Located in Ekona, Cameroon, the center will serve, Tom tells us, "as a site for the meeting of minds—of university students, of small business owners, and of cocoa farmers"—with a goal of helping farmers set up their own artisan chocolate businesses.
We asked Tom to tell us more about his own artisan chocolate business and about his travels to Africa...
Green America: What does your business do, and what is your most popular product?
Tom Neuhaus: Located in San Luis Obispo (called “the happiest town in America” by Oprah Winfrey), we are an artisan chocolate business that sells chocolates that make your heart sing. One of our most popular products is the “SLO-Chew,” a caramel confection that comes in vegan and dairy forms. We employ ten full-time chocolatiers, wrappers, and sales staff as well as a couple of part-time wrappers, students at the high school and local university.
Our gross sales break out to 50-percent bulk sales, 35-percent online wholesale and retail, and 15-percent in-store retail. All of our chocolates are made of organic and Fair Trade ingredients, and are certified organic by CCOF and Fair Trade by FairTradeUSA. One of our chocolates, the Bean to Bar Bar, is made of organic ingredients, but is not certified Fair Trade because I am developing a small, exclusive line of high-quality organic chocolates whose beans are grown by small businesses rather than cooperatives. Our chocolate is made from cocoa beans grown in Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Peru.
What makes Mama Ganache a green business?
Tom: Our greatest green efforts focus on using ingredients that are organic and fairly traded. Most of our products are made by hand, and if we can’t find an organic product, we make it ourselves. For example, fondant, a confection that is normally purchased from large candy manufacturers, cannot be found organic. So we make it ourselves. It is used in the peppermint patties, the coconut patties, and some of the one-ounce bars.
Our heavy cream is all from Organic Valley, produced from the milk of cows that feed outdoors on grass rather than being cooped up in buildings.
We also make an effort to use low-impact packaging. Our sampling spoons are made with potato starch and our 24-ounce breaker bars, sold to bakeries, confectioners, and natural foods stores for their bulk bins, are wrapped in cellophane, which composts faster than paper.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Tom: In 2000, I started Cal Poly Chocolates, a course at California State Polytechnic University that is offered in the food science department to students of all academic backgrounds. In 2003, I visited Kuapa Kokoo, a Ghanaian cocoa cooperative with 40,000 members. Since then, I have made regular visits to 15 villages in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Cameroon, and I have brought almost two dozen others with me, including a half dozen university students, to learn about the cocoa supply chain. See www.projecthopeandfairness.org for more details or visit africatrips1347.blogspot.com to read about the annual trips. Currently, I am building a rice hulling operation in Depa, Côte d’Ivoire, and a cocoa study center in Ekona, Cameroon.
In 2004, I started making chocolate-coated cookie assortments with white chocolate bas-reliefs of themes typical of the three countries that I visit. I sold these assortments and took the money I had raised to three Fair Trade cooperatives in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Cameroon. It soon became obvious to me that altruism is not a good merchandising tool, that I could do more good by starting my own business, providing a quality product made from organic, Fair Trade chocolate with the eventual plan of doing direct trade while continuing to visit the villages.
In May, 2005, our company moved into its current quarters—above my sister’s restaurant, Splash Café. At that time, we were called “San Luis Fine Chocolates”. On the advice of an attorney, we changed the name to “Sweet Earth Organic Chocolates.” We kept that name until November 1, 2012, when we adopted the trademark-able “Mama Ganache Artisan Chocolates.”
I still teach at the university, but only part-time, as I wind down my academic career and focus more on building a Fair Trade, organic chocolate business known for excellence of product and commitment to making cocoa-growing a sustainable livelihood and visiting West Africa every August. I remain committed to involving universities in solving the problems of economic and environmental sustainability of cocoa growing.
What have been some of the challenges in pursuing social and environmental responsibility?
Tom: The biggest challenge of all is reaching and maintaining profitability. The American public is used to paying slave wages for chocolate. The fact is, the great majority of chocolates consumed in this country (75 percent) come from beans grown in Côte d’Ivoire, where children are the backbone of the industry, where over 15,000 children work under slave conditions, where over 200,000 children of cocoa farmers have never been in a school, and where the average adult working in cocoa farming makes less than $2 per day. This institutionalized poverty is enabled by a voracious American gluttony for unhealthy, over-sweetened confections.
Mama Ganache chocolate, on the other hand, is made of Peruvian, Ecuadorian, and Dominican beans, grown in conditions where the farmers make a better wage and of course grown without the herbicides, inorganic fertilizers, and insecticides so typical of the rest of the industry. The increased cost associated with Fair Trade and organic certifications percolates up the value chain, driving our costs higher. In this case, you get what you pay for. And it’s a win-win at both ends of the value chain.
In addition to expensive raw product, we suffer from the same problems faced by most businesses: undercapitalization. For example, we do not have a fondant beater. To make fondant, we pour the cooked syrup onto the benchtop, let it cool, then transfer to a mixer. This lack of proper machinery drives up our labor costs. With a fondant beater, we could pour the syrup directly into the machine, turn it on, and let it do all the work.
If we switched to a chocolate that is not Fair Trade and organic, we could save a lot of money and perhaps earn the funds to purchase the equipment. However, I’d rather quit the business than ignore my ethical standards.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Tom: My advice for other green entrepreneurs: Avoid putting all your eggs in one basket. Fifty percent of our business is just taking chocolate out of a large bag, putting it in a smaller bag, and shipping it off. Without this part of the business, we could not have survived, because the labor costs associated with making our 150 other specialty items simply are too high to be sustainable. If you had asked me about my aspirations for the business 6 years ago, I would not have guessed how important bulk sales would become to us.
What's inspiring you in the green economy right now?
Tom: There is a growing bean-to-bar movement in this country. This means that the chocolate industry will gradually deepen and widen, moving from multi-billion-dollar corporations controlling all parts of the value chain to a growing number of small businesses purchasing cocoa beans and making their own chocolate. I call this “de-colonialization of chocolate”.
Across the Atlantic, in Africa, cocoa farmers can start making their own chocolate, packaging it and selling it in towns and cities. This will make cocoa farmers knowledgeable participants and cocoa becomes more than just a cash crop.
What green product (besides your own!) can you not live without?
Tom: Thanks to a 9.5 KW photovoltaic system, my house generates 125 percent of the energy used by us and our renters. My sister, who is co-owner of the company, also built a photovoltaic system for her house that provides more than 100 percent of their power. I ride an electric bicycle to my two places of employment, as well as to do errands. I believe the future can witness excitingly positive developments—if we are willing participants.