We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Andal Balu. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Andal below.
Andal, appreciate you joining us today. Crazy stuff happening is almost as certain as death and taxes – it’s technically “unexpected” but something unexpected happening is to be expected and so can you share a crazy story with our readers
We started to design, develop, manufacture and market specialty equipment to make craft chocolate from cocoa beans (called Bean to Bar chocolate) in 2006. We were creating a machine for a very niche market and were selling to customers who came looking for us. In 2009, we formed CocoaTown as a subsidiary of Inno Concepts Inc (our parent company). In 2012 we were invited to attend a chocolate festival in Brazil. People lined up to see our machines and to learn that they can make chocolate from home with minimum investment. One of our friends told us that we should attend a seminar given by a French lady. We were reluctant to leave the booth to attend some seminar. He insisted and we went to the seminar. She was Chloe, known as Madam Chocolat. She was talking about a chocolate revolution called “New American Chocolate” or “2 Ingredient Chocolate”. She talked about 30 companies in USA that are spearheading the new chocolate movement with the help of CocoaTown. 29 0f those 30 companies were our customers. We did not realize the impact we were making until we listened to her seminar. It was a pleasant surprise to get validation from a French Chocolate Expert in a Brazilian chocolate festival about the American company owned by an Indian American family.
Awesome – so before we get into the rest of our questions, can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers.
I am Andal Balu, President & CoFounder of Inno Concepts Inc dba CocoaTown. I was born in a small town called Palani in India in a lower middleclass family. I was fifth child of 8 children and second surviving child of 4 children who survived past 8 years of age. I studied in Tamil medium at a local municipal school and government school. I did master’s degree in Botany and was hoping to become a teacher like my elder sister. I could not get a job in the college I studied in my hometown. I stumbled on a job opportunity to work in a research institute in a neighboring town for 6 months. In those days, I did not even know the difference between the Ph.D. program where you do research for 4-5 years on a stipend and the Research Assistant job that was temporary. I thought I am going to get Ph.D. degree in 6 months. I applied for it and got the job.
In 1976 Indian government introduced ARS – Agricultural Research Service, a central government job with high status equivalent to IAS (Indian Administrative Services). My M.S. professor applied for it and failed in the exam. So I was not keen in applying for this service. My colleague who also joined as research assistant wrote the exam and got the post. My mentor at the job insisted and motivated me to apply for it. Finally I applied and prepared for 6 months for this exam. I had pure Botany degree without any Statistics education. I had to learn Statistics from the books in the Agricultural University library to prepare for the exam. I was successful in getting the job as one of the 14 people (out of thousands who applied from all over India) selected and worked as a Scientist for 5 years.
I got married (it was an arranged marriage) in 1983. I had only 5 weeks between the time the marriage proposal was finalized and the time I moved to USA. I stayed home for 9 years to bring up my two daughters. I could not find a part time job to balance my duties as a housewife and mom. In 1992, I decided to start a business. We registered our company Inno Concepts Inc (short for Innovative concepts). I tried to sell different items such as Tshirts from India, Discovery Toys, Avon, Indian mixer grinder called Sumeet mixie etc. In 1996 we got distributorship for N. America to sell a wetgrinder called Meenumix grinder. I started the business from our garage. I went to India for a month to learn how to assemble, troubleshoot and fix the grinders. At that time, the manufacturer was not sure that a lady can handle the grinder business. But he saw my willingness to learn new skills and taught the whole thing about fixing the grinders. Later we became exclusive distributor for Ultra grinders to make specialty south Indian food called idlies & dosas.
We were the first Indian company to have a website to sell Indian household appliances in USA. We moved our operations from our garage to a warehouse in 2000. We were successful in marketing the wetgrinders and appointed more than a dozen dealers around the country to help our customers with sales & service. We also got our first million dollars in sales in 2007. But 2008 recession affected our sales and cash flow. We had to pivot to grow and survive. We registered CocoaTown.com in 2009 to design and sell Bean to Bar machines to make craft chocolate in small and medium scale.
CocoaTown has created and empowered 1000s of chocopreneurs in 102 countries around the world through our Patented Equipment, Education through Empowering Chocopreneurs Webinar series, Exposure in international arena through our social media and our Expertise. We are a multicultural organization – one of the city leaders visiting our office in 2017 commented that she felt like stepping into UN.
Our Mission is Pioneering Craft Chocolate Technology. Our Vision is to be the one stop shop for chocopreneurs and foodpreneurs. We focus on Sustainability in 3 areas – Cocoa Farming, our customers’ businesses, and Environment.
We also ventured into other areas over the years. In 2001, we joined with few of our friends and started Ameridian International Inc to market dance related items for Indian dance form called Bharatanatyam through eShubham.com. In 2006 we created Navarathri.com and sold handcrafted dolls. Once CocoaTown grew to certain level, we needed to focus more energy on it and we dissolved Ameridian International Inc.
Our Motto is “Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu” -“May all beings everywhere in the universe be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.”
We believe in long-term relationship with everyone crossing our path. Our values and willingness to serve our chocolate community is helping us to pivot easily.
Let’s talk about resilience next – do you have a story you can share with us?
I am very resilient and adapt myself to survive the unexpected setbacks. I did my master’s degree in Botany in India. I got the job as a Research Assistant at Central Institute for Cotton Research in Coimbatore, a bigger town away from my hometown, I had to stay on my own. It was very unusual for an unwed woman to stay by herself in an apartment in those days. I survived and thrived in a new, bigger city for 7 years till I got married and moved to USA.
During the recent pandemic we had to come up with new initiatives to survive the downturn. Our sales were down and almost nil for a couple of months during the spring of 2020. We talked to a lot of our international customers to find out how they were handling the pandemic related issues. At the same time, we also attended “Marketing Monday” webinars presented by SBDC (Small Business Development Center) through zoom. We learnt a lot about marketing. We wanted to help our customers and give hope during this tough times. In Jul. 2020, we came up with “Empowering Chocopreneurs webinar” series. We reached out to industry experts on various topics and convinced them to share their knowledge free of charge to help the chocolate community. We broadcasted the information through our social media and invited anyone in the chocolate community (even if they are not our customers) to attend these webinars for free. Slowly we built a community and scheduled the webinars twice a month. Over the last 2 years, more than 5000 people in more than 60 countries have registered and attended our webinars. Many of these webinar recordings have been viewed more than 1000 times on our youtube channel.
This initiative has helped us to keep our company in front of potential customers and helped us to grow our sales in 2021 to pre-pandemic level. Because of our resilience and increased export sales, we were chosen as “Exporter of the Year -Small business category” and Globe Award by Georgia Department of Economic Development in 2022.
In my personal life, an incident happened to show my resilience. In 2016, we went to Paris to attend our daughter Saila’s graduation from INSEAD. Our older daughter Gayathri and her husband Manu also joined the graduation. After the graduation, we had planned for a family vacation in London. We reached London on July 8th afternoon. The children went to the Clock Tower and the museum. I and my husband joined them in the museum later in the day. Within 15 minutes, I felt a nerve pulling on my right leg. It pained a lot and I could not stand. I told them that I will wait outside since I had seen the museum on my earlier trip. I felt numbness on my right foot. I kept massaging my foot. As time went, more areas of my right leg became numb. As the night proceeded, my both legs became numb. By 5 am next day morning, I did not have any feelings below my waist and I could not stand. We called the doctor and he suggested that I go to emergency care immediately. We went to the hospital and they said that I have to be admitted in the hospital and I might need a spinal surgery. Since it was a weekend, the Neurologist was not there and he told the resident doctors not to operate on me until he checks me out on Monday. They did a lot of tests including lumbar tap. They could not find a reason why I became numb all of a sudden. The only thing they found was that my Vitamin B12 level was below the recommended threshold. I stayed in the London hospital for a week and then I flew back with my husband and a nurse’s assistance and got admitted directly in Emory Hospital in Atlanta. I stayed for 1 more week and more tests followed and again they could not find the cause for my temporary disability. I spent two more weeks in rehabilitation center trying to learn to walk. I was in the wheel chair for a week and then slowly learnt to walk with muscle memory as my nerves below my waist were not transmitting the signal to my brain. Originally everyone thought that I have to be wheelchair bound. But with my positive attitude and tenacity, I learnt to stand on my feet and walk slowly with the help of walker, then walking stick and then without any external support. By September, I started traveling to trade shows. All the doctors felt that it was a miracle that I started walking so fast. I attribute it to my resilience and determination to be independent as much as possible and surely God’s grace.
Have you ever had to pivot?
In life and business, I had to pivot many times to survive and thrive. I started Inno Concepts Inc. from our garage in 1992. In 1996 we decided to be a trading company for specialty kitchen equipment used by South Indians in USA. We started with importing a small shipment of 30 machines in 1996. We got the distributorship for whole N. America and marketed the machines around the country through different community gatherings. Within few years, we had 14 dealers around the country to sell and service these machines. When we started the company many of my friends and acquaintances made fun of me that how I can build a business selling a kitchen equipment. We started with selling Indian wetgrinders. Soon we added many innovative equipment to our portfolio. We came up with our own equipment such as Idleez idli steamer (first electric steamer for idlies with calphalon coated idli plate set), Cookeez pressure cookers, Innomix Mixergrinders (called mixies by Indians), etc. We also added ICGC & RIGC commercial wetgrinders, Roteez Tandoor ovens, Grindeez Pulverizers, and more for commercial food preparation. We did not just trade the equipment but created our own line to our specifications and worked with the manufacturers to customize their machines to suit North American conditions. But due to my efforts, we reached $1M in revenue in 2007. Things were going great until we reached end of 2008.
We had warehouse full of equipment. Thanksgiving and Christmas arrived but there was zero sales. Recession had come. We used our personal funds to pay employees. We could not pay vendors. We could not get bank loan as we were using our personal money to start the business and reinvested all the profits to buy the inventory. Our friends and family came to the rescue by giving us the loan.
We realized that we had all our eggs in one basket. We had to pivot to keep the business open. From the beginning, I was directly in contact with customers through trade show booths, customer service calls, emails etc. Whenever I see a non-Indian name, I called the customers to find out what they are using our machines for and collected the different ways our machines were used. We took that list and analyzed the options. The uses ranged from making masa, for Corn tortillas, Puto, a Philippino food from rice, Chatamari, a Nepalese food from rice, different nut butters from different nuts, nut milks from nuts, Hummus from chickpeas, tahini from sesame seeds, even facial mask from sphagnum moss etc. Five of our customers were using it to make chocolate from cocoa nibs. They told us that they have to grind cocoa nibs and sugar for 48-72 hours to make good chocolate. They had to MacGuyvers to convert our rice grinders to chocolate grinders.
Of all the choices, we decided to delve into the chocolatemaking machinery. Nobody else was making the machines for making chocolate from bean to bar in small scale. My husband Dr. Balu M. Balasubramanian left his corporate job as Director of drug development in pharmaceutical industry joined the company full time. He told them that we will make the chocolate grinders so they can focus on the art of making chocolate. Alan McClure of Patric Chocolate helped us to design the chocolate grinder by giving the constant feedback in early days. He also helped us with making commercial chocolate grinders. As more chocolate makers started using our machines, we got more feedback from them and we continuously improved the grinders and melangers. In 2009, we formed CocoaTown and focused all our marketing efforts to grow that industry. Dr. Balu started to design our own chocolate grinders. He also added other machines to different processes of the chocolate making and got patent for melangers. He has also applied for patents for winnowers. He is in the process of filing patent for cocoa bean crackers. Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA presented CocoaTown the “Innovation in Fine Chocolate Products award” in 2013. Our patented machines for chocolates have helped to create and empower thousands of chocolatemakers in more than 100 countries now.
In coffee industry, they used to say that coffee farmers cannot afford to drink coffee. CocoaTown has not just enabled the cocoa farmers to eat chocolate but also to make chocolate so they can climb economic ladder by selling semiprocessed or fully processed products such as nibs, couverture and chocolate from their beans instead of selling the beans in commodity market for a meager income.
So Inno Concepts pivoted into CocoaTown to create impact around the world to survive the recession and help other businesses at the same time.
Read Original Article here - Meet Andal Balu
Edna N, Philippines
""I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone at CocoaTown for this chance of learning lots of things about cacao and chocolate making.""
Peter A, Nigeria
"I am very grateful for the opportunity to have watched the video recording. It was such a rich webinar. I fully appreciate this wonderful model of partnership which fosters and encourage us working together to escape this vicious circle of poverty that has been the lot of producers in origin countries."
Ellen and Rutger, Suriname
"With the Chocopreneurs Webinar Series a platform has been created that brings together professionals from all over the field on a multitude of industry-related topics, CocoaTown is further cementing their status as one of the mainstays of the craft fine or flavour cacao industry."