FCIA Raising The Bar - Startup Tips From CocoaTown
By Nick Baskett | Bartalks.net | July 2021
The fine chocolate industry is steadily growing as more and more consumers are realizing the benefits of healthier chocolate. CocoaTown has been active in the craft chocolate movement since 2006, providing patented equipment to chocolate makers around the world.
As you can imagine, we have learned a few lessons on our journey that we think will help the adventurous chocolate maker startups. In this article, we share some of these tips with you.
Select the right equipment
One of the most important decisions for a startup is purchasing the right equipment. Startups are on a budget, so affordability is high on the agenda, but they must still meet a diverse set of needs. If you have the budget, a complete set of machines should include a roaster, cracker, winnower, mini pre-grinder and melanger. You should budget around $5,000 if you’re based in the US to purchase a set of machines like this.
However, for many startups, it makes sense to start out with a leaner investment, and, we recommend chocolate makers purchase only the melanger (prices start at $300) and learn to use locally available tools for other processes until the proof of concept has been fully developed.
Even if the startup decides not to pursue chocolate-making as a business, they can still use the mélanger for making nut butter, nut milk, tahini, hummus, masa and other gourmet foods. When choosing equipment, opt for stainless steel and avoid plastics as much as possible. Quality, stainless steel equipment will last longer and is more hygienic as well as being friendlier for the environment.
Finally, if you are purchasing several machines and are doing your sums, then don’t forget to calculate the costs of shipping and handling. We supply the full range of equipment, and this helps keep the overall costs down compared to sourcing each machine individually.
Use space efficiently
Numerous chocolate makers start their businesses in their own kitchens (where cottage law is applicable) and later expand to commercial operations. There are numerous benefits to this approach, but that area you thought of as spacious, can quickly fill, forcing you to limit your business’ growth later, or to seek larger premises.
It is worthwhile to carefully consider your machine selection at the outset and to factor in equipment size as part of your overall decision-making process. Selecting machines that are compact saves on real estate costs and provides greater flexibility as your business expands.
Economize on operating costs
Electrical charges and labor costs can be high in some countries. We design our machines to be energy efficient for their size and output, but the manufacturer should show how much power their machines draw, and this can help you determine your ongoing costs. Consider also manual machines, which provide high output with minimum effort.
Look at equipment maintenance records
Chocolate makers should consider the cost of maintenance plus the use and care of their machines. If you are left without a key piece of machinery, the cost of a repair is likely to be outweighed by the lost sales during the time to get back up and running. The cost and availability of parts is a critical factor as you don’t want to be waiting for a part to be shipped from abroad or out of stock when your business is sitting idle. We expect our machines to run for a decade or more as long as they receive a little ongoing love and simple maintenance.
Seek startup training
Many start-ups are novices about the chocolate-making process, and we know there is an eager audience for training. Fortunately, many good training sessions are popping up, offering opportunities to learn that didn’t exist before. CocoaTown also provides an intensive “Bean to Bar Bootcamp” to train startups on different technical and business topics such as selecting beans to wrapping chocolates and writing business plans.
Following our earlier advice about starting small with just a melanger, we also teach startups how to start making chocolate with just that single machine, and using the existing tools they have for the other processes. Once they feel comfortable with chocolate-making and decide to expand, they can buy other equipment.
We find participants come from across the world, which also provides a networking opportunity and allows students to share their stories and help each other no matter where they are on their journey.
In 2020, CocoaTown started to provide our training through online webinars to help startups and would be chocopreneurs to learn about processes, equipment use & care, surviving in challenging times, bean to bar movement in different countries, post-harvest processing etc.
After Sales Support
Chocolate makers should look for equipment suppliers who offer good post-purchase support. We try to maintain and service locally, which gives the best experience to customers. We’re also finding new ways to offer support through emails, zoom calls, youtube videos and phone calls, which is what the modern chocolate maker wants.
Although support from the manufacturer is important, we found that chocolate makers are a practical group. Many of them wanted to be able to do simple maintenance themselves, so when you are reviewing equipment, look at how easy it is to take apart and get access to internals. If it is complicated and fiddly, the chances are you’ll get frustrated doing the maintenance yourself, and that can have an impact on the operation of the machine.
It’s why we make machines in such a way that a person who can handle simple tools like screwdrivers can perform most of the maintenance themselves. But if you prefer, you can also hire a local handyman for maintenance and repairs.
Did you know there are initiatives out there that might help you on your startup journey? Why go it alone when there is help available. One way we do this is to connect cocoa farmers and chocolate makers along with other industry experts. Now we also use social media to share funding options and grants available from various sources including but not limited to SheTrades, a UN initiative to help women businesses around the world.
We said at the start that you should just buy a melanger in case you decide a career in chocolate making is not for you, but conversely, you should also consider what happens if business is good and you need to expand!
If you have the funds, or you have reached the expansion stage, going beyond a melanger, then source equipment in a configuration that allows further growth. For example, starting from our Entry-level or Professional level kit, you could cost-effectively increase production capacity up to 600% – just by adding melangers. A single set comprising a roaster, cracker and winnower can support 6 melangers. If you go beyond that stage, you’ll probably be moving in commercial equipment territory. Make sure your supplier can support that so you’re not stuck looking to start a new relationship from scratch.
Develop a Marketing Plan
Chocolate makers love making chocolate, but that is only one part of the business, and many avoid thinking about sales and marketing. It’s very important to decide early on if you can manage this aspect, or find a partner that can. Starting a company that makes wonderful chocolate, but has no plan for sales, is a recipe for failure.
Develop a marketing plan that is written down, concise and practical. Make sure to use all your available resources, including considering how you will engage with social media. Instagram is home to many chocolate makers because its image-centric approach suits sharing beautiful pictures of chocolate and the chocolate-making process.
Startups can also use our #Sharethemic feature to bring awareness to their company and products to our customers in 100 countries. We have networking events where you can pitch your business to find new collaborators, vendors and customers around the world. We provided this support at no cost to the craft chocolate community, so what are you waiting for!
Access to Better Foundation
Cocoa beans are the foundation for the craft chocolate business to be viable and successful. Learning how to purchase great quality cocoa is an article in itself, but remember that the community is there to help. We support the Cocoa of Excellence program by donating machines to evaluate cocoa beans submitted by farmers from around the world, as well as for flavor labs supported by Guittard Chocolate, plus university research institutions. All of which helps farmers with their postharvest processes and supply good quality beans for the craft chocolate makers.
Be part of the Fine Chocolate Community
Cocoatown has been a proud member of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) for many years. We encourage other craft chocolate businesses to join FCIA. Our founder Andal Balu is an FCIA board member currently and leads FCIA’s diversity and inclusion committee to help businesses expand and prosper.
Unlike some businesses where you can feel isolated, the chocolate maker industry is a real community of fun and adventurous people. That community, including CocoaTown are here to help you with your startup journey.
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