Bernie Pacyniak

Everyone’s heard the complaint about too many me-too products being introduced into the marketplace. One of the main reasons for this lack of creativity stems from the fact that being innovative truly requires extensive use of the right brain as well as having  a penchant for risk-taking.

In today’s struggling economy, risk-takers and innovators seem few and far between. But I am happy to report that the confectionery industry still breeds such folks. As our upcoming July issue cover story relates, two such individuals, Katrina Markoff, founder of Vosges Haut Chocolat, and Chris Mattina, senior vice president – sales, Unreal, represent two true faces of innovation, albeit tracking in slightly different directions.

Anyone that’s tuned into the confectionery industry should recognize the names; Markoff being one of the artisan chocolatiers who helped spearhead the U.S. Chocolate Renaissance by introducing non-traditional flavors into chocolate, and Mattina, a long-time industry veteran who’s worked for Storck, Lindt and Godiva.

In Markoff’s case, the Hoosier-born entrepreneur has managed to translate her culinary experiences and travel exploits into very personal chocolate treats. Admitting that recipe creation comes naturally to her, Markoff does emphasize that the process isn’t so ephemeral as one would think.

For this artisanal chocolatier and business woman, innovation involves four steps: Falling in Love; Inspiration; Action; and Experience.  As Markoff explains in her website blog: “My first step, and the origin of everything thereafter, is the act of falling in love with either beauty, curiosity or cause. This may be as simple as my first encounter with wattleseed, a food staple of the Aboriginal culture, the beauty of Antoní Gaudí’s cathedral, La Sagrada Família, or the women of Afghanistan working in a beauty parlor.

That emotional first step evolves into an inspiration vision, followed by some kind of action, which transforms the vision into an experience.  As she explains: “The inspiration, ingredients and story create the final experiential interaction of each product with YOU. You embark upon your personal, sensory journey: the loosening of the ribbon and lifting of the boxes, the dissemination of a message, the interpretation of new parfums and the connection with your senses. If due to this experience, you stop and think about something in a new light, open your mind to a novel idea and possibly create through your medium, then this is a success.”

For Markoff, every creation is personal. In addition, every product tells a story. Those of you actively involved in bringing new products to consumers are undoubtedly nodding your heads.

With Mattina, leaving the security of an established brand and company like Godiva was also personal. Thus, in making the decision to join the team of investors who created Unreal, a company dedicated to “unjunking food,” beginning with candy, he took a risk.

Based on the simple premise of  reducing  the sugar, fat and calories found in many candies while simultaneously improving the taste and satisfaction by using all-natural and/or organic ingredients, Unreal’s mission is to deliver “unreal taste with real ingredients,” making it affordable and accessible.

As Mattina told me during the interview, “I believe in the mission.”

He then shared some disturbing statistics upon which Unreal’s mission is based on: Diabetes will cost the U.S. health care system $3.5 trillion during the next 10 years; experts estimate that nearly half of all Americans will be affected by diabetes in 2020; and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% of daily calories for children and adolescents come from added sugars and solid fats.

“I have worked for very successful companies and learned a great deal throughout my career,” he continues. “But this was an entrepreneurial opportunity in something I believed in. Also, it was a way of giving something back.”

As an aside, but on a much more personal note, Mattina’s wife is a diabetic.

Although not personally involved in the formulation of the product line, Mattina was very instrumental in ensuring the lineup would stand a chance in the heavily competitive mainstream confectionery sector.

“We had agreed that it would be too difficult to get our message across by introducing something foreign to the consumer,” Mattina says. “The best way to make your point about how easy it is to offer a better alternative is to start with what’s out there, make it better, but still meet the expectations consumer have for that particular category of candy.”

For example, Unreal’s chocolate caramel nougat bar, when compared to the leading category leader on a per-oz. basis, has 30% less sugars, 650% more dietary fiber, 260% more protein, 23% less fat and 16% less calories. Those kind of numbers hold true for the chocolate candy and chocolate peanut candy lentils, the chocolate peanut caramel nougat bar, and the chocolate peanut butter cups.

The company’s line of “unjunked” confections is just beginning to launch this summer. Despite the risk in going head to head with the industry’s toughest competitors (read Mars, Nestle, Hershey), Mattina’s optimistic about setting a new course for the industry. The initial reception by several retailers has been favorable.

“The way we see it, ‘Unjunking’ is a whole new way of looking at food, starting at confections,” he adds. 

It could very well be, which would certainly stand the industry on its head. In any case, kudos to both innovators in the industry. They’re the ones keeping all of us engaged and evolving.