Starting a Bean-to-Bar Business, Tip #1 by Tom Williams
Updated: Mar 2
Hey everyone. Welcome to our blog page and our very first blog post. Our plan for our blog page is to post helpful information for those looking to get into or just starting out in the craft chocolate business, a.k.a. Bean-to-Bar. We will also use our blog as a platform for sharing information on craft chocolate and the cacao industry to our customer base. As you read our blog, note that we use the words craft chocolate and bean-to-bar interchangeably.
I'll start out with a little background on our business. We literally came to craft chocolate by complete chance based on circumstances outside of our control that led us on this path and our plan is to keep following the path wherever it may lead us. I've been connected to Venezuela since first going there in '99 to learn Spanish in college where I ended up meeting my wife of almost 20 years. Many of you reading this post know that Venezuela is going through a severe economic crisis, which is actually an understatement; its very difficult to describe the situation in words and is best understood when witnessed in person. My last visit was in July of 2018 after six years since I had been to visit and I was absolutely shocked at how this country was falling apart and the impact on the people living there. Without going into more detail in this blog about the crisis, this visit directly resulted in us starting our craft chocolate business. I wanted to create a business using something from Venezuela as our product to create a positive economic impact and fund outreach projects in my wife's home town. My first idea was coffee since my wife's home town in the mountains was covered with it, but unfortunately the Venezuelan government prohibits export of coffee and only allows domestic sales. Besides dictators and oil, Venezuela is also globally recognized for its fine flavored cacao; which has a very long history in the country, so my plan was to source raw cacao and learn to make chocolate as our product we would sell. I had no idea what craft chocolate was and my first time eating it was our own; luckily we had sourced some good beans and it was unbelievably delicious and different from anything else I had tasted up to that point, which was chocolate made of commodity cacao that most of us grew up eating like Hershey's and Mars. We didn't even know bean-to-bar was a thing or that it was a new business trend until we started researching how to make chocolate from raw cacao. I'm so glad we did stumble across this business because craft chocolate is amazingly good and this industry has the potential to make real positive impact in cacao farming communities around the world by paying premium prices for premium cacao. The craft chocolate industry's current impact is real, but as a whole it is just a drop in the bucket and has a very long way to go; which is why we want to help as many people as possible find the world of craft chocolate using ethically sourced cacao.
Ok, now that some of the background on our story is out of the way, the meat of this first post is to provide a few tips for starting a craft chocolate business. We will have several more "tips" blog posts to come and feel free to reach out to us with any questions. If you are so new that you don't have the first clue about making chocolate, head on over to our education page and we have links to very good sources with everything you will need to know. We also have a lot of helpful information about equipment you can use at home for making chocolate on our product reviews page.
The most important tip for anyone making craft chocolate is to source good beans and don't go to the market until your chocolate is not only good, but absolutely delicious. There is nothing you can do to make your chocolate good if you don't start with good beans and trust me, there are some very very bad cacao beans out there on the market being sold as fine flavored cacao for craft chocolate. We ran out of beans one time and couldn't get a hold of our usual supplier (who produces amazing Venezuelan cacao), so we sourced some beans from another Venezuelan cacao supplier and ended up having to throw all of the beans away; they were awful and advertised as "perfect" for craft chocolate. You have to be very careful and only use trusted, reputable sources that have been verified with good references. If you are contemplating a certain source, try a small quantity only to test out and also make sure their practices and values closely match your business. Click here to review some information on a few suppliers you may want to try. Going to market with bad chocolate will only make your own business look bad and give a bad impression of the craft chocolate industry in general.
The second tip I will mention in this post is about farmer's markets. Many people in the food business get there start at Farmer's Markets and we are very fortunate to be at a very good one in Tomball, Tx in the Houston area with a very supportive community. The tip is to make sure you have a great looking set up (not to say ours is the best or even close to it), I have posted two pictures below; one with our current set up for summer time and one showing all of our decorations, displays, and signage removed. Please do yourself a favor and don't show up for your first day at the market with a bare table and no displays; you will not do well and customers simply will not take your business serious and will pass you by with out even a glance. Our fist day at a farmer's market was only slightly better than what you see in the picture of the bare table; we had a homemade table cloth that flapped around in the wind and a box for stocking our chocolate. A good way to tell if someone is new is by how much time and effort they put into their tent and packaging. Ask yourself this question, which one of these tables would you want to walk up to as a customer? Which one would you trust enough to buy from? What kind of thoughts or opinions would you be forming without even trying the product? One of the worst mistakes new farmer's market vendors make starting out is underestimating the importance of a good setup.
Plain setup example with no decorations/displays and limited signage:
The picture below is our summer set up. During the cool months we have a different setup with displays for our bars; during the late spring and summer we focus more on our spreads and nibs and carry limited bars in a cooler. Using this picture as an example, I recommend at a minimum having a banner, table cloth that is secured to the legs, signage out front, and a few displays for educating your customers on your business. For our displays, we have cacao pod replicas, a real dehydrated pod, raw cacao beans, and farm and fermentation pictures from our cacao producer in Venezuela. Most new customers that walk up to our table come up because they are either curious about the colorful cacao pods, the signage catches their attention, or the product packaging that is displayed peaks their interest. Before having our displays, packaging, and signage down, we would have to verbally promote our products as customers walked by, which is exhausting, and now we typically say no more than "good morning".
Well that is it for now. I look forward to sharing more information soon. Feel free to contact us anytime with questions. Take care.