into where your beans are being sourced,” Valenza Chocolatier founder Amy Jo Pedone says. The company does not buy mass-produced beans, instead picking single-origin beans from Venezuela.
The choice to use single-origin beans is one hallmark of the definition of fine chocolate, Pedone believes. “You can’t have a premium product if you don’t have a premium chocolate.”
Most people understand the benefits of organic and Fair Trade ingredients and the lack of preservatives, staples of Valenza’s chocolates, but Pedone wants to spread the message of what it means to use single-origin beans.
“I’m trying to do my responsibility as a chocolatier to teach [consumers], what is fine chocolate?” Pedone says.
Chocolate may be the most important ingredient in the chocolatier’s creations, but, like most chocolatiers, Valenza uses other ingredients as well to help it stand out. Part Sicilian, Pedone adds an Italian touch to each product. Everything she makes features an ingredient from or inspired by Italy, such as Calabrian chili peppers (peperoncino), Piedmont hazelnuts (nocciole), Sicilian sea salt or a ganache flavor based on a traditional Italian cookie recipe.
Being able to recognize the ingredients, chocolate or otherwise, and know where they are from is important to consumers, Pedone explains.
“At the end of the day, they want to know what they’re eating and see the research of the passion of why the chocolatier chose what she chose.”
Missouri-based Askinosie Chocolate has a similar passion in handpicking ingredients. And like Valenza Chocolatier, this attention to detail and quality allows it to remove itself from fluctuations in cocoa prices; all it cares about is paying its cocoa farmers fairly, regardless of market price.
“What we need, however, is to focus on the ‘farm gate’ price that the farmer receives and not the vague representations about paying ‘above market’ prices that really do not tell us much,” says Lawren Askinosie, director of sales and marketing and daughter of founder Shawn Askinosie.
Askinosie Chocolate practices A Stake in the Outcome, a business philosophy in which all company members, including the farmers, are involved in the business and share profits. The company has gladly paid more for its cocoa beans throughout its existence, but has not had to increase prices on most of its products. More sales mean more profits, and sales have increased each quarter since the company started about eight years ago.
Shawn Askinosie built Askinosie Chocolate with innovation in mind. The company is one of the few bean-to-bar manufacturers in the country and was the first to make its own cocoa butter.
Making the cocoa butter from scratch gives more of an artisanal quality to the chocolate. “This affects the flavor and quality of our single-origin chocolate, and secondly, it allows us to control more of the artisan manufacturing process,” Lawren Askinosie explains.
As CEMOI, Marti Chocolatt and Valenza Chocolatier do, Askinosie Chocolate also adds ingredients from known sources. It has collaborated with other companies on ideas, such as working with single-origin coffee roaster Intelligentsia Coffee, handcrafted licorice company Lakristfabriken and craft spread maker Big Spoon Roasters.
“Collaboration is the key to success,” Lawren Askinosie believes. “It allows for ideas to come up that might not have been generated internally at our own little company. Additionally, it is a lot of fun to work with other craftspeople who care about their work so deeply. We think that this story and partnership sells chocolate, but more importantly, it’s good for the customer because they can try a product that is the best of two companies.”
Storytelling is an important aspect of artisan foods, with each inspiration and each ingredient a page in the story that molds the company and its products. Pedone sees this with Valenza Chocolatier, explaining how the chocolates tell her story, and customers “like to put the face to the product.”
As for Askinosie Chocolate, it literally puts the face on the product; a number of its bars use packaging that features a photo of a farmer from where the beans came.
Lawren Askinosie adds that working with collaborators helps share this idea of direct trade, profit sharing and community development, noting Askinosie Chocolate is always looking for “new and exciting ways to share our story and continue to make connections between our farmer partners and our customers.”
Askinosie Chocolate works with independent specialty shops to sell its products because those stores recognize the benefit of the Askinosie Chocolate story. The company also offers tours of its factory and experiential learning programs for local schools.
“We can develop real relationships with our customers,” Lawren Askinosie says. “This is true sustainability to us.”