A century of breaking molds: the women of (Göttle u.) Ritter Sport

“Research from Harvard University, the World Bank, McKinsey, Solidaridad and Oxfam, to name but a few, shows that adding more women to any process results in improved innovation, teamwork, profits and overall positive impact.”



Unfortunately, it seems that the people organizing the Women in Cocoa and Chocolate Forum at last month’s World Cocoa Conference held in Berlin, Germany forgot to share this tidbit of information with the folks inviting speakers to the conference. Not a single woman made the list of keynote speakers, but interestingly, one of the first presentations on sustainability was made by the CEO of the German company, Ritter Sport. IMG_20180509_212657054_LL - Edited.jpgRitter Sport Chocolate has played the capitalist game successfully for over 100 years, repeatedly ending up ahead of the curve of trends in the volatile chocolate industry, most notably now in innovations made on its cacao farm in Nicaragua. The company has been shaped by the contributions of two women, founder Clara Göttle Ritter, a businesswoman at a time when that was quite unusual, and granddaughter Marli Hoppe-Ritter whose longterm vision of environmental and social justice warrants a close look when the consequences of centuries of profit-taking threaten to take an irreversible toll on the very environment that sustains us.

The chocolate industry has always been dependent on a supply chain fraught with iniquity.  Chocolate does not carry this dubious distinction alone but does provide a rather stark example of the pattern of the global north enjoying the literal fruits of the labor of the global south, undercompensated at best, or outright coerced. While the seeds of the fruit of the cacao tree, the raw material required for the manufacture of the chocolate products that the global north enjoys, are by necessity produced in a narrow band on either side of the equator, it is the unexamined traditions of our capitalist system which has allowed the industry to perpetuate a pattern of inequities. But even Big Chocolate recognizes the need for change. “Business as usual in the cocoa sector is no longer an option,” declared the Executive Director of the ICCO, Dr. Jean-Marc Anga, at the opening of the conference in Berlin. “We have to break the mould,” he asserted. Screenshot 2018-05-09 at 11.34.58 PM - EditedBusiness as usual, as practiced by the companies that produce the vast majority of mass market chocolate products, is finally being recognized by the industry as a whole as morally untenable now that environmental and social conditions threaten the supply of cheap cacao.

The last two decades have seen a growing number of consumers and entrepreneurs demand a kind of transparency that Big Chocolate traditional has not been interested in providing. In the US, craft chocolate makers, starting with Scharffen Berger in 1996, have been (re-)introducing American chocolate consumers to the idea that chocolate does not have to be a mass-produced commodity, but rather can be an artisanal product appreciated for the qualities the origin of the beans brings to its flavor and the skill of all the craftspeople involved in its production.  At the same time, awareness of and demand for fair trade practices increased among consumers, leading many craft chocolate makers (like Taza Chocolate and more recently Goodnow Farms) to seek out direct trade relationships with growers and use those relationships not only as a source of quality beans and a marketing tool but also as a sincere attempt at making the world a better place.

But despite the growth of the craft chocolate sector and the impact individual efforts can make on individual farmers (and farming cooperatives), that impact has barely affected the system as a whole, dominated as it is by Big Chocolate. Following Hershey’s acquisition of the Scharffen Berger brand in 2005, many lamented the seeming inevitability of the “swallowing” up of craft quality and personal accountability in the world of chocolate. Mergers between companies and acquisitions of successful competitors are an inherent part of late capitalism as practiced today.  But is there another model – a model that allows for the efficiencies of scale of a large company while still retaining the personality and values of a small one? Is it possible to be a capitalist, to build a global company, and yet function in a way that prioritizes values other than quarterly profits, that isn’t “business as usual”?  

This is the question that journalist Hannes Koch asks in his 2008 expose about Marli Hoppe-Ritter in taz, 1970’s Berlin’s version of (or answer to) The Village Voice.  His answer seems to be yes, if “social capitalism” is possible, Hoppe-Ritter might be the one to lead the way.  But she is the heir, not only to the Ritter fortune, but to ideas hatched much earlier.

Today, Ritter Sport’s square bars are ubiquitous all over Germany, with estimates of market share of sales of 100 g. bars hovering just above 20%, tied for first with or a close second to Milka’s bars. Estimated by Candy Industry as making $536 million in net sales annually, Ritter registers as a mere blip in chocolate sales statistics in a world dominated by huge conglomerates but the company makes no pretensions about being a niche producer. Ritter wants to be a global player and is expanding its marketing reach. Until just a few years ago, you were most likely to find Ritter Sport bars in the US in “ethnic” grocers or vaguely gourmet corner stores. Now there is evidence of Ritter’s international growth in almost every grocery store and many pharmacies. For a glimpse into the variety that Ritter makes available in Germany, you still have to go to a specialty store here in the US, but it is clear that Ritter unapologetically makes a mass market product, distinguishing itself by creating a flavor for every taste, packaged in a rainbow of colors, and sold at an accessible price.

IMG_20180419_143256214 (1) - EditedThe panoramic array of Ritter Sport bars at Karl’s Sausage Kitchen and European Market in Peabody, Massachusetts

The founder

The Ritter company did not always aspire to mass production and global sales.  The history given on the company’s website is short and sweet, indicating that the first Ritter-made chocolates were made after Clara and Alfred Ritter married in 1912. Technically, that may have been true – or not – , but what is clear is that Clara’s experience as a business woman, and as a seller of chocolate predates their marriage.  According to historian Karin de la Roi-Frey, Clara Göttle already had over a decade of experience selling chocolate to the well-heeled spa clientele in the Swabian town of Cannstatt when she married master pastry chef, Alfred Eugen Ritter. Stuttgart-Cannstatt, like a number of other German cities, was a Schokoladenmetropole – a “chocolate metropolis” – with (at least) three solidly established chocolate factories that were founded in the mid-nineteenth century and were locally and nationally famous.  De la Roi-Frey describes Clara’s unusual apprenticeship in the grocery business (at a time when women did not generally train for a trade) and her determination to set up shop on her own, selling luxurious chocolate, luxuriously wrapped to spa-goers. The first evidence I found of Clara’s professional activities was at Marktstrasse 61 in 1910.Göttle 1910 Marktstrasse 61 - Edited At the time of their marriage, Clara was already 35, Alfred her junior by eight years. In 1912, her last name changes to “Ritter” on the listing in the address book, and in 1913 “Klara” disappears from the written record, replaced on paper by her husband’s name. Clara’s name may have disappeared but her business acumen and successful chocolate and candy shop on Marktstrasse were essential to the success of the partnership that would grow into Ritter Sport Chocolate. In 1914, another store was added, near the train station, presumably capitalizing on rested, departing spa visitors who needed gifts to bring home to their family and friends.

Sister of mystery: Another Göttle woman, Clara’s sister, Josephine, is mentioned once in de la Roi-Frey’s book, as having also taken the business-apprentice route, unusual for a woman. Josephine appears for two years (’11 and ’12) as the proprietor of a chocolate shop at the same Bahnhofstrasse address where Alfred opens the second store in 1914.  I wonder what happened to Josephine.  Who occupied the space in 1913?  Did she have to sell her business?  Did she get married and stop working?  Was she around to help out her sister during the war years?

 

De la Roi-Frey describes that with the outbreak of WWI in July of 1914, Alfred was conscripted into the army, but she neglects to note that Clara not only held down the fort at both the old and new stores while her husband was away, but also managed the care of the couple’s first (and only surviving) child, who was born the same year, when she was 37. The story goes that Alfred, after serving for two years in the army in WWI, was conscripted to work in one of the chocolate factories in the area, Stänger u. Ziller, to make the chocolate bars that were included as fortification in care packages sent to soldiers at the front. It was during what was essentially a second apprenticeship that Alfred learned to work with the chocolate that his wife’s business was based upon. So, again, I’d like to point out that Clara was the one who kept the family businesses running until the end of the war! 

The products of 3 of the 4 Stuttgart-area chocolate factories one can imagine Clara Göttle sold in her store in 1910 still exist today although they have been “swallowed” by other companies. Waldbaur Katzenzungen only recently lost the Waldbaur name, now made by Sarotti, which is a division of Stollwerck, which was in turn bought by Baronie in 2011. Stängel u. Ziller’s Eszet chocolate wafers (the  breakfast alternative ?!) are similarly made by Stollwerck/Baronie while Moser-Roth brand chocolates are now made by Storck.

 

After the war, Alfred experimented with his pastry expertise and his new chocolate skills at home, to the delight of neighborhood children and the rest, as they say, is history.  Their first product seems to have been three flavors of filled bars under the brand name “Alrika” (from Alfred Ritter, Cannstatt). Alfred and ClaraScreenshot 2018-05-06 at 12.40.34 PM - Edited were not alone in dabbling in chocolate after WWI. There was a huge boom in chocolate manufacturers in Germany in the 1920’s, with the number almost doubling from 180 to 350. The Stuttgart-Cannstatt area outdid the national average by tripling its number of chocolate manufacturers from the four established chocolate factories in Stuttgart-Cannstatt multiplied to at least twelve in 1925

Whether or not the headstart Alfred and Clara had from Clara’s experience from before the war helped them weather the hyperinflation and the depression of the late 1920’s, I don’t know, but at any rate, their business not only survived but thrived to the point of needing a bigger workspace. In 1930, they moved their factory to the small town of Waldenbuch but the big marketing inspiration that has sustained the company ever since didn’t come until 1932 when Clara supposedly realized that a square chocolate bar in a sports jacket was less likely to break.  Ritter Sportschokolade was born.

De la Roi-Frey reports that Clara and Alfred’s granddaughter, Marli, remembered her grandfather as a gourmet who relished the creative activities of developing (and eating) new products.  Her grandmother, on the other hand, lived for the business and the people who worked there. She instituted a profit-sharing program and benefits for the company’s workers in the early 1950’s. The company became “family” but her largess extended to myriad others who, both during the Nazi regime and in the post-war period did not fair as well as she.

The heir

Unlike her grandmother, Marli Hoppe-Ritter did not have to fight the social norms of her youth to sell chocolate. She was born into the selling of chocolate. Neither she nor her younger brother were particularly enthused about the prospect of entering the family business. Coming of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, issues of social and environmental justice were closer to their hearts.  Their father, Alfred Otto is credited with getting the company over the 1970’s “merger hump” (that we have seen the other Stuttgart chocolate companies succumb to), at least partially by the introduction of the brightly colored flavor-coded packaging Ritter Sport is recognized by today.  But upon his passing in 1974, outside leadership was hired that threatened at least somewhat socially responsible mission of the company and, according to Koch’s article, that was when the sibling staged a management coup and took over control.

The circumstances of why Hoppe-Ritter made her first trip to the village of Waslala in the mountains north of Matagalpa in Nicaragua are not obvious, but thus began Ritter Sport’s 30-year attempt to source Nicaraguan chocolate equitably.  Ritter Sport is not shy about publicizing the effort of organizing the Cacaonica cooperative in Waslala and then later building a fermenting and drying station outside of Matagalpa. But it doesn’t take much to read between the PR lines and see that the project did not have either the social benefits nor the sourcing results that Hoppe-Ritter was hoping for.  In the 2008 article, Koch writes that in a year the Waslala-Matagalpa project supplied Ritter Sport with a “homeopathic dose” of cacao beans, and that 99% of Ritter Sports cacao was still bought as a bulk commodity on the world market.

In 2011, the company took another tack and bought 2500 hectares of deforested land on the Kama river in the RAAS, the other autonomous, sparsely populated, state on the eastern side of Nicaragua.  This incarnation of the company’s efforts at what they are now calling “sustainability”, direct sourcing of cacao Ritter’s own farm in Nicaragua, was featured in a presentation by current Ritter CEO, Andreas Ronken, at the conference in Berlin last week and is expected to supply around 30% of the company’s cacao needs. “Purchasing land and becoming involved in the sustainable cultivation of cocoa is the most effective way for a medium-sized company like RITTER SPORT to have maximum influence over the ecological and social conditions in cocoa cultivation.”

As described in various articles on Ritter Sport’s German-language blog, having complete control over the conditions on the farm, really is allowing them to bring some of the positive aspects of a successful capitalist enterprise to the business of sourcing cacao: they are providing stable employment to, at least, a cadre of full-time workers; they are able to control quality by training those workers; they are building infrastructure in an area that has up to now been accessible only by boat or plane; they are reforesting in a region that has been plagued by clearcutting for grazing (and possibly laundering of drug cartel money); and they are able to experiment, both with agricultural practices and processing technology, bringing efficiencies of scale and ideas of industrial safety, that heretofore were not a feature of cacao growing. The “fruitcutter” below is one such innovation, eliminating the need for hand-wielded machetes out of at least one part of cacao processing.

fruchtschneider

Interestingly, unlike on Ritter’s website where the idea of “sustainability” is linked exclusively to social and environmental responsibility, at the Berlin conference, the title of Ronken’s presentation is unabashedly “Sustainable Consumption: The Ritter Sport Model (from Nicaragua) for Improving Cocoa and Chocolate Sales”. On the website, consumers are assured that they can eat Ritter Sport chocolate bars “with a clear conscience”:Screenshot 2018-05-09 at 7.06.23 PM - Edited

But among their peers (and admittedly with the Nicaraguan press), typical concerns of the capitalist system come to the fore: it is possible to appease the “conscious consumer” while also controlling both quality and production costs.

It is easy to be cynical about the fanfare with which Ritter Sport announced this past January that the company had achieved it “100% sustainable” sourcing goals two years ahead of time, given the nebulous definition of “sustainable”, as it is easy to be cynical when connecting the dots between the language used on their consumer-oriented website and that used at an industry conference, but I think there is a core to the mission at Ritter Sport that other companies would do well to emulate.  Nicko Debenham, head of sustainability at Barry Callebaut talks about “[overcoming] the cultural problem in the company”, the problem being the need to make a commitment to “think very long-term”. Ritter Sport does not have this “cultural problem”; the ability to think long-term has been an integral part of the company’s DNA from the beginning and the two women, Clara Göttle and Marli Hoppe-Ritter have been instrumental in making this a reality.

We are all heirs to a system that was built on iniquity.  It is right and necessary that as consumers we demand transparency from the companies that sell us both our necessities and our luxuries, as it is right and necessary for us as producers to expect and demand just compensation for our labor. These responsibilities are the burden of our inheritance, and they fall most heavily on the shoulders of those of us who benefit the most from the system as it exists today. Perhaps if we bear it conscientiously, all of our children and grandchildren will be heirs to a system in which north and south are afforded equitably distributed opportunities for life, education, liberty, art, happiness . . . and chocolate.

Works referenced:

https://www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2018/02/05/What-is-sustainable-cocoa-under-the-Swiss-chocolate-industry-pledge#

____. Geschichte Übersicht: von 1918 bis heute. Retrieved from https://www.theobroma-cacao.de/wissen/geschichte/1918-bis-heute/

____. various articles from the German language Ritter Sport blog.  Retrieved from http://www.ritter-sport.de/blog/

de la Roi-Frey, Karin. Mutig, erfolgreich und gut: Vier schwäbische Unternehmerinnen. Mühlacker: Stieglitz Verlag 2012.

Koch, H. (2008, Feb. 22) Portrait der Ritter Sport-Chefin: Quadratisch. Practisch. Fair. Retrieved from http://www.taz.de/!5186217/

Lubow, A (2009, Nov. 21) My Chocolate Meltdown. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/22/opinion/22lubow.html

Shankar, D (2017, Feb. 7) Little Chocolate’s Big Moment. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-02-07/the-rise-of-craft-chocolate

 

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