Things I Know To Be True About Craft Chocolate & Small Business: As The Dust Settles On Mast-Gate

n a twist of the Mark Twain quip I conclude that, “The news of [craft chocolate’s] demise has been greatly exaggerated.”

Much has been written in response to the Mast Brothers scandal (or what our team refers to as “Mast-gate”). Nearly every perspective, rebuttal, or defense has been shared, so much so that I debated whether to publish this post, concerned I’d be adding to the noise. But there’s one perspective that’s missing and it’s that of a (fellow?) chocolate maker. I am obligated to speak up. In all of the aftermath, there’s been a commonality among the comments, many negative but many actually positive. I would group the negative sentiments shared by folks about craft chocolate on social or traditional media in the following categories: (1) anyone paying $10 for a chocolate bar is a sucker; (2) marketing claims such as “artisanal” need to be certified; and (3) you can’t believe brand’s “stories” anyway because they all lie. As a ten year veteran of the craft chocolate industry slogging it out everyday here is what I know:

1. The American craft chocolate bar at $10 is still “worth it” and no, you’re not being fooled by companies charging that—or more—for it. You are being fooled by companies charging $1 for it though. Global context is imperative. Most of the nearly 6 million cocoa farmers around the world are poor, very poor, in a way that most of us can’t fathom. It’s the Mother Teresa Calcutta kind of poor but in West Africa. They were poor before Mast-gate and they remain in that condition today. I’ve logged 28 separate country of origin visits to remote cocoa farms on four continents, all documented on our website and social media. That might not sound like many trips but my body suggests otherwise. I’ll be departing next week for my 29th and it takes 44 hours to get where I’m going from door to door. These journeys have afforded me the chance to soak a lot into my soul over the past decade.

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In the last two years I’ve developed some theories on the obstacles and possible solutions to the extreme poverty among cocoa farmers. That, however, is not for this article. I am working on a book with my daughter, part of which is dedicated to detailing this thorny issue. The preview is this: the chocolate we have come to know and love should cost more not less. The West African cocoa farmers who grew the beans that were purchased by Big Cocoa (you know who I am talking about) to make the 3 ounce $1.40 “chocolate” bar make between 50 cents and 84 cents per day farming cocoa. You read that right. Per day. That fact is directly related to the price per metric ton and the proportionate share the farmers actually receive. This fact is not a secret but it’s taken even me, an experienced and in-the-know “expert”, a long time to fully wrap my brain around this. I don’t buy beans in West Africa but that does not alleviate my responsibility to do something about this problem because chocolate is my industry. I need to be part of the solution. And the aftermath of Mast-gate challenges us to always remember this context.

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With that backdrop in mind it’s natural to read the recent press and conclude that a $10 Mast chocolate bar is not worth it because the company was built on a lie. It is not natural, however, to conclude that ALL $10 chocolate bars are not worth it.

The point is that there are many small batch, bean to bar American chocolate makers besides our company trying to both raise awareness of farmer poverty and actually do something about it. Take Taza Chocolate for example. They started about the same time we did and they’ve been at the forefront of the issue in the Dominican Republic, making a difference. As chocolate lovers we can always complain about the price being too high; but that requires us to look beyond the chocolate bar and find out as best we can if the company stands for anything at all to create value, making the $10 purchase worth it. This is the bottom line: most cocoa farmers are very poor and the news that one craft chocolate company was built on a lie is no reason to slow progress for cocoa farmers—who are breaking their backs every day to bring us what we want—obtaining higher prices and greater profit for their crops.

2. Where else are you going to get the absolute best of something for $10? The best cheese, wine, olive oil, what? I’ve heard Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s Deli fame say this many times. I challenge you to walk in to Zingerman’s Deli—one of the most famous food destinations in the country, a company with the highest degree of integrity for nearly 35 years—and ask them to give you the best fill-in-the-blank. And tell them that your budget is under $10. Maybe a loaf of bread, but good luck. I guess you could argue that Zingerman’s and all of the decades they labored to build their reputation is simply great marketing but I don’t think that’s true. If we want food that tastes great and is great, then prepare to pay more. This applies to other things too (apparel, for example) but food is what I know. We’ve been conditioned to buy industrial, flavorless, cheap food and our tax subsidies will ensure that it stays this way. Read more about this travesty in Simran Sethi’s new book, Bread, Wine and Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.

Most people who buy our chocolate want chocolate that tastes really good and are willing to pay for it and $10 is a great value for the best of something. I am not saying we are the best. I think we are among the best on many of our products. I am eating a Rogue chocolate bar as we speak and I am telling you that whatever I paid for it, probably $13, was not enough. I can go down the list and name chocolate bars that are awesome and a great value for between $10 and $20. The value proposition is even greater if you think the company is a good company.

Finally, most craft chocolate makers are not rich unless they were rich before they started, in which case they are now less rich. Believe me when I tell you that American small batch chocolate makers who are charging $8, $10, even $12 or more for a chocolate bar are not making a lot of profit. Our company is profitable. We have carefully managed our company finances since I poured my life savings into the business 11 years ago and have taken on very little debt and no investors. The debt aversion is all my wife Caron; I credit much of our profitability to our ultra-conservative approach to debt. Additionally, we hired a COO two years ago and she’s added years to my life. Sorry to burst any bubbles but the kind of profit margins to make us rich simply don’t exist in the small batch chocolate world.

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3. Relationships and personal trust are more important than certifications. This is what we call kinship at our factory. Many of the people who buy our chocolate like the relationship they have with me, my daughter, the 16 other people who work in our company, the store owners (and their teams) who sell our chocolate, and importantly, the farmers who grow our cocoa beans. I’ve seen this in action at farmer’s markets in my town for years. It’s not going away. People love talking to the farmer about the produce or whatever it might be. There’s something human in a simple conversation about the thing you’re considering buying and eating. I’ve seen it in Florence at the Mercato Centrale, similar places in Paris, London, Istanbul, and almost every town I’ve visited in cocoa bean countries around the world. People at food booths engaging with artisans, looking, smelling, tasting, talking, smiling, inquiring, negotiating and buying.

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This is where kinship happens. Transparency goes a long way in creating trust.The more dependant a company is on their story to sell the product, the greater the responsibility to be transparent where possible. For example, if you go to Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco you can see them making chocolate at every step from the front of the shop and retail area. If you visit our place in Springfield, Missouri you can stand in our tiny retail area and see every single machine in our factory except one (which is in a soundproof room) and you can see that one on a tour.

We practice Open Book Management and share the numbers in our weekly company meetings. We share our financials with our farmer partners in their language at every profit share meeting with them so they can see how we calculate their profit share. Yes, we’ve translated our financials into Swahili. Our obligation does not stop there because we need to be even more transparent than we are and we are working on it.

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Green-washing, social washing, bean to bar washing, all of the washing is coming to a marketing plan near you if it hasn’t already. There’s a whole lot of lying going on in the food world and the speciality food world is no exception. It’s the wild, wild west. Look no further than the extra virgin olive oil fraud in Italy as reported on 60 Minutes last week. The report concluded that at least 80% of the EVOO we buy in the United States is not really EVOO. And worse – much of is adulterated and the Italian government is fighting back. Dig deeper by reading Tom Mueller’s book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. So when companies lie the question we have to ask is: are the lies material? That is, would the truth effect our support or buying decisions?

We should not be fooled into thinking that a fancy certification will void our need to be responsible buyers. Certifying a thing does not prevent a seller from lying about it. In fact, I could make the case that lax audit procedures of many certifying agencies give cover for liars to ply their trade with greater impunity than if they were not certified. Too many companies hide behind the stamp of a certification with willful blindness of certifier practices. We are not certified and never will be. Our sugar happens to be organic certified but I buy it for reasons other than that. The 3rd party certification industry is rampant with fraud. We all want sellers/producers/artisans to be authentic. Just be who you are. I know that sounds overly idealistic but it’s a goal I can expect for myself. If you’re going to sell products based on your authenticity and perceived transparency, then you have an enormous obligation to be those things and be honest.

This is why we ought to be prepared to prove the material claims that we make and candidly we’re not all the way there yet. I intend to fix this. I am not saying that we should disclose proprietary information but we either prove it or ask for dependance on trust which can either be accepted or rejected.

I started this essay with global context and I will conclude my thoughts with personal context. My business could crumble tomorrow but there are some things that are real and true that will always remain. My reason for starting the chocolate business was not because I thought we would be God’s gift to the chocolate world. I did it in the hope that I’d have a chance to learn something, create something, and grow little by little. One of the reasons I picked chocolate is because I knew there would always be more learn, with no bottom of the pool to rest on. It remains an endless learning process. What I did not know is how it would change my heart. I did not know that our business would be an incubator for kinship.

Just one of many examples happened this past summer. My daughter Lawren and I were in Tanzania working with our farmer partners and a local elementary/middle school. We were asked to host a Visioning session for 200 girls in the Empowered Girls club we fund in the remote village of Mababu, Tanzania (one of the four places we buy cocoa beans). I was apprehensive about its effectiveness because I’ve trained American business people on vision planning and even cocoa farmers, but never 13 year old school girls in remote Tanzania. Lawren took the first part of the session, creating a simplified definition that, “vision equals hope plus a plan.” As part of my session I asked for two volunteers. Upendo and Maria came to the front of the classroom. I asked the girls, “Can you remember a time when you imagined a future and it happened as you imagined it?” I asked Maria first and she said she could not think of anything. She asked me if I could come back to her. I was so sad when I heard that I almost could not stand up, but I kept it together. When I came back to her, she bravely stood with me up front and said imagined, “going to fetch some water” and that she did do it. Her vision was that she would take a bath to feel clean. The girls understood. What a great example. The ensuing discussion for the rest of the afternoon turned from sorrow to joy, as we used example from other girls about how to dream and turn those dreams into reality. It was one of the best days of my life; Lawren’s too. We will never forget it. And we experienced it together—father and daughter.

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These experiences are what make craft chocolate. Context and perspective keep me focused on the good things happening in the day to day world of specialty chocolate. My hope is that we can earn the respect and trust of chocolate lovers by being as passionate about doing the right thing as we are about creating great chocolate. Or as we say at our company “it’s not about the chocolate, it’s about the chocolate.”