Parliament Chocolate is a small Southern California chocolate company that epitomizes the bean-to-bar craft chocolate movement. With a focus on artisanship and direct trade single origin beans, Parliament makes it known that their goal is to produce great quality, ethical chocolate. Although not a perfect solution to all the problems of inequality in the cacao supply chain, bean-to-bar companies such as Parliament are making a positive impact through educating consumers and providing an alternative to big chocolate.
The Parliament Chocolate shop is nestled in the charming historic district of the small city of Redlands, California. Set amid a background of mountains and palm trees, Redlands is known by area residents for its bustling farmers market and trendy downtown businesses. Parliament can be found a block from the center of downtown, in an understated white washed one story building. Once the location of the White Owl Café, now the tiny space has been re-appropriated as Parliament’s kitchen and retail shop.
Ryan Berk established Parliament chocolate four years ago with his wife, Cassi. According to Berk in a Life and Thyme Magazine’s Letter to the editor (2015) “Our main principle behind the company is to have a relationship with the farmers and vendors behind the products we present to you.” He continues on in his story to discuss going to remote locations in Belize and Guatemala to visit the farmers he is sourcing his cacao beans from, and to express his appreciation for the hard work required to make good quality chocolate. His letter is filled with his personal photos of lush tropical landscapes and indigenous people. The photos depict an idealized notion of going back to chocolate’s origins. In an L.A. Times article Bark’s direct sourcing has been further romanticized. “Ryan Berk makes his chocolate from scratch. That means flying to Central America four times a year, hiking over Maya ruins to remote jungle villages and meeting face-to-face with the farmers who supply his cocoa beans” (Pierson, 2015).
Although lacking some of the passion and colorful imagery found in Berk’s writing, the Parliament Chocolate website explains direct trade, the bean-to-bar concept and their pride in making craft chocolate. On the About Us page, in three short paragraphs, Parliament conveys their mission in a simple, straightforward manner. Their website, store and product packaging all are representative of this simple, open and sincere brand. The grand opening video below also shows their commitment to being ethical and creating a unique product.
Large chocolate companies are not known for revealing detailed information about their processes or supply chain. In direct opposition to this, transparency is clearly important to Parliament Chocolate. Not only in the origin of their beans, but also in their daily operations. Large street facing windows provide views of the retail space and the kitchen. From inside the tiny retail area another window offers a full view of the equipment, ingredients and workers. The photo below shows the kitchen space as seen from the retail space.
For those interested in seeing the areas not clearly visible from the window, Parliament also provides twice weekly tours of the facility. Factory tours are common for small craft chocolate companies. “Whether it is Theo Chocolate in Seattle or TCHO in San Francisco, small manufacturers are opening their doors to packed tours of people eager to learn about flavor, how chocolate is made, and where it comes from” (Williams & Eber, 2012, p. 157).
Parliament produces just four types of chocolate bars, each of which is made with only two ingredients; seventy percent cacao and thirty percent cane sugar. Each bar is made with single origin beans. This year they have Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Tanzania bars. All the bars are packaged in white textured craft paper and adorned with a drawing of an owl. The owl drawings are made by a local artist, four different owls representing the four different countries. The name of the company, Parliament, came from this parliament of owls.
Additionally, they also make chocolate syrup and an array of freshly prepared confections. On the day I visited their caramel and toffee truffles were the most popular treats. Samples of the chocolate bars are displayed for every guest to try, and they are happy to discuss the qualities and tasting notes of each with customers.
Pictured above are the Parliament Chocolate bars, each cut into sample cubes. The bars are 1.7 ounces, and thicker than most bars on the market. One might think that thinner, wider bars with larger packaging would give consumers the impression that they were getting more value for their money. Parliament does not seem to be worried about standing out against other craft bars. Currently, not being supplied in any
large markets, there would be little concern to be noticed and chosen among the masses. Pictured on the right is a Parliament Chocolate bar next to a Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate bar. A 1.7 ounce bar versus a 2.0 ounce bar.
Parliament’s bars sell for six dollars a bar, or twenty dollars for the pack of all four varieties. This price does not seem particularly outlandish, considering the price of most craft chocolate bars. The question becomes, with this type of product being still relatively new, is the average consumer willing to pay a premium price for a single origin dark chocolate bar?
We know that there is a market for ethically conscious consumers that enjoy fine dark chocolate. We have yet to see how quickly that market could potentially grow. It seems likely to consider that the explosion of craft chocolatiers into this arena is happening faster than the growth of consumers. Research by Torres-Moreno, Tarrega, Torrescasana, and Blanch (2011) indicates that consumers prefer a familiar brand with a known quality, and that consumers of dark chocolate like products based on taste with little importance given to information on packaging. Labeling information claiming single origin beans did not cause consumers to presume it would be better quality nor did they find it to be a feature that improved the product (p. 670).
Claims on product labels about the geographical origin of chocolates have been shown to be a distinctive characteristic of high quality products. However, the results presented here indicate that consumers in this study did not perceive the claim about geographical origins as a positive feature for dark chocolate (Torres-Moreno et al., 2011, p. 670).
Although the data from their research seems to hint at a barrier for craft chocolate expansion, in time the results could change. Currently, in the Unites States, many people still associate the excessively sweet, almost sour, quality of a Hershey’s bar with the taste of chocolate. Learning to appreciate dark chocolate, and the nuanced flavors of beans, takes exposure and education. “The spectacular growth of quality chocolate during recent decades has led to a vocabulary of connoisseurship previously seen only in the wine industry. (Coe & Coe, 2013, p. 260) Chocolate connoisseurs will grow in numbers with increased experience. It will be up to the craft chocolate maker to provide excellent tasting products. Single origin still might not be a driving factor behind consumer purchases, but a great tasting product will be.
With a market already saturated with cheap, well known chocolate brands, craft companies have a difficult road ahead. Community engagement could help keep many of these craft companies in business. Parliament Chocolate sells their chocolate syrup to a local Redlands coffee company for their mocha lattes. This has caught on, and now Parliament sells to multiple coffee shops in several cities. A day spa in the downtown area even offers a chocolate body scrub treatment using Parliament Chocolate.
This type of local exposure helps make the company, and their mission, more widely known. Not only is there a market for ethical food, there is also one for locally produced goods. Being well known in a small community drives business because many people feel a strong desire to help their neighbor, the little guy, succeed. Consumers wish to feel good about their purchases. Yes, thinking that they have paid a higher price to help a poor farmer is incentive for many, but so is seeing a small local community store flourish. Having set up shop in Redlands, a community that prides entrepreneurship and local artisanship, Parliament chocolate is a good place to continue doing well.
Regardless of whether or not some of these types of small companies thrive, the more craft chocolatiers entering the market, the more people will see this type of chocolate and become aware of its existence. Even by perhaps failing as a business, craft companies can succeed at making positive change by educating people and increasing appreciation for artisanal chocolate.
As much as bean-to-bar companies tout about being ethical and fair to their famers, paying higher prices for presumably better beans, artisanal chocolate is not fully explained without a discussion of West African cacao. The Ivory Coast and Ghana produce most of the world’s cacao supply, and yet these two countries are nearly nonexistent in the fine cacao market. There are many reasons for this. In the industry, the quality of the beans from West Africa are seen as subpar. Bean flavors from Central America, most notably the criollo variety, are seen as more desirable and sought after. There is also a nostalgia for cacao from its original source. To make matters worse, Africa is globally stigmatized for child labor abuses.
Coe and Coe (2013) express the concern that “The gravest and most troubling issue confronting practically all of the major players in the chocolate business concerns child labor-usually unpaid-on the great West African cacao plantations.” (p. 264) Of course we need to acknowledge the truth of the situation, but we also need to look at these societies without the lens of western cultural thinking. West African cacao farmers are trying to survive on meager incomes. Villainizing the farmers does not solve the problem, nor does thinking of them as a charity case. If farmers in this area were making a livable wage, if adults in a family were better able to provide for their dependents, then children would not need to work so much. Incidences of child slavery and abuse would diminish greatly.
Could direct trade be the answer to help this area? It might take a long time to find out. “U.S. artisans are, on the whole, stout in their commitment to both ethics and quality. While they purchase costly flavor beans and can thus improve the livelihoods of poor farmers, they are also unlikely to buy from a place with a negative image – such as West Africa” (Leissle, 2013, p.29). West Africa’s global image is not likely to change soon.
To be fair to U.S. craft chocolate companies, it would be a much bigger expense and logistics project to source their beans from West Africa, especially the Ivory Coast, than someplace closer to the U.S. such as the Dominican Republic. Many small craft chocolate makers are doing so as a side hobby. Berk owns three popular ice cream shops in addition to Parliament Chocolate. Working with such small profit margins does not allow a large amount of capital for such an endeavor. If a company was capable of doing so, I think they would see that the West African stigma is not as big of an issue as it might seem. As we have learned, consumers care more about taste than origin.
Craft chocolate companies promoting a bean-to-bar artisanal chocolate product, such as Parliament Chocolate, will not make much of a dent in the overall volume of chocolate produced. Realistically, not every chocolate bar produced could come from a single, direct traded source. This is not to discredit these types of newly emerging companies. They are having a positive impact. “Many of these US manufacturers may be small, but they have been driving recent changes for the better in the industry; change the world-make better chocolate” (Williams & Eber, 2012, p. 156). Even with narrow profit margins and the likelihood of many startups to fail, these companies are providing public awareness. Through enthusiastically engaging those in their communities, overtime a shift in thinking and taste preferences will occur.
Berk, R. (2015). Cacao Sourcing: A First Hand Account. Life & Thyme: Reflections. Retrieved from https://lifeandthyme.com/reflections/cacao-sourcing-first-hand-account/
Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Leissle, K. (2013). Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. 13(3), 22-31
Pierson, D. (2015) Artisanal, hand-crafted chocolate is a growing niche. L.A. Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-artisan-chocolate-20150228-story.html
Parliament Chocolate website, http://www.parliamentchocolate.com/
Torres-Moreno, M. , Tarrega, A. , Torrescasana, E. , & Blanch, C. (2012). Influence of label information on dark chocolate acceptability. Appetite, 58(2), 665-771
Williams, P. & Eber, J. (2012). Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmor Publishing.
Figures 1-4. Personal Photos taken at Parliament Chocolate, Redlands, CA. March 7, 2017.
Parliament Chocolate Grand Opening Video, retrieved from https://vimeo.com/user23796783