“Gourmet Shoppe.” The two words that follow the name “Cardullo’s” begin to give a sense of the products that one will find upon walking through the door at this store in the heart of Harvard Square. Most shoppers will walk in and out of this store rapidly today—picking products off the shelves, going to the register, and going to their next destination wherever that may be. However, slowing this shopping experience down can prove useful in studying the implications of the food we consume on a daily basis. In this post, I will describe in detail the chocolate selection at Cardullo’s and use the store’s chocolate selection as a means for discussing several aspects of chocolate in our modern culture. What follows will be an engagement of how chocolate selection can help us to understand chocolate in society—from intended customer base to ethical considerations, to name a few—as well as a discerning eye for areas where the chocolate industry has dark secrets.
Navigating Cardullo’s can at times be nothing short of overwhelming—all of the shelves are filled to capacity with assorted foods and drinks. Navigating chocolate-related products alone yields a plethora of foods. With that, I have found it most useful to define a specific type of selection that I will focus on in this post. To allow for a more thorough, rather than surface-level, discussion, I have chosen to focus on chocolate bars and exclude other confections and treats that have chocolate as secondary ingredients. Doing so, I still am left with dozens of relevant products lining Cardullo’s shelves. I have found it most useful to divide this analysis into focusing on several components of the selection for the purpose of clarity. I will start by analyzing the types of chocolate that I am seeing as well as the prices of the chocolate. I will then focus on the labels and advertising implications.
In the images above, we see side-by-side comparisons of two sections of Cardullo’s chocolate selection—on the left more upmarket self-professed ‘craft’ brands, and on the right more traditional mass-market items. Note the differences in appearances of the products, from the packaging coloring, density of imagery/words on the labels, etc. These differences will be explored in detail below.
One of the first aspects that strikes me as I consider the selection of chocolate is the names of many of the brands on the shelves. These brand names sound artisanal and personal—names like Raaza, Goodnow Farms, and Scharffen Berger. In a market that has a lot of competition, name distinctiveness can be a powerful branding tool (Ju, Jun and Sutherland, 2015). In a wall display located next to this sea of novel names are some familiar brands such as Cadbury, and even Snickers, suggesting that even multinational conglomerates have a place at this gourmet market. While it will be discussed in greater detail later relating to the labels, consider the differences in the visual imagery of the two sections of chocolate—that is, the artisanal brands and the more mass-market brands. Emblazoned across the front of almost all of the artisanal bars in large letters are the percentage of Cacao: 62% on one, 70% on another, 95% higher still. These craft chocolates are noticeably different than the mass-market chocolates sitting on shelves just a few steps away to the right, which are predominately milk chocolate. With that, we can start to get a sense that these craft chocolates at Cardullo’s are marketed to a different audience than the mass-market chocolates such as Snickers and Cadbury to the right.
Something that is common across all the bars of chocolate sold in Cardullo’s is that they are made from cacao that is produced outside of the United States. This is an important aspect to consider surrounding the history of chocolate, since the United States and Europe account for 73% of the consumption of cacao, whereas the production takes place elsewhere, with Africa accounting for 72% of the production of cacao (Martin, 2019). This has led to the rise of large-scale global supply chains that often involve many small farming operations to actually harvest the cacao, but also large multinational corporations involved with the production of the end-product chocolate bars (Martin and Sampeck, 2016, 50). The roots of this system of supply are colonialization and the presence of slavery, where cacao would be harvested in the colonies and then sent back to the colonizer for consumption (Mintz, 1986). Many of the chocolate companies that sell craft products at Cardullo’s pride themselves on being small operations that have direct contacts with the farmers (this will be discussed in greater detail when we examine the labels below). However, the question remains of whether this translates to more pay for the farmers of cacao themselves. With that, let us now turn to examining the price of these bars.
Almost immediately after seeing the types and brands of the chocolate at Cardullo’s, my eyes looked just below to the prices. The prices were high—there is no dispute. And for several of the bars, the prices themselves were hard to find—hidden perhaps to draw customers in instead of being put-off by the price tag. But before getting into the specifics of the price, let us consider the historical context of price. Centuries ago, chocolate was considered a food for the elites (Coe and Coe, 2007). It then became mass-produced alongside the rise of sugar in the European diet (Mintz, 1985). In America today, chocolate is regularly available to people of almost all socioeconomic levels. But this is not the case for the chocolate at Cardullo’s. Though the cheapest bar sold here retailed for under $5, the average price of chocolate bars was significantly higher—far closer to $10. So, what makes these chocolate bars more expensive than the average Hershey’s chocolate bar? There are few factors here to consider. The first is scale—many of these products are made in far smaller quantities and thus do not benefit from the economies of scale (Leissle, 2018, 101). Instead, it is a point of pride that these chocolates are made via the ‘single batch’ method.
There are also a variety of certifications that many of these chocolate bars have, some of which suggest that they pay farmers higher prices than the commodity price of cacao. Certifications are viewed as a way to address price fluctuations present in the commodity prices, and to effectively set price floors that ensures a standard minimum price. However, these higher prices paid for beans often go to middle-men rather than the farmer themselves. Additionally, the dizzying array of potential certifications—from Rainforest Alliance, to FairTrade, to Direct Trade just to name a few—leaves the consumer with more questions than answers. For some consumers, simply seeing one of these certifications may make them feel good about purchasing a product, however, legitimate questions still remain about how much these certifications actually do. This is especially true for small craft manufacturers who have higher costs due to the lack of economies of scale (Leissle, 2018). As Kristy Leissle explains, “certainly, some craft makers do pay premium prices for beans, but it is a mistake to assume that if a bar costs $10, nine of those must be going to a farmer. Chances are they are not” (Leissle, 2018, 101).
Ultimately, we must also consider the relatively inelastic price of chocolate. That is, for a product such as wine, people are willing to pay upwards of several thousand dollars for what is considered a premier wine. There are literally thousands of dollars that separate the price of nice wines from bad wines. However, chocolate bars that are considered greater than $20 seem to reach the tipping point of what people will pay for the bar.
Chocolate as a product has a long history of advertising that includes both derogatory racial and gender implications. For racism in advertising in particular, this is inextricably linked with the history of the cacao supply chain, including colonization and slavery. And the advertising itself holds undertones for the intended customer bases of products. For instance, consider the video advertisement for Dove chocolate below. The advertisement is sensual both in the depiction of the woman as well as the verbiage overlaid on the video by the narrator. It perpetuates the view put-forth in many chocolate advertisements that females are obsessive, sensual beings.
While the chocolate at Cardullo’s does not have such overt advertising in terms of gender or race to many historical examples such as Belgian Antwerp hands, there are nonetheless distinctive advertising choices made. Consider the labels below.
These two photos show the front and back of a craft chocolate bar at Cardullo’s. Focusing on the label, the imagery on the front shows an old-fashioned ship being built, eliciting feelings of simplicity and handcrafting. The back includes a map that shows from where the cacao originates and uses words such as “finest” “traditional” “carefully” and “small factory” deliberately.
These labels elicit the customers to believe that the product is a return to the traditional—a time when food was made simpler. It very clearly and cleanly discusses things such as tasting nodes and the origin is visually depicted. The choices made on this label are very deliberate, and appeal to an audience that cares about the quality of the food that they put into their bodies.
Chocolate is a food that brings joy to many people who eat it in many forms. But as consumers, we must also look at the history of chocolate and understand the ugly truths of our current production system, especially when it comes to adequate living standards for farmers. Outside of fair prices alone, there are ongoing questions and issues surrounding workers ages, gender imbalances, and ethnicity and racial inequities throughout the cacao and chocolate industries. So next time you go into a store, I encourage you to pause for a few seconds and think about what choices you are making as a consumer with your purchasing power. There are a lot of implications for the purchasing choices we make, and a lot can be learned simply by looking at the foodstuffs on shelves.
Coe, S. & Coe, M. (2007). The true history of chocolate (Revised [and updated ed.]. ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson.
Ju, I., Jun, J., & Sutherland, J. (2015). I Have Seen That Brand Before! How Do Consumers Recognize Advertised Brands? Brand Distinctiveness vs. Brand Differentiation. American Academy of Advertising. Conference. Proceedings (Online), 109.
Leissle, K. (2018). Cocoa. Newark: Polity Press.
Martin, C. (2019). Lecture January 30: Introduction. Harvard University.
Martin, C., & Sampeck, K. (2015). The bitter and sweet of chocolate in Europe. Socio.hu, (Special issue 3), 37-60.
Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power : The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books. the above images are my own taken at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe.
The images above were taken by myself. The youtube video is from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwPwQ4S4op8 and the hyperlinked article is from https://sites.northwestern.edu/akih/2013/02/21/chocolates-as-cultural-blind-spots-responding-to-civilization/