A Bean-to-Bar Review of the Taza Chocolate Initiative and Alternatives
The first portion of this essay is modeled after the classic 1958 Leonard E. Read economic treatise, I, Pencil, as applied to the modern production chain of the Taza Chocolate Company. Following this ascription, the analysis moves on to compare the Taza model to that of Dandelion in San Francisco and the Hershey Company, citing major differences.
In his essay, Read details a global trade system from the point of view of a playfully personified pencil, describing the millions of hands that contributed to its “edification” and espousing the miraculous virtue of the modern capitalist supply chain (Read). While Taza Chocolate reflects several elements of the pencil manufacturing process described in the Read essay, Taza has developed its own processes within the broader capitalist system, at times contradicting those ascribed by Read, forging its own unique logistics chain with a refreshingly human element ripe for imitation.
I, Taza Chocolate
I am a piece of Taza chocolate – the stone-ground delicious triangle familiar to a sliver of boys, girls, and adults across New England.
You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery – more so than the Snickers or the Hershey bars beside me. But sadly, I am sometimes taken for granted by those who enjoy me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude unfairly relegates me to the level of commonplace.
I, Taza Chocolate, simple though I appear, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me, become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach, and I can teach this lesson better than can an iPhone or an airplane, precisely because I am seemingly so “simple.”
Simple? Yes, because a single person on the face of this earth can make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when you take into account that three billion pounds of chocolate are consumed in the U.S.A. each year (Martin).
Pick me up and give me a sniff. What do you see? Not much meets the eye – there’s a wrapper citing some foreign land and various certifications, some grainy brown substance. But give me a taste and I’ll explain.
Unlike you who cannot trace your family tree back very far, it is quite possible for me to name and explain all my antecedents. I would like to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the richness and simplicity of my background.
My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a Theobroma cacao tree that grows in Bolivia. There, deep in the woods of this Central American nation, the tree of my primary ingredient and member of the Sterculiaceae family, takes root. A fickle specimen, my cacao tree requires meticulous care, attention, and skill to bear her fruit (Coe and Coe 19). She requires special growing conditions including partial ground cover, partial shade, and even special pollinating insects called midges to bloom. Once tended to correctly, the cacao tree flowers directly from the trunk (exhibiting the rare reproduction method known as cauliflory) and I am born of her warty-edged pod.
After a few weeks of ripening, I am plucked from her branches, my beans separated from each other to expose a whitish, sour pulp. I am left in the sun to ferment, heating up to nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit as bacteria attack this pulp. During this time, the flavor within my beans transforms and develops the delicious melody of tastes that make me so delectable (Coe and Coe 17-30). Please note that throughout the process so far, only one or two people have contributed to my production.
Now contemplate the tools used by one of those people, in particular, Jorge, a laborer with the Alto Beni Cacao Company. To remove me from my branch to begin my trip north requires only two tools: a pruner and bucket. With these humble beginnings, I am transported back to the main building at Palos Blancos to join other freshly-harvested pods (Taza 10). At this facility, I am fermented, dried and prepared for the next step of my journey.
The next part of my journey is the least uniform, strictest, and most subject to market forces: transportation from Belize to America. Typically, I am packaged in jute or sisal bags of up to 100 kg (TIS). The owners at Taza have implemented a fair trade program where my farmers are paid at least $500 per metric ton over the daily market value, a measure they feel ensures quality (Ailworth). Once sold, a truck takes me to a coastal port where I am loaded to a ventilated container which must have a clean and dry wooden flooring. Very specific moisture concentration must be adhered to, and it’s even recommended to use a two-layer anti-condensation film to provide protection against dripping sweat (TIS). Cool, dry, good ventilation are key throughout this moderate temperature yet exciting trip, or else I might spoil or lose my valuable flavor! Finally, I am unloaded at a port on the east coast of the United States and travel the continent by railroad or truck to my next home: scenic Somerville, Massachusetts.
In a 17000-sqaure-foot factory at 561 Windsor Street, I meet a few of Taza’s specialized workers including Kathleen, Stephanie, Jesse and Alex. They ensure that I am properly roasted, winnowed, ground, mixed, rolled, tanked, tempered, molded, and cooled (Taza). As lifetime adherents to minimal processing in line with the organic mission, these steps leverage only 10 separate machines, parts of which are even made and maintained by hand in the factory.
Arguably, the most striking trait of mine is my “grit.” I get this from the old-fashioned processes employed at the Taza factory, where workers shape the stones used to grind me by hand (sometimes with less than stellar results). In fact, the owner still carves the millstones by hand, using a “chisel and hand-held grinder to etch each one” (Ailworth). From the stone mills, or “molinos”, I retain my “bright, fruity” flavors which most processing methods tend to mask or remove (Taza). And all together, this yields a bold, rustic and satisfyingly gritty palate pleaser.
A final stop along my journey might include the addition of added flavorings. Such unusual flourishes include raspberry, vanilla, chili peppers, guajillo peppers, red peppers, cinnamon, coffee, salted almond, cracked pepper, chipotle, toffee, hazelnut, figs and even chai tea (Taza). A quick trip down the recently installed automatic wrapper, and finally, I emerge the brown, gritty disk of bittersweet joy in your hand (Ailworth).
No Master Mind
There is a fact still more astounding within my genesis: the presence of a mastermind, of someone orchestrating and collaborating these countless actions which bring me into being. He can be found at our headquarters: Alex Whitmore.
Whitmore, 37 years old, is a life-long Bostonian, having been born in the city and even living on the Harbor for a number of years (Luna). An alum of the successful car-sharing business Zipcar, Whitmore was no stranger to the startup environment when he founded Taza Chocolate in 2005. Finding inspiration during a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, he has grown Taza to its current 58-employee team in just over a decade. His little enterprise now hawks 40 products at over 2800 retail locations throughout New England and North America (Ailworth).
It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” And, with a little help from my friends at Taza, I transform from that tree to a delicious treat in your hand. I, Taza Chocolate, am a complex combination of miracles, an embodiment of the dozens of tiny know-hows conspiring together under Alex Whitmore’s vision and direction. While only God can make a tree, it only takes a few men to fully make me.
If I, Taza Chocolate, were the only item that could offer testimony on what men and women can accomplish when free to try, then those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore: 300,000 pounds of me per year, to be precise (Ailworth). The lesson I teach is this: leave all creative energies uninhibited, but pay a fair price to all. While free market capitalism typically decries any notion of command economies and the inefficiencies they typically create, the free market system is in fact made up of miniature command economies. We call them firms. General Electric, Microsoft, Bank of America, and even your favorite food truck are small-scale command economies, just like Taza, who decide where to allocate resources and what prices to pay for inputs. Taza has simply bent those rules a little bit, paying more to and developing relations with its suppliers.
As you can see, dozens of hands fastidiously participate in my great journey across the globe, forging me into the delicious product I am today. But my story is not one of purely profit-motivated free market triumph. Instead, it is a tale of cooperation and collective good. The people I meet along the way are treated fairly, compensated for their contributions, and genuinely happy with the results. As Mintz argues, “a human being is not an object, even when treated as one.” We should, therefore, return to that “absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people” (Read). I, Taza Chocolate, have embarked on this mission.
I, Taza Chocolate, am a complex combination of miracles.
I merit your wonder and awe.
While the preceding essay adaptation provided a detailed look at the intricate chocolate-making process and Taza Chocolate’s refusal to adhere to more traditional market behavior and production processes, it leaves a number of questions ripe for exploration. As Kristy Leissle argues that the place of manufacture of chocolate has become “more important to appreciating chocolate than the place of origin of the beans,” has Taza missed out on additional opportunities to provide a quality product? To that end, how does the Taza process compare to that of a more mass produced product, such as the Hershey or Snickers bars it derides as commonplace? Next, how does it compare to other small-scale chocolatiers’ processes? And are there other sources from which Taza could draw that are currently overlooked?
Founded in 1894 by Milton S. Hershey, the Hershey Company of Hershey, Pennsylvania is a $7.4 billion agglomeration of factories, theme parks, retail stores and, of course, candy. Known for its syrups, chocolate bars, Reese’s cups and, most importantly, Kisses, Hershey has grown to one of the most recognizable brands in America. So, how does one make a Kiss?
The Hershey Company’s production process has many of the same elements as the Taza Chocolate process but on a much larger, arguably more impersonal scale. The cacao beans, from any of hundreds of farms across West Africa, are unceremoniously purchased at exact market rates (the Big Five chocolate companies make the rates), boarded on large cargo vessels, and arrive in North America for transport to the Hershey plant in Pennsylvania. From there, they are processed similarly to the cacao beans from South America, but on a much larger scale.
However, it is interesting to note that on the Hershey website in the food philosophy section, Hershey espouses that they are “committed to making our products using simple ingredients… you might find in your kitchen” (Hershey). The simple chart below illustrates these simple ingredients. Clearly, the ingredients listed are simple, and what a consumer should expect in her chocolate: cocoa, nuts, milk and sugar. But, if these components make up 80% of the product, what is the remaining 20%?
The processing and additives Hershey includes at this point are what truly make the difference between it and Taza or Dandelion Chocolate. Ingredients to improve “flavors, aromas, textures and appearance” and decrease cost, are included at this point, leading to the ascription of “ultra-processed” (Hershey). This term, defined by Samira Kawash as “foods processed so far beyond their original form as to be better described as fabricated rather than grown” is a fair description for the Hershey’s product, which is then distributed throughout the world (Kawash 26).
To provide an idea of the scale of the Hershey production line, the shipping center, in particular, makes for an interesting case study. In a behemoth warehouse in Lebanon, PA, the sales fulfillment distribution center (DC), supplies 1400 sales representatives with the product throughout the country (Partridge). This team, in its industrialized “continual quest for process improvement,” measures its productivity in defects per million opportunities (only 3.4), lines shipped per hour, and orders picked per worker. The dehumanization of this process stands in strict apposition to that of Taza Chocolate, as workers at Hershey are treated as interchangeable pieces, floor managers as faceless overseers. If these employees fail to reach their DPMO target number, contingency plans focused on, mobile “robotic drive units with a software system that outputs control instructions” can be leveraged. These machines would ramp up to replace warehouse staff by 25 percent, or 1.5 full-time employees (Partridge). All this analysis and dehumanization yield the Lebanon warehouse an average savings of $45,000 per year in labor costs. At the risk of understatement, this behavior is vastly different from that seen in the Taza Chocolate process. But how does their process relate to a more direct competitor, such as Dandelion Chocolate?
Located across the country from Somerville in a similarly startup-saturated city, Dandelion Chocolate calls San Francisco’s Mission District home. Founded by Todd Masonis and Cameron Ring in 2010, Dandelion’s process follows a similar path to fruition. Once imported, their beans are roasted, cracked, sorted, winnowed, ground, conched and tempered in small batches, before being molded and packaged by hand (Dandelion). While a source report akin to that provided by Taza is unavailable, Dandelion appears to follow a process akin to that of Taza, traveling to meet its suppliers as frequently as possible to “build strong relationships with partners” (Dandelion). These strong relationships form the basis for the Dandelion business model, as the management team takes great pride in their sources.
Further research into the business fundamentals of the smaller companies which might be included in a publicly traded forum or within an annual or quarterly prospectus detailing revenue, debt, acquisitions, overhead, and additional standard accounting practices might yield a clearer picture into the affordability of the smaller companies’ viability of their models. Because the Hershey Company is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange (HSY), and valued at $22.24 billion as of May 2016, we can see that its model is successful by capitalist measurements: a profit margin of nearly 7% on $7.4 billion of revenue leads to a healthy company. However, in keeping with the chocolate industry’s tradition of secrecy, neither of the smaller firms produces such a report, and therefore leaves the public guessing as to the business’s robustness and viability.
Finally, analyzing the Taza Chocolate production method itself, the company has chosen to limit its sourcing scope to South and Middle America. A reasonable business decision considering geographic realities, Taza has chosen to limit its logistics chain to operations between Somerville and the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Belize and Guatemala (Taza). However, quality cacao exists beyond the Western Hemisphere.
As exhibited in the Hershey Company’s supply chain, West Africa is the preeminent sourcing destination for raw cacao, supplying over 70% of global output (Leissle 22). While Big Five chocolate makers managed to dissociate chocolate from cacao for most American consumers, single origin producers such as Taza have grown in popularity over the past few years in direct contrast to this fabricated ignorance (Leissle 23). West African suppliers have been left out of this boom for small-scale chocolate makers, mostly, Leissle argues, for political reasons or to assuage the large-scale producers’ concerns. By overlooking West Africa, the artisan manufacturers in North America are more than simply missing the opportunity to expand their flavor offerings: they are perpetuating the idea of inferiority of the West African product. If American chocolate makers opened supply lines featuring beans from Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, for example, this perception might change. While certain small areas of Africa such as Madagascar have broken into the single source market, much of the continent’s potential remains untapped. The positive results of single source work in South America might be emulated in Africa, whose poverty, public health and social structure are, at best, on par with those of South and Central America.
Surprisingly, in advance of the smaller chocolate makers, the Hershey Company has launched a campaign to adjust its West African supply chain. In an effort to purchase more sustainable cacao, Hershey has launched an initiative to buy solely UTZ, Fairtrade USA or Rainforest Alliance certified cacao by the year 2020. This is an outstanding, if a small step, as Hershey uses some of its $1.2 billion free cash to invest in the livelihood and sustainability of its farmers in West Africa (Yahoo).
The world of chocolate manufacturing, both large and small, is evolving to place more emphasis on its raw ingredients. As both Taza and Dandelion base their businesses on their intimate cacao sourcing, the larger firms to include Hershey’s are slowly adapting as well. Within the larger capitalist model, Taza Chocolate has created a niche to exploit, focusing on the human element of its supply chain as opposed to the purely profit motivated system hailed by Read’s original essay.
So far, it’s a recipe for success.
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