Just a couple years back, Eric Heinbockel was an unpaid intern at a finance firm, Nick LaCava was rowing for the U.S. National Team, and Fabian Kaempfer was preparing to start his master’s degree at the Stockholm School of Economics. Today, they are co-founders and managing partners of Chocomize ( www.chocomize.com), an online retailer that allows consumers to build their own Belgian chocolate bars with all the ingredients they like, from fruits and nuts to herbs and spices - everything but the kitchen sink.
The three 23-year-olds met as students at Columbia University. Of them, Fabian was the only one with any experience, having worked for a chocolate shop, so “for the most part, we relied on the generous help of those around us,” including ingredient and equipment suppliers Barry Callebaut and Tomric Systems/Selmi, Eric says.
“We were able to educate ourselves regarding business by contacting other experienced business people as well as government-supported groups like the NJ Small Business Development Center at Rutgers University, which offers free consulting,” he continues.
Now Fabian maintains the company’s Web site as well as quality control and chocolate production. LaCava handles social media, blog PR, and Internet advertising and search engine optimization. Eric deals with operations, shipping, sales and the media.
“However, we all work on customer service, ingredient selection and general direction issues,” Eric notes.
This is their entrepreneurial story.
How did you get into the business?
Eric: We officially got into the chocolate mass customization business in August of 2009 when we incorporated in New Jersey. We began our research and our work on the effort about a month earlier when Nick bought a bag of nuts, granola, gummy bears and chocolate from the penny candy section of Wegmans. Nick forgot about the candy and left it in the back seat of his car, only to be discovered the next day, the chocolate having melted. The melted chocolate created an amalgamation of treats. We tried it and thought it was delicious.
Eric: Chocomize is a blend of Chocolate and Customize. Our whole concept is that customers can customize their own chocolate rather than getting a mass-produced combination that everyone else gets and someone else thinks up. We chose this concept because we think that mass customization is the future for many industries, thanks to the buying power of the Internet.
How many kinds of chocolate and ingredients do you offer?
Eric:We offer three different chocolates: dark, milk and white. All are imported from Belgium. We also offer over 90 ingredients, including various nuts, fruits, herbs and spices, candy decorations and others. All chocolate bars start at $3.85. Our least expensive ingredients include salt for 40 cents. Our most expensive ingredient is 23-karat gold flakes, which are $3.90.
Chocomize is really about what our customers want. We value any kind of customer input, which is why we run ingredient contests on our blog. About once a month, we present all the new ingredients that have been suggested by our customers and have people vote for their favorites. The top three are then being added to our Web site within a week. As a result of this ingredient contest, we recently added dried raspberries, cocoa nibs and lavender to our ingredient selection.
Due to the popularity of our bacon chocolate, we decided to add another ingredient that is supposed to challenge the taste buds of our customers: beef jerky. We feel like there is a trend of combining extravagant ingredients with chocolate, and we felt as though beef jerky would be the next step in the natural progression of mixing meat with chocolate.
What are your more unusual offerings?
Fabian: I would say that there are two different categories of unusual ingredients. First, there are the ones that are very polarizing, like bacon, beef jerky, cayenne pepper, etc. These ingredients attract people who are on the lookout for unusual flavor experiences. The second category of unusual ingredients are those that people wouldn’t expect on a chocolate bar, i.e. 23-karat gold flakes, crystallized violet petals or even gummi bears.
Where are your products sold?
Eric: Currently, our products are only sold on the Web. This is mostly due to the customizable nature of our product. We are currently working with a number of retailers to try and carry our products in a pre-made variety, but in combinations put together by the stores themselves.
How do you utilize social media?
Nick:The two main social media platforms that we use are Facebook and Twitter. The main goal of these two sites is to build a strong fan base and following. We are constantly updating both sites with news and information about our company. For instance, if Chocomize appears in a magazine, we will post the link, and we constantly offer special discounts to our Facebook and Twitter fans. We also use these sites to build a dialogue with our customers. People will post on our wall or send us tweets, and we always try to respond and create a conversation.
How do you give back to charity?
Nick: One of our core beliefs when we started Chocomize was for us to be a ‘socially conscious’ company. For us this meant a few different things. We donate a portion of our revenue to charity, and the customer gets to choose which charity to give to. We also have an option for people to donate additional money, and we find that this is hugely popular. Right now, the three charities people can choose from are the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Doctors Without Borders and Action Against Hunger.
In addition to donating a portion of our proceeds to charity, we are always looking for special ways to give back. For instance, we participated in a project that donated chocolate to our troops in Afghanistan. We are also trying to build a local connection (even though we ship everywhere in the U.S. and will soon be expanding to Canada) and are constantly donating chocolate baskets to local schools to be auctioned off.
Where do you see Chocomize five years from now?
Fabian:I think Chocomize will be one of the leading companies in the food mass customization sector. We are at the beginning of a new trend where the actual shopping experience will become increasingly important. In my opinion, the excess supply of goods in supermarkets let’s people appreciate any products that are different. Chocomize offers both a great, high-quality product and a really unique shopping experience. I see Chocomize as a household name for premium chocolate with a modern, fun touch.
Easy as 1, 2, 3In just three simple steps, visitors to Chocomize.com can build more than 15 billion custom candy bar combinations using the site’s innovative Creation Station. Here, Chocomize Co-founder and Managing Partner Nick LaCava walks us through the process:
1. You Design It
“The first step in the Creation Station is picking which type of Belgian chocolate base you want. We have three different bases: milk, dark and white.”
2. We Create It
“The second step is to pick the ingredients to put in your bar. We have over 90 different ingredients organized into six different categories: fruits, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, candy, decorations and others. The customer can pick up to five different ingredients to put in their bar.”
3. Shipped Right to Your Doorstep
“Once they have designed the perfect bar, all they have to do is click add to cart and their creation has been added to the shopping cart. … The majority of people receive their order in four days or less from the day that they ordered. We use USPS and charge a flat rate of $4.95, no matter how many bars you order or where you live.”