When we hear the word premium it conjures up thoughts of luxury, exceptional quality, hand crafted, expensive…I hate to burst your bubble, but some of the fancy premium chocolate you might’ve enjoyed couldn’t be farther from that definition. Well, actually, it probably was expensive. The lack of regulation of “premium” chocolate allows many brands to vigorously market their chocolate products as high end and grab a piece of the burgeoning market. Yet, this lack of definition and regulation is dangerous because consumers are tricked into buying chocolate with false promises that benefit the chocolate company, but not the cocoa farmers, middlemen, or consumers. Premium is then defined by the packaging, presentation and stores, but not the ingredients or labor.
“Premium chocolate” accounted for over 14% of chocolate sales in the United States in 2011 and was projected to expand 10% annually (Williams and Eber 167). However, the problem is there’s no real standard or definition for premium chocolate. One offered definition is, “chocolate that sells for greater than $8.00 a pound” and has “better quality ingredients, execution, packaging” and more (Williams and Eber 168). Yet, fine chocolate ranges anywhere from $24.00 to $100.00 a pound (Williams and Eber 169).
To find out more about premium chocolate around Harvard Square, I visited two stores: CVS and Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe.
Consumer Value Stores (CVS), created in 1963 by two brothers Stanley and Sidney Goldstein, is a national chain of one stop shop stores for everyone (CVS). Walking into the CVS candy aisle is an attack on your eyes. Candy with big flashy packaging line the shelves from the Big five candy companies: Mars, Nestle, Cadbury, Hershey and Ferrero (Allen 21).With their displays, CVS capitalizes on the fact that approximately 70% of chocolate is consumed on impulse (Allen 31). Therefore, loud packaging is key to attract a consumer’s wandering eye. Red or orange wrappers (Reese’s Peanut butter cups, M & M’s, Kit Kats, Snickers, Crunch bars) are prominent because studies have proven that people’s associations with these colors make one hungry (Harrington). In addition to the packaging, placement inside a store is very important. Only 22% of shoppers will ever venture down the candy aisle, so stores need to be creative about attracting attention to chocolate (Allen 32). To address this issue, CVS lines their check-out counter with chocolate bars to entice consumers to grab one for a quick snack. In addition, lots of the chocolates in CVS are on sale. I’ve visited multiple times and can always find bright yellow sale tags on a variety of chocolates. The sales often encourage one to buy multiple chocolates such as 3 for $5.00 or 2 for $6.00. The cheapest chocolate I could find were singular Hershey bars for .88 cents and the most expensive bar were the Chuao bars, at $5.29. However, even these were on sale, buy one get the second half off. The majority of their chocolates (individual bars or bags) were under $3.00. The placement of their chocolate, available brands, and price range, demonstrate that CVS targets consumers who are in a hurry, don’t want to spend much on chocolate, or didn’t intend to buy chocolate until enticed on the way out.
CVS also sells premium chocolate on a separate stand that contrasts nicely with the regular candy aisle. It’s featured on the end of the candy aisle facing sodas and other refrigerated items. The end of an aisle is a prime spot as it gets more foot traffic and attention (Clifford). The stand is made of dark wood (fake), which appears more refined than the other shelves and is filled with Lindt, Ghiradelli, Ferrero Rocher, Ritter, Raffaelo, Chuao and Endangered Species chocolates. However, these brands are misleading because many of these companies are owned by the big five and when one thinks premium, Hershey’s doesn’t come to mind. For example, Lindt owns Ghiradelli and even though it is not a big five chocolate company, Lindt generates over a half of Hershey’s net sales (Scully). In addition, Ritter is distributed in over 100 countries and Fererro owns Raffaelo (Ferrero, Ritter). The only slightly distinct chocolates are the Chuao and the Endangered Species bars. Chuao is a fairly new Venezuelan brand, created in 2002. It is available in the US, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Barbuda in stores such as CVS, Target, Whole Foods, Bed Bath and Beyond, and the Omni and W hotels (Chuao). Endangered Species Chocolate donates 10% of their profits to support wildlife organizations (Endangered Species). This brand is sold at Amazon, CVS, Target and more. Nevertheless, premium chocolate for CVS is still mostly mass produced chocolate from the big five companies or other large companies.
Compared to CVS’ regular chocolate, premium chocolate’s packaging was less flashy and featured gold and shiny touches and script lettering. The packaging used thicker paper or plastic and contained the words: excellence, collection, luscious, and classic to convey to the customer that these bars are distinct and higher quality. The bars also come in a variety of different flavors like fruit, caramel, honey, mint, salt and hazelnut. This example of the hybridization of chocolate or blending of two cultures was distinct from the cheaper chocolate bars that mainly featured peanut butter fillings (Coe and Coe 113). Descriptions on the back of the bar also play into the link between chocolate and sex which traces back the widespread belief that chocolate was an aphrodisiac (Coe and Coe 171). With descriptions such as, “irresistible smooth filling”, “gently caressing all your senses”, and “caramelized honey mingle with deep dark chocolate, like secret lovers meeting on a warm summer night”, these bars capitalize on how women should “project their heterosexual yearnings and fantasies onto chocolate consumption” (Robertson 35). They detail the experience you will have with their chocolate and with the exception of the Endangered Species and Chuao bars, they do not make promises about the source of their cacao or cocoa production. The Chuao bar has an ethically sourced label and the Endangered Species bar has Fair Trade and Organic labels. From CVS’ selection, premium chocolate seems to be chocolate with gold packaging that sells an experience, is slightly more expensive than their regular selection, and is mass manufactured.
Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe
Cardullo’s opened in 1950 and is a specialty food store in Harvard Square. A quick trip to their website shows pages of gourmet foods, gifts, and most importantly: Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate. These three stimulants have gone hand in hand since the colonial era (Mintz 113). Inside the store, there is a stand dedicated to Lake Champlain Chocolates and then a wall of chocolate at the edge of the store near the cashiers. At first glance, bright packaging led me to the Big Five products, except they were European brands: Aero, Maltesers, Flake, and Milka. Next, there were the more specialized bars. The packaging was less flashy overall and they featured muted tones such as a variety of pastels and browns. They also had many more fair trade, organic, and ethically grown stamps than the selection in CVS. However, many of these chocolate labels are misleading. For example, the goal of Fair Trade is to help “cocoa farmers, traders, and chocolate manufacturers participate in long-term, stable relationships that support a dependable living for farmers and their families” (Fair Trade 4). Yet, The Fair Trade Scandal, sheds light on the realities of this label. In fact, Fair Trade unequally distributes its profits and is mostly beneficial to the wealthiest countries (Sylla 205). In addition, Maricel Presilla warns in The New Taste of Chocolate, that organic of Fair Trade cacao can be “mediocre or worse in quality” (133). This is not to say that all of the labels are not producing positive results, but that labels should be noted with caution.
At first glance, I was wowed. There was a large selection of single origin bars and phrases such as “stone ground”, “craft”, and “art of blending”. Some of the brands included, Scharffen berger, Neuhaus, Chocolove and Lake Champlain. I assumed that these brands were artisanal brands that were sold in small batches, but to my disappointment, these brands were available across the U.S and in multiple countries. Their upscale looking appearance led me astray. Scharffen Berger chocolate is owned by Hershey (Lubow)! Once America’s first bean to bar manufacturer that originated cocoa content labeling, Hershey has shut down their artisan factory in California and moved it to Illinois (Scharffen Berger). Fans of the chocolate have noticed a considerable drop in the quality of the chocolate since the factory switch (Lubow). Yet, as Rachel Lauden notes, mass produced and industrialized food does not deserve the negative attention we direct toward it. For example, “the ethnic foods we seek out when we travel are being preserved, indeed often created, by a hotel and restaurant industry determined to cater to our dream of India or Indonesia, Turkey, Hawaii, or Mexico.” Perhaps for chocolate, it is important to recognize how crucial technology such as the conche or refrigerated transportation has been in creating the more refined candy we eat today (Goody 82). Quality, then is not necessarily tied to quantity.
Cardullo’s does sell bean to bar and single origin small batch chocolate. They carry Chequessett, Dolfin, Castronovo, Taza, Chocolat Bonnat and Farvarger. The most expensive bars were from Chocolat Bonnat at a whopping $17.00! A quick trip to their website revealed that these bars are from specific terroirs. I found a bar with beans from Trinite, an island in the Caribbean. These single origin bars are special because the soil, environment, and farming styles affect give their beans a unique taste (Presilla 126).
The more expensive bars only had cocoa beans, cocoa butter, sugar and possibly milk in them. I could count all of the ingredients on one hand, whereas in CVS, even in the premium chocolate section, bars had ten or more ingredients. The bars also featured more hybridized expensive flavors than the ones offered in CVS. For example, there are bars with ginger, orange peel, rose, coconut ash, cranberry pumpkin spice and chili. These ingredients were more exotic and inventive than the raspberry, salt, and peanut butter found in CVS.
Unlike CVS brands, most of the chocolate companies featured in Cardullo’s had pages on their websites dedicated to the environment, labor, conservation and the history of chocolate. Instead of catering to the mass market, it was clear that they wanted to demonstrate a knowledge of the cacao plant and chocolate making process. These brands also described the ingredients or process on the back of the bars in different ways. The wrappers stressed the ethical process and sustainability of their chocolate as well as quality ingredients. The descriptions were also bar specific and did not generalize company history like the CVS bars. They were also more transparent about the ingredients in their chocolate. For example, Milkboy featured Swiss milk, Castronovo describes the types of cacao (Criollo, Trinitario, and forastero), Chequessett labeled the origins or terroir, and nearly every bar listed the percent cocoa content. Cardullo’s chocolate appealed to the customer who would spend their time perusing the selection and carefully reading the back of each bar. The customer cared about the production and quality of chocolate. In contrast, the CVS customer would probably not know the difference between Criollo and Trinitario or how cacao origin or content affects taste.
Pictured: The difference between the backs of chocolate from Cardullo’s and CVS
From my two visits, I’ve found that marketing is key to selling “premium” chocolate. It seems to outrank ingredients, flavor or quality of cacao. For example, in the U.S, anything containing 15% cacao liquor can be labeled as chocolate (Food and Agriculture Organization). You could be eating 85% sugar and think that it’s great chocolate. Or, like me, you could be fooled by the packaging into thinking you’ve bought a white chocolate bunny, when it is in fact simply sugar and corn oil. Yet, if the packaging has flecks of gold and can convince you that it is premium, it is. Premium, as demonstrated by both CVS and Cardullo’s, seems to be relative to the chocolate selection you have. Both stores had chocolate from the big five companies which were the cheapest in both stores, so the more expensive brands seem more premium. The higher end chocolates are differentiated through packaging from the quality of the wrapper, the labels or commitments to organic, fair trade, or ethically sourced cacao, to the description of the creation of each bar. Perhaps, similar to the 15% rule, premium chocolate should have requirements that includes a standard for % cacao content, origin of cacao, or a promise for ethically sourced ingredients. Possibly, instead of a industry implemented standard, a chocolate guide or rating system, similar to Wine Spectator would be influential in determining premium chocolate.
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