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Where to buy chocolate ?: A Comparative Analysis of Chocolate Markets in Harvard Square

Chocolate uniquely embodies a number of contradictions. It’s almost universal, yet very personal. Consistent, yet incredibly diverse. Sweet, yet bitter. Luxurious and expensive, yet cheap and ubiquitous. Valentine’s day for adults, halloween for children—there is a chocolate for everyone. Considering all the different profiles and qualities that chocolate has taken on in its millennia-long history, it follows that there are a number of establishments consumers can go to in order to enjoy this versatile treat. Walking through Harvard Square, one can find themselves at any of the three main purveyors of chocolate—each of which carries its own unique implications, connotations, and ‘personality.’

The first such setting is perhaps best characterized by convenience, and in the context of Harvard Square, there is no store more convenient than CVS (so convenient that, not long ago, there were three within a one block radius of each other). Though technically a pharmacy, most CVS locations are better known for their general merchandise, including everything from toiletries to convenience foods. With its vast and diverse offerings, and over 9,800 stores across the United States, CVS is the epitome of a chocolate purveyor to the masses. That is, similar to grocery stores or large chain supermarkets such as Walmart, Stop & Shop, or Kroger, which is where the majority turn to for confectionary purchases (IBISWorld). That being said, chocolate is far from the focal point of these stores.

Figure 1

Just across the street from CVS, one may find themselves at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, which is representative of a different type of setting for buying chocolate, perhaps best described as ‘specialty stores.’ Cardullo’s in particular offers an array of fresh foods and gourmet delicacies from around the world, including wine, cheese and, of course, chocolate. There are a number of other stores nearby (and across the country) with a similar premise as Formaggio Kitchen or Bacco Wine & Cheese, where chocolate is not necessarily the focus or the sole product featured, but the food categories offered are still limited. Consequently, each such category is theoretically given more ‘weight’ in how important it is to the store. This specialization also carries the implication that the products offered are carefully/deliberately curated, and are of high quality.

The last stop on this chocolate journey through Harvard Square brings us to L.A. Burdick, which takes specialization to the next level. At L.A. Burdick, one can find themselves in a chocolate heaven of Larry Burdick’s creations, which is the clear and primary focus of the establishment. Other such stores in the greater Boston area may include the Teuscher Chocolates of Switzerland, Beacon Hill Chocolates, and EHChocolatier, representing the most niche of the three main ‘purchasing settings’ as they all primarily sell gourmet chocolate goods of their own creation.

The differences between these purveyors could not be more stark and yet they are all places consumers go to buy chocolate. Their various focal points and priorities are reflected in their respective selections, pricing, sourcing, and messaging.

Variety

Walking through the ‘Candy’ and ‘Chocolate’ aisle at CVS, one is immediately struck by the bold, bright colored packaging that marks almost all of their chocolate products. As displayed below, many of these are variations of the big name chocolate candy bars/treats that pervade the US such as Kit Kat, M&M’s and Reese’s Cups. But perhaps the first thing to note about the CVS chocolate section is how the overwhelming majority are more candy bar than actual chocolate. That is, there is a limited selection of primarily chocolate-based products (those with few additional ingredients such as caramel or ‘fruit & nut’), even fewer options for plain milk chocolate (four to be exact, of which three are owned by the same parent company), and only three options for dark chocolate. In a separate aisle, however, there is a stand for what CVS labels “Premium Chocolates,” where they have three additional labels with a ‘pure’ chocolate option—Ghirardelli, Lindt, and Endangered Species. Ghirardelli and Lindt both have multiple choices for cacao percentage (they are also owned by the same parent company).

The variety of chocolates at CVS is relatively new phenomenon that reflects the evolving tastes of American consumers. Indeed, “American consumers are expanding their consumption beyond traditional mass market chocolate such as Hershey”s” (Squicciarini & Swinnen). That being said, this notion of variety can be misleading considering that around 80% of the 45+ chocolate products found in these sections at CVS are owned/distributed by just 4 corporations, half of which are Hershey products and the other half of which are Mars, Lindt, and Ferrero products (Ferrero acquired Nestlé’s U.S. chocolate business in 2018). The selection at CVS mirrors U.S. overall market share, with these four companies controlling just about 80% of the market (Wilmot & Back). Indeed, large scale deals between retail chains like CVS and chocolate conglomerates likely perpetuate the dominance of these companies’ products in the chocolate market. Thus while the amalgam of packaging colors, shapes, and sizes may give the impression of diversity, it becomes clear that most of the chocolate and brand variety is superficial with the only differentiator being the flavoring.

Figure 3: Just four companies control about 80% of the overall chocolate market share, which mirrors the selection variety at CVS.

Compare this to Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe—a family-owned, local specialty store that’s been at the heart of Harvard Square for nearly 70 years and it’s a completely different story. While they still have their fair share of ‘industrial chocolate’ varieties, i.e. “mass-produced confections [that] are intended to guarantee a consistent smell and taste, achieved through rigorous oversight and a careful blending of cacaos” (Sethi), it’s the relative variety of craft chocolate brands that leaves the greatest impression upon arriving at their designated chocolate and dessert sections. With their selection including around 15 companies producing craft chocolate who specialize solely in chocolate production, it’s easy to get a hint of the diversity in the market—as well as in taste.

Figure 4: Portion of industrial chocolate available at Cardullo’s

Moreover, within their rather vast chocolate selection, there are two columns that, at first glance, may be reminiscent of CVS’s offerings in terms of its colorful packaging and familiar brands (see Figure 4). Upon further inspection however, their place at Cardullo’s becomes evident. While chocolates in this section are indeed of the ‘industrial’ variety, they are included at Cardullo’s because the brands or country of origin are uncommon for the U.S. For example, Figure 5 illustrates that the Kit Kat at Cardullo’s has an origin and branding difference—the Cardullo’s version is manufactured by Nestlé, as is the case for all Kit Kats outside the US, while the U.S. version is made under license by a division of The Hershey Company.

Figure 5: Left side is Kit Kat sold at CVS, right side is that sold at Cardullo’s

Such differences have notable implications for the chocolate itself, which trace back to around the 1930s when the “process of manufacturing chocolate was gradually shifting from improvisation to exact science as manufacturers experimented with various ways to render the essence from roasted cocoa beans. No two companies employed the same practices […] Each process produced its own unique flavor, and over time, these differences translated into distinct national tastes” (Brenner 63). In the case of a Kit Kat for instance, the European version contains less sugar and a higher cocoa and fat content than its American counterpart. This national preference has even gone as far as affecting legislation such that in the UK a product is required to be at least 25% cocoa solids in order to be called milk chocolate, whereas in the US such a designation requires only that it contain a minimum of 10% chocolate liquor (Spector).

Unlike Cardullo’s and CVS, L.A. Burdick sells all its chocolate under its own brand name. It is a charming store that specializes in chocolate creations of all forms. Here, one finds a very different kind of variety wherein all of the chocolate is made from, and branded as, the same source (i.e. L.A. Burdick), but there are numerous varieties with different shapes, sizes, types, flavorings, consistencies, etc. Specifically, they offer a number of regular and themed “collections” or assortments featuring different combinations of their 36+ truffle and bonbon varieties. While some of these, usually those that are on the smaller side such as their “Chocolate Bee Collection” are displayed for purchase in the shop, the majority are available to order online as customizable gifts or for a range of special events. In the physical store, however, there is also the option to purchase several of their bonbons and truffles on an individual basis. Alongside these delicacies, they also sell chocolate-covered nuts and dried fruits, an impressive collection of more conventional chocolate bars, as well as an array of (mostly) chocolate pastries and confections. Considering these products are all made under the same name, the extent of their chocolate bar collection is particularly noteworthy: they offer 18 varieties covering a range of cacao percentages, flavorings/added ingredients, and cacao bean origin. Throughout the store there are also a handful of artfully crafted, intricate chocolate creations (e.g. Rocher nest), with one even explicitly labeled as ‘display only,’ further emphasizing the blurry line between these artisanal chocolates and art. Lastly, and perhaps most popular, is their variety of drinking chocolate options. This includes three standard drink preparations in addition to a ‘single source dark chocolate’ option, whose source rotates every month among seven different locations, each with a specific and unique flavor profile that they detail on their menu.

Quality

Quality is perhaps one of the most cited traits in chocolate, but it is also one of the most ambiguous. Depending on who you ask, quality in chocolate can refer to any number of traits–be it the cacao plant variety or origin, the maker, the consistency, the taste, the process, or even the brand. Indeed, perceptions of quality vary country by country and are often reflective of the level of a country’s economic development. Cidell and Alberts found that “quality is based on material characteristic whose relative importance in determining quality depends on the country in which different stages of economic innovation took place.” Different producers catering to different audiences tend emphasize different things with the mass market producers we tend to find at CVS emphasizing taste, consistency and lifestyle elements (think “Have a break. Have a Kit Kat”). The smaller capacity chocolate makers we find at Cardullo’s (and potentially L.A. Burdick), on the other hand, emphasize the handmade nature, small production runs, ‘pure’ ingredients and natural tastes.

There are real differences between brands of chocolate, though the effect of those differences on the esoteric notion of quality is up for debate. For example, soy lecithin is used in the majority of chocolate products as a surfactant, meaning it lowers the viscosity of the chocolate during the production process, thereby making it easier to work with for tempering and molding. While the same can be achieved by adding more cocoa butter, this is a lot more expensive as well as more time consuming as it requires a longer period of conching (Terenzi, Chess). As a result, many of the mass produced chocolates—including all of those sold at CVS employ the former process and ingredients. The chocolates at Cardullo’s tend to communicate their quality through a varied selection of single-origin bars, thereby suggesting the use of high-quality beans and/or specialty cacao which subscribes to “a notion of quality that is linked to lack of defects and the presence of fine flavor and aroma(s)” (Martin). Similarly, they imply that an “artisanal” approach to chocolate-making leads to a higher quality product—though this is not necessarily as straightforward as it may seem since the term has no standardized implication for their cacao bean sourcing or production practices. Rather, it can be more a marketing effort to increase perceived quality. On the other hand, Cardullo’s does carry some mass produced well-branded chocolates as well with dubious quality relative to their price. For example, Valrhona, Neuhaus and Godiva, all carried by Cardullo’s, have extremely strong reputations and consumer perceptions of quality, yet all contain soy lecithin and other additives in their dark chocolate products (on the other hand, Cardullo’s was the only store visited to carry some chocolate bars with just cocoa constituents and cane sugar—all of L.A. Burdick’s bars contain the ingredient). One area where consumers can gain real insight into the chocolates at Cardullo’s are the bean to bar varieties—while these chocolates are not guaranteed to be good, this increases the likelihood that the cacao is deliberately sourced as opposed to using bulk commodity cacao.

I would be remiss if, in a discussion of quality, I ignored the significant role that marketing and branding have on perceived quality, regardless of the actual ingredients, tastes, origins, etc. of the chocolate. Indeed, consumer information is imperfect and, as with wines, the majority of consumers tend to rely on factors like brand reputation, package appearance, cacao percentage, and, of course, price. Many of L.A. Burdick’s chocolates, though sold at a specialty store under a specialty brand, lack complete transparency as to their origins and are, in fact, private labeled chocolates made by other companies (potentially some of the same companies that make lower cost chocolate for stores like CVS). There are infinite ways to define quality in chocolates and most would agree the chocolates at Cardullo’s are of “higher quality” than those at CVS, but that is not universally true and the processes and ingredients used to deride more mass market chocolates can still find themselves in the ‘higher end’ line up of specialty shops like Cardullo’s. Unsurprisingly, CVS’s selection doesn’t stand out on the quality front—the majority of their chocolate options are in the form of candy bars, which were historically designed with the express purpose of using cheaper ingredients under the guise of a chocolate product, which in pn packaging would appear comparable in size to a plain chocolate bar (Lecture, The Rise of Big Chocolate).

Price

The difference in cost between these three distinct chocolate purveyors is a little more straightforward in that, unsurprisingly, there is a linear, upward trajectory of sale price as the stores become more specialized. As the stores became more expensive, their range of prices also grew significantly, with L.A. Burdick’s, the most expensive store, having the largest gulf between its lowest cost and highest cost products. In discussing pricing however, it is important to consider the fact that it’s not only a function of the cost of the product—though that is an important consideration—but also a deliberate marketing and brand positioning decision. That being said, in the stores considered here, there is a difference in the underlying cost of producing the chocolate products that correlates with their final price. The chocolates sold at CVS, made in large manufacturing facilities targeted at the mass market, and often with bulk commodity cacao, are cheaper because such processes and resources cost less per product. On the other hand, some of the options at Cardullo’s were largely higher priced because they were made in smaller batches, used more manual or time-consuming processes and/or employed more expensive (and fewer) ingredients—as an example, Dick Taylor’s single-origin dark chocolates only have two ingredients (i.e. cacao and cane sugar) (Abesamis). Such craft chocolates often exist at “a disadvantage to the bulk, industrial market, as they often operate along lines less traditional to capitalist production” (Martin), but make up for this disadvantage by positioning their brands as premium products deserving of a higher price point.

Perception and branding is another extremely powerful driver of pricing (Lybeck, et al.). Consumers often associate specialty shops with artisan-like quality and higher prices, just as they might believe a dedicated butcher shop has higher quality meats than the butcher at a supermarket. The same phenomenon plays out in the stores that I visited, with the most specialized store, L.A. Burdick, having higher priced chocolates than Cardullo’s even though it is unclear if the underlying cost or quality of the chocolates each sells is as different. The premium at L.A. Burdick is placed on the perceived additional care a specialty shop would put into their product because, after all, it’s the only product they sell. L.A. Burdick’s website emphasizes this care (and the associated costs) when they emphasize the “hand-made” elements, even though there is likely no discernible difference between a hand-packed and machine-packed high quality chocolate: “each artisan bonbon is hand-cut or shaped, hand-garnished, hand-finished, and hand-packed” (“Chocolate Assortments”).

Takeaway: Intended Audience

Much of the reasoning behind the decisions described above, from product selection to pricing strategy, boil down to their respective target audience/consumer. As such, there is no ‘better’ place to buy chocolate (as far as chocolate for chocolate’s sake goes, this can be a different story with respect to ethical considerations), but rather the right place to suit your specific wants and needs. This is indeed reflected in the variety, quality, and cost of their respective selections. That is, at CVS, nearly everything from their chocolate options and placement in store to their pricing strategy screams convenience, accessibility, and a focus on impulse purchases (the majority of their chocolate selection is scattered by the registers and self-checkout stations) making it no secret that their chocolate selection is not a priority—nor should it be. Rather, open 24/7 in a college town with busy students and professionals, CVS is appealing to the average consumer. Specifically, it relies on those who go there for convenience because in addition to its uninterrupted hours, it’s an established, nationwide brand where people know they can go to find a little bit of everything. In this vein, it wouldn’t even make sense for CVS to offer more exclusive (and by extension, more expensive) options as they’re not targeting consumers with the deliberate intention of buying chocolate, but rather as an add-on to toothpaste at the register, a last minute ‘get well soon’ gift, or a quick snack. The other shops, however, can be destinations where consumers often come in with strong chocolate purchasing intent.

Thus while these three purveyors differ significantly in their stocking, quality and pricing strategy when it comes to chocolate, they each fill a large desire for their respective products. Indeed, their coexistence and success in different parts of the market is emblematic of the versatile role chocolate plays in our society—one that can be a low-cost treat, a delicacy, a consolation gift or an expression of love.

Works Cited

Abesamis, Abigail. “What’s Fancy Chocolate Made Of That Makes It So Expensive?” HuffPost Life, HuffPost News, 28 Aug. 2018, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/fancy-chocolate-expensive_n_5b7d8c4de4b07295150f25c6.

Amir, Anna. “Industry Report 31135: Chocolate Production in the US.” IBISWorld, IBISWorld, Feb. 2019, clients1.ibisworld.com/reports/us/industry/default.aspx?entid=230.

Berger, Jonah, et al. “The Influence of Product Variety on Brand Perception and Choice.” Marketing Science, vol. 26, no. 4, 1 July 2007, pp. 460–472., doi:10.1287/mksc.1060.0253.

Brenner, Joel Glenn. “Chapter Five: To the Milky Way and Beyond.” The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, Broadway Books, 2000, pp. 49–69.

Chess, Kate. “Soy-Free Chocolate.” The Equal Exchange Blog, Equal Exchange, 28 Sept. 2018, blog.equalexchange.coop/soy-free-chocolate/.

“Chocolate Assortments.” L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolate, L.A. Burdick Chocolate, http://www.burdickchocolate.com/chocolate-assortments.aspx.

Chocolate Industry Analysis 2018 – Cost & Trends, FranchiseHelp, 2018, http://www.franchisehelp.com/industry-reports/chocolate-industry-analysis-2018-cost-trends/.

Cidell, Julie L., and Heike C. Alberts. “Constructing Quality: The Multinational Histories of Chocolate.” Geoforum, vol. 37, no. 6, 2006, pp. 999–1007., doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.02.006.

Lybeck, Annika, et al. “Store Brands vs. Manufacturer Brands: Consumer Perceptions and Buying of Chocolate Bars in Finland.” The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research, vol. 16, no. 4, 2006, pp. 471–492., doi:10.1080/09593960600844343.

Martin, Carla D. “Sizing the Craft Chocolate Market.” Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (Blog), 31 Aug. 2017, chocolateinstitute.org/blog/sizing-the-craft-chocolate-market/.

Martin, Carla D. “The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 13 Mar. 2019, Harvard University: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University: Cambridge, MA.

Sethi, Simran. “What Separates ‘Craft’ from Industrial Chocolate? It’s about Diversity.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Feb. 2017, http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/the-elusive-qualities-that-separate-craft-from-industrial-chocolate/2017/02/07/1e5452a8-ecb8-11e6-b4ff-ac2cf509efe5_story.html?utm_term=.0c7775ef6e2c.

Spector, Dina. “Why British And American Chocolate Taste Different.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 27 Jan. 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/why-british-and-american-chocolate-taste-different-2015-1.

Squicciarini, Mara, and Johan Swinnen. Economics of Chocolate. Oxford Univ Press, 2016.

Terenzi, Sharon. “Soy Lecithin in Chocolate: Why Is It So Controversial?” The Chocolate Journalist, 9 Oct. 2018, thechocolatejournalist.com/soy-lecithin-chocolate/.

Wilmot, Stephen, and Aaron Back. “Are Americans Falling Out of Love With Chocolate?” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 5 Feb. 2018, http://www.wsj.com/articles/are-americans-falling-out-of-love-with-chocolate-1517832874.

Potomac Chocolate: a Closer Look at the Ethics, Marketing, and Intentions of Craft Chocolate Makers

Potomac Chocolate is a craft chocolate maker based in Woodbridge, Virginia. Ben Rasmussen is an award-winning chocolate maker who founded Potomac in 2010 and now has chocolate bars for sale across the country.  Potomac is often described as an “absurdly small” chocolate company, as it is truly a one-man show.  As I read more articles and blog posts from Ben Rasmussen, I quickly learned the truth behind that statement.  One blog post from June of 2013 simply said “Just a quick note that I’ll be traveling with my family from today until July 21st. Any orders placed will go out when I return” (Rasmussen, 2013).  Moreover, Rasmussen also wrote that he probably spends over half of the time that he is making chocolate on matters that have nothing to do with chocolate; he is everything from a “designer, custodian, accountant, salesman…and on and on.”  While he doesn’t love all of the these roles, they enable him to do what he loves, which is making great chocolate.  However, Rasmussen should be praised for far more than the taste of his chocolate. I have found that Potomac Chocolate is ethically sourced, modestly marketed, intended for all to enjoy, and made with a passion for great chocolate.

Sources of Cacao

The first thing I noticed when I looked at the catalog of Potomac bars was the variety of cacao sources.  Each Potomac bar is a single-origin bar, meaning the cacao beans used for each bar are from one particular region of a country.  Origin is particularly significant for chocolate production, as there is a long history of unethical cacao farming: some of which continues to this day.  In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie Coe writes:

“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. The countries most involved in this shameful practice are the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) and Ghana. The former alone produces nearly 40 percent of the world’s supply of forastero cacao, the mainstay of the chocolate giants. Several million African children, many of them trafficked from neighboring countries such as Mali, work under terrible conditions throughout the year…” (Coe, 2013).

Moreover, Carla Martin, a leading expert on chocolate, explains that even in the 21st century there is still prominent evidence of the worst forms of child labor on various cocoa farms in West Africa (Martin, 2017).  As a result of this troubling issue, I wanted to take a closer look at Potomac’s cacao sources.  According to Potomac’s website, Ben is currently sourcing cacao from four locations.  However, at various times in Potomac’s short history, Ben has tested cacao beans from a wider variety of sources— he said no to some of these sources altogether, while others he adopted for a short while before moving on to sources he liked better.  Here are the current cacao sources used by Potomac:

Upala, Costa Rica (3 bars): Potomac offers three different bars using cacao from Upala, Costa Rica.  This is also the first source of cacao that Ben Rasmussen ever used in his marketed chocolate bars.  The 70% dark and 85% dark bars are both comprised of simply organic Costa Rican cacao and organic sugar.  The description found on the packaging for both of these bars says: “Pure dark chocolate made from cacao grown by Finca La Amistad, a small farm in northern Costa Rica. Rich and earthy with notes of caramel, cream, nut, and red fruit.”  Potomac also offers a 70% dark bar using the same cacao beans but with the addition of cacao nibs (nibs are the most raw, pure form of chocolate).  I took a closer look at Finca La Amistad to find that the farm prides itself on having “Best quality, fair working conditions, responsible management of natural resources and long-term partnerships based on mutual trust” (Amistad, 2017).

San Martin, Peru (3 bars): Next, Potomac offers three different bars sourced from San Martin, Peru.  However, there is a discrepancy between the bars in terms of the farms within San Martin providing the cacao.  The 70% dark bar as well as the same bar with the addition of salt are grown by the same farmers.  The description on the packaging for both of these bars says: ”Pure dark chocolate made from cacao grown by the Acopagro Cacao Cooperative in the Amazonian highlands of Peru. Bright and fruity with notes of banana, raisin and apricot.”  The Acopagro Cacao Cooperative sought Fair Trade Certification in order to meet important needs like raising income levels, educational opportunities for children, and adequate healthcare for employees (Acopagro, 2017).  The third bar from this source, the 65% dark milk bar, sources cacao from a different farm.  The description on the packaging for this bar says: ”Pure dark milk chocolate made from cacao grown by the Oro Verde Cooperative in the Amazonian highlands of Peru. Rich and creamy with notes of berries and caramel.”  I found that the Oro Verde Cooperative is so small that they explicitly mention each team member’s name and credentials on their website. Moreover, they pride themselves on healthy living conditions, quality, and transparency (Oro, 2017)

Duarte, Dominican Republic (2 bars): Rasmussen also offers two bars sourced from Duarte, Dominican Republic.  The 70% dark bar was my first encounter with Potomac Chocolate.  I said something to myself like, “that’s the best chocolate I have ever had,” and quickly became interested in learning more.  The packaging description for this bar says: ”Pure dark chocolate made from cacao grown in the Duarte province of the Dominican Republic by a collection of small producers and then carefully fermented and dried by ÖKO-Caribe. Rich cocoa with notes of red fruit.”  Potomac also offers a bar from Duarte with the addition of coconut.  This description presented the biggest challenge in determining ethical sourcing, but after more research, it seems that the ÖKO-Caribe provide transparent trade and high quality (Oko, 2017).

Cuyagua, Venezuela (1 bar): Lastly, Rassmussen’s most recent addition to his list of sourced cacao is his single bar from Cuyagua, Venezuela.  The packaging description for this bar says: ”Pure dark chocolate made from cacao grown by a small cooperative in Cuyagua, located on the northern coast of Venezuela. Deep cocoa notes with subtle citrus and spice.”  In The New Taste of Chocolate by Maricel Presilla, there is an entire page about Cuyagua.  Presilla writes:

“As on other cacao plantations, black ex-slaves eventually acquired the rights to the land. Today tourism is the main industry of Cuyagua, and it is hard to get people to work the farm. But a small cooperative still works a remnant of the old farm, carrying out fermentation and drying next to an old colonial house. The day-to-day work falls on only six men and eight women” (Presilla, 2000).

What I’ve gathered from taking a closer look at these sources is that while Rasmussen does not go into too much detail on his website about the cooperatives and farms he works with, he nonetheless explicitly mentions the farming sources for his cacao.  In general, there is a clear emphasis on cacao origin for Potomac bars, which seems to suggest that Rasmussen has given the topic fair thought.  Unfortunately, this can’t be said for the chocolate world at large.  Lastly, when asked about Fair Trade Certification on Potomac’s Kickstarter page, Rasmussen responded:

“All of my cacao is currently fair trade certified, although I pay a good deal more than the fair trade price…I am also working towards doing more direct trade with the farmers who grow the cacao I use, which results in the farmers making a lot more for their cacao than they would with only fair trade” (Kickstarter, 2017).

 

Marketing

Next, I have found that Potomac chocolate is modestly marketed.  To understand the marketing behind Potomac Chocolate better, I took a trip to three different retailers in the Boston area to see Potomac on the shelves.  My first stop was Formaggio Kitchen in West Cambridge, MA.

Formaggio Kitchen in West Cambridge, MA
IMG_2432Storefront of Formaggio Kitchen in West Cambridge, MA. Personal photo.

While Potomac Chocolate was first on the shelves at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge as early as June, 2011, Dan Rasmussen was finally able to visit the shop in March, 2017.  He wrote on an Instagram post:

“I finally got to visit Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge MA and see my bars on their shelf! Best of all, I got to meet and chat with Julia Hallman who curates their chocolate selection. Julia and Formaggio have been great supporters of Potomac for a long time. They were one of the earliest shops to carry my bars” (Instagram, 2017).

Formaggio Kitchen responded to the post and said: “It was so great to finally meet you in person after all of these years! We love your chocolates and can’t wait to see what comes next!”

IMG_2439A section of the chocolate selection you can find at Formaggio Kitchen.  Personal photo. 

I was able to take a look at this chocolate curation for myself, and I then understood why there was a need for a “chocolate curator” in the first place.  Formaggio Kitchen had the largest chocolate selection of any of the specialty shops I visited.

IMG_2436Potomac Chocolate on the shelves at Formaggio Kitchen. Personal photo.

A closer look at Potomac’s packaging shows the simplicity in its marketing strategy.  Ben Rasmussen has always stood by the statement, “it’s all about the chocolate,” and this is evermore clear in his packaging.  Potomac Chocolate’s packaging is actually in fairly stark contrast to the packaging of other chocolates that you will find on the same shelves. Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate, for example, has a flashier marketing strategy on multiple levels.

IMG_2438A Potomac Chocolate bar next to a Dick Taylor bar in Formaggio Kitchen. Personal photo.

One of the most obvious differences between these two bars is the size.  After taking a measurement of the surface area of covers of each of these bars, I found that the Dick Taylor bar is approximately 47% bigger than the Potomac bar.  However, in terms of actual chocolate content, these bars are much closer to the same size than they appear. The Dick Taylor bar is 57 grams while Potomac bars are just 50 grams, a twelve percent difference.  The Dick Taylor bar obviously must compensate by being thinner than Potomac bars, which gives it the larger appearance.  This is not to say that Dick Taylor is attempting to falsely advertise to their advantage, but it shows that Ben Rasmussen is not concerned with the flashiness of his chocolate.  His initial goal is always to make chocolate that tastes the best, not make the chocolate that sells the best.  Furthermore, Potomac’s design is much simpler than Dick Taylor’s as well as many of the other chocolates found at Formaggio.  Rasmussen has changed his design over time, but it has always been minimal and clean, enough to represent the brand and the origin of the cacao.

potomacpackagingThe five-year evolution of packaging of Potomac’s 70% dark Upala bar. From http://www.potomacchocolate.com

Intended Audience

Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, MA

IMG_2516Storefront of Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, MA. Personal photo.

Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, MA is a specialty food, wine, and cheese shop that primarily specializes in their homemade pasta.  While not quite as glamorous as Formaggio Kitchen’s chocolate section, Dave’s chocolate selection is one of the first things you notice upon entering the shop.  I found many of the same chocolates at Dave’s that I did at Formaggio like Taza and Dick Taylor Chocolate.  However, Dave’s Fresh Pasta also included a wide variety of candy chocolates that I did not find at Formaggio.  As I looked more into Potomac’s marketing, this observation got me thinking about the intended audience for Potomac Chocolate.

IMG_2512The chocolate selection at Dave’s Fresh Pasta, where Potomac can be found in the upper right. Personal photo.

IMG_2546More chocolate found at Dave’s Fresh Pasta. Personal photo.

Potomac Chocolate is a craft chocolate.  This means that it is made on a smaller scale and is handmade from the bean to the bar.  Therefore, Potomac is automatically placed into a different category than the candy chocolates we are all familiar with like Snickers and Milky Way.  Who is Potomac for then?  I answer this question by taking a deeper look at Ben Rasmussen’s own story.  In a blog post from 2010, Rasmussen describes how he once ate almost exclusively Mars’ 3-Musketeers bar (Rasmussen, 2010).  He speculates that he has enjoyed hundreds, maybe even thousands of these bars, and he even remembers strongly disliking dark chocolate. One day, his family decided to have a fine chocolate tasting. Rasmussen realized that his preconception of dark chocolate was quite wrong.  After tasting a variety of dark chocolates, he tried a Hershey bar only to find that it “bore almost no resemblance to chocolate and tasted mostly like a chemical marshmallow.” Rasmussen was, as he put it, “converted to the dark side” from that point on.

Through this juxtaposition, Potomac’s presence in Dave’s Fresh Pasta feels just right. Potomac does not exist in spaces exclusive to craft chocolates, rather it can be found within a few feet of chocolates like the 3-Musketeers at shops like Dave’s.  This observation has salient implications for Potomac Chocolate’s target audience.  Perhaps someone will go to Dave’s Fresh Pasta with the intention of buying a box of Pocky and instead walk out with a Potomac bar, inspired and changed like Ben Rasmussen.  As Potomac was just getting off the ground in 2010, Rasmussen invites anyone to enjoy Potomac chocolate— he wrote:

“We’re really trying to build up a community around Potomac Chocolate Co. of friends and fellow chocolate lovers. We really want you to be a part of this crazy thing.”

Price

Wine Gallery in Brookline, MA

IMG_2535Storefront of Wine Gallery in Brookline, MA. Personal photo.

Wine Gallery in Brookline, MA is a shop for wine, beer, and spirits that strives to have something for everyone.  While 99% of the store is comprised of alcohol, it is hard to miss their Bean-to-Bar section at the checkout counter.

IMG_2532Checkout counter at Wine Gallery in Brookline, MA where Potomac Chocolate can be found in the upper right shelf. Personal photo.

IMG_2534Potomac Chocolate on the shelf at Wine Gallery in Brookline, MA. Personal photo.

At this point, I had seen Potomac Chocolate in three different shops and began to think more about the pricing at these different retail shops.  While there were discrepancies in the prices, Potomac Chocolate was always $8-$9 per bar:

Online price: $9.00 per bar, though there are savings if bought in bulk

Formaggio Kitchen: $8.95 per bar

Dave’s Fresh Pasta: $7.99 per bar

Wine Gallery: $8.50 – $9.00 per bar (as seen above)

Suppose we use the online price of nine dollars, for example.  At 1.76 ounces per bar, buying a bar of Potomac Chocolate costs over five dollars per ounce.  That’s some pretty expensive chocolate— is Ben Rasmussen just trying to make money?  Jennifer Rader with Prince William Living Magazine conducted an interview with Rasmussen, which cleared this question right up (Rader, 2013).  Not only is Potomac Chocolate Rasmussen’s second job, but he explains that finances, time, and production space have all presented challenges for the company.  The company originally got started using Kickstarter, a creative project funding mechanism that allowed supporters to help Rasmussen acquire the necessary equipment to make great chocolate.  Ben Rasmussen does want the company to grow, but he stated in the interview: “I will never allow it to grow too big that I am not involved in at least the flavor development steps…I don’t foresee a time that I’m not doing the roasting.”

In conclusion, I have found that Potomac Chocolate is a great example of a chocolate maker with ethical sourcing, modest marketing, and good intentions. It is my hope that Potomac can be a model for existing and future craft chocolate makers, as this can contribute to a bigger focus on the chocolate itself and a more ethical world.

Works Cited

Acopagro Cooperative. “ACOPAGRO – COOPERATIVA AGRARIA CACAOTERA ACOPAGRO LTDA.” Fair Trade USA. Web. 02 May 2017.

Amistad, Finca La. “Finca La Amistad.” 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.

Coe, Sophie. Micheal D. Coe. “The True History of Chocolate 3rd edition.” 2013. iBooks. 02 May 2017.

Instagram. “Potomac Chocolate.” 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.

Kickstarter. “Potomac Chocolate — Handcrafted bean-to-bar chocolate!” Kickstarter. 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.

Martin, Carla. “Modern Day Slavery.” Lecture. 2017. 02 May 2017.

Oko Caribe. “OKO Caribe, DR – 2016 Harvest.” Uncommon Cacao. 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.

Oro Verde Cooperative. “Mission and vision.” Oro Verde Cooperative. Web. 2017. 02 May 2017.

Presilla, Maricell. “The New Taste of Chocolate.” Hardcover. 2000. Revised Edition. 02 May. 2017.

Rasmussen, Ben. “Potomac Chocolate.” Potomac Chocolate. 2010-2017. Web. 02 May 2017.

Rader, Jennifer. “BEN RASMUSSEN: POTOMAC CHOCOLATE.” Prince William Living Magazine. 2013. Web. 02 May 2017.