Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker opened its doors in 1997. It’s also about a decade since the growth of small makers showed its first real uptick, and it’s 10 years since the publication of my book, Discover Chocolate.
This makes now a good time to look back and assess where the market is (this post) and look forward to the next decade (next post in this series).
I did a lot of traveling over the last year in preparation and doing research on this topic: Mexico, The Netherlands (twice), Iceland, Belize, Canada, Nicaragua (three times), Peru, Brasil, China, Belgium, and France. I just returned from the Northwest Chocolate Festival, capping off visits to five chocolate festivals in six weeks; with one stretch of four festivals over four consecutive weekends. In May and September I co-taught two bean-to-bar chocolate making classes in Las Vegas. As a result I have had an unusual – and unusually intense – view of the cocoa and chocolate markets from the farm to the factory to the mouth and it’s from this perspective and experience that I am writing.
Much of the approach for this series comes from experience with the launch of Ruby chocolate (search for Ruby to find those articles) by Callebaut in Shanghai this past September. The response was widespread – global – and highly polarized. However, when you look closely at the market for chocolate in 2017, it’s clear that incremental innovation (e.g., a new flavor of KitKat) is not enough to drive the kind growth necessary to sustain the industry.
The place to start ..
… is with a *realistic* assessment of the sizes of markets associated with bean-to-bar chocolate makers that are typically represented by the group exhibiting at the NW Chocolate Festival – excluding companies like Guittard and Valrhona, which cannot be considered craft makers.
There are several estimates of the number of bean-to-bar chocolate makers, using a definition of bean-to-bar that does not count larger industrial producers. These estimates tend to cluster around approximately 300 makers in the Americas and another 200 makers outside the Americas for a total of about 500 worldwide. I would call these close order estimates by which I mean that the number is not 50 and the number is not 5000. It’s also not 500 exactly, but using a nice round number like 500 makes the maths easy.
The estimates I heard for the quantity of beans that these companies purchased and processed over the past year range from 300MT on the low end (for the 300 US chocolate makers only) to 1,000-1,200MT in the middle to 6,000MT on the high side for the estimated 500 makers globally.
From what I can tell from anecdotal reports, there is a fairly large cluster of makers purchasing and processing 2-4MT year, with fewer purchasing and processing 10MT per year. There is a cluster of makers that purchased and processed 30-50MT over the past year.
The 300MT number for US bean-to-bar chocolate makers is low, given the estimate of the number of makers in the US is 300. This would mean that each maker purchased and processed, on average, 1MT of beans from all origins in the past year. That’s an average of 1.25, 65kg bags of beans, per month, per maker. If this figure is correct then it’s a miracle that most makers are still in business. Keep in mind that several of the larger bean-to-bar makers in the US process upwards of 30-50MT/yr each, making the 300MT estimate unsupportable.
1000-1200MT across 500 producers is probably also low because, the average (purchasing and processing 2~2.4MT/yr) is still too small for most makers to stay in business. This mid-range total does not easily accommodate larger makers (e.g., Taza, Theo) further supporting a conclusion that the estimate is low.
In order to get to 6,000MT it’s necessary to include the relatively small number of bean-to-bar companies processing 100MT/yr and more. It’s a stretch (because it requires a generous definition for bean-to-bar that goes beyond craft/artisan, but there are anecdotal reports to support this level of bean purchasing and processing and this makes the most sense as a close order estimate.
Assuming a total global production figure of 4 million MT, 6000MT represents 0.15% of the global harvest. If the total production for all fine flavor cacao varieties is 10% of total production that’s 400,000MT, 6000MT is 1.5% of those beans.
Next, we need to settle on an estimate of the *average farm gate price* – the price paid to the farmers, before any markup and certainly not the delivered price – of those beans. Based on the discussions I have had on this topic over the past year, I am going to set the estimated average farm gate price at $4,000/MT.
6000MT at $4000/MT is $24,000,000 (twenty-four million dollars) — the total value *to every farmer* for *all* the beans purchased by this segment of the market. Most farmers are paid a discount to the farm gate price, so the good news is that chocolate makers often pay a significant premium – often as much as 250% and sometimes much more – over typical farm gate prices. The sad news here is that so few farmers see these premiums.
Estimates of the total sales of this sector of the industry range from $100 million to $250 million. No one I spoke with could tell me if this was total retail sales, wholesale sales, or a mix of the two. Finding retail sales figures is probably easiest so this means the average *retail* sales of a bean-to-bar maker probably ranges between $200,000 and $500,000. Gross revenue to the chocolate maker must be discounted from these numbers, but to what extent is hard to know. To make the maths easy these are nice round figure to work with.
The above figures are not meant to be precise, they are meant to be easy to work with and to use to help corroborate each each other and to ensure that we’re in the ballpark, that the order of magnitude of things is correct.
The good news is that the number of small batch/craft chocolate makers is increasing. *The sad news is, on the surface, many, if not most of them, appear to be unsustainable in the long run as businesses.*
The good news is that the farmers these chocolate makers buy from often earn a significant premium over market. The sad news is that not enough farmers benefit.
How is this back of the envelope analysis helpful?
Because while being optimistic for the future of small batch/craft chocolate is important, it’s equally important to be realistic. In the absence of precise numbers it’s still important to try to create a model that assists in planning.
One phenomenon I have noticed over the past year of my travels is there is an oversupply of beans from many new bean suppliers. Everywhere I turned there was a new supplier or eleven from an existing origin and a new supplier or three from a new-ish origin who wants to sell beans and has tonnes of beans to sell.
I have huge respect for these new bean providers, especially those who are championing new business models, new supply/value chains, new ways to provide market access to farmers who have historically been denied access, and whose businesses are mission-oriented.
But one very real problem that needs to be acknowledged is there is virtually no way existing small batch/craft makers – and new ones now coming online – can absorb the supply of beans, at least the way their business are currently constituted. Continued sustained 10% overall year-over-year growth in this sector may be possible … but will it be enough to address what is obviously a fragile market?
This makes finding answers to the following questions, among others, important:
Can we do a better job of defining what the market actually is? What is the upper production limit for still being considered a small batch/craft maker? This is a non-trivial philosophical question for many makers and could be a deterrent to building a sustainable business.
- What are the capital requirements that will enable small batch/craft makers to finance the growth in manufacturing capacity and increased inventory carrying costs and overhead?
- Even if a company has the ability to finance the increase in manufacturing capacity, does the company have the ability and resources to sell all of the product it makes?
- Are there sales channels that can accept the increase in volume and turn around and sell to customers?
- Can all this growth be supported at the price points small batch/craft chocolate makers need to get to be sustainable businesses?
My thoughts on what might lead to sustainable long-term growth can be found in the future installments of my 2017 State of the Market series.
But the people you need to be reaching are still having a hard time spending more on a small, 60- or 70-gram chocolate bar than they would for a bottle of wine they could share with a few friends. More importantly — will they KEEP buying such bars the way they buy wine (by that I mean regularly and frequently enough)?
Often what the average consumer wants isn’t even chocolate, but rather chocolate-covered candy. That’s fine, and more consumers are getting into higher-end bars as their level of sophistication increases. That bodes well for the industry as a whole, but the chocolate industry will always be vulnerable to the global economy in general, because chocolate is perceived as a luxury item and not a dietetic staple (I know it is for all of us but you know what I mean). As such, in a rough economy, it’s the first thing to drop from the food budget.
Cultural trends can also impact demand in the bean-to-bar world. We’re in the midst of “sugar-phobia”, yet consumers can be resistant to extremely high percentages of cocoa. I always think it’s a bit of a disconnect for people who balk at 85% cocoa because “it’s so bitter” but they take their coffee black, no sugar and they like martinis super-dry ;] It’s hard to have sweet chocolate without sugar, so when consumer trends strike out against sugar, foods like chocolate, even excellent bean-top-bar chocolate, can take a hit.
If the bean-to-bar movement is aiming its efforts at the elite market, it’s still a fairly small one and maybe what’s needed is to understand the elite eater in more detail. Here comes the basic marketing that @thehighfivecompany is talking about, although diving into the analytics gets too costly for small producers, who probably are more interested in securing good ingredients and making good bars.
I grew up in a small family business (not food-related) and these struggles aren’t unique to chocolate makers. Most people have no idea of the difficulty of starting and maintaining a small business.
1) Small makers have no marketing budgets and do not seem to be able to self-organize in order to be able to combine resources to market effectively. Even the existing trade associations can’t market effectively.
2) While festivals can help spread the word, if the makers themselves cannot agree on terms among themselves then it’s not surprising that the message is confused.
Fairtrade is a good example. Even with all the marketing they do, it’s mostly reached a saturation point. Less than 40% of the cocoa grown on fairtrade terms is sold on fairtrade terms. I think the issues are more fundamental than you suggest they might be.
My suspicion, based on everything I saw over the past year – and talking with suppliers, makers, and sellers in London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Seattle – is that the market is saturated. There are not enough customers to double the market for the chocolate that is being made even if there were channels to sell it through and makers could afford to buy increased manufacturing capacity and beans and had the time to make it.
While small makers may not be able to create a new category (in addition to the one they already have created), they can stop referring to themselves as bean-to-bar makers and instead say, “I am a chocolate maker – what can I make with the chocolate I make?” There is a lot more to chocolate than bars. And many of the products have far better margins and are easier to make.
But one thing is clear, Tony had and has a lot of marketing money – which is exactly what all but a very few bean-to-bar makers have.
Incremental growth is not enough as you point out. What B-C did with Ruby is one very good example of what to do – create an entirely new category.
I am not convinced that having a good story is enough to double the market as long as the stories are all told independently. Do you have any concrete steps makers can take? How long do you think it will take?
For big chocolate it might be pretty hard to sell more chocolate, the market as a whole is pretty saturated i’d say (which is why they have to think creatively,… and come up with things like pink chocolate) but for b2b it’s easier. Product innovation isn’t really needed, all that’s needed is the story of the bean to bar movement (or whatever you want to call it) to spread. Not easy, certainly not, but let’s collectively focus on it. Think creatively. Work together. Yes, we need good quality chocolate for that. We need to be honest, we need to be open. But most of all we need people to understand what’s different. Why it’s worth paying more. Have a good story (the Tres Hombres sailing vessel used by chocolate makers is a good example). Something that people will remember.
Learn from big chocolate. In the Netherlands, we have Tony’s of a good example of crazy good storytelling. Don’t copy them, learn from them. We don’t need more fancy origins or packaging, we need to think more about how to spread the message. And yes, the price… i think makers shouldn’t be afraid to think creatively there too. Yes, it’s great to make your own bars at home. And scale up a bit, get your own place, etc. But why not work together with a couple makers and share facilities? Why not work together in marketing, in buying packaging? Yes it’s nice makers meet at all the festivals and have a friendly chat. But why are there not (more) discussion groups who focus specifically on topics like this, maybe it shouldn’t come from the makers, maybe it should come from chocolate stores, or others, but it’s needed. The way b2b developed so far is, i guess, the normal unregulated way. More makers, a bit more attention, even more makers, a bit more chocolate sold, etc.
But there is room for improvement, and yes it will require change. It starts with questions like you ask them, and questions that have to be asked and answered. But also in working together. I see in NL many people who are willing to get together, and actually doing so – to organize chocolate evenings, discussions, getting people from outside craft chocolate for speeches, importers working together to set up retail events. The Netherlands might not be like other countries, but i hope it can ones again be a guiding country, and i look forward to the craft chocolate future. The small maker market isn’t disruptive yet, i 100% agree. And if it continues like it’s doing now, i’m pretty sure it won’t be. But there are opportunities for change, and yes i guess fundamental questions like the first from your list might have to be adressed. And terminology.
But let’s ask these questions not only as “chocolate geeks” with a whole framework of thoughts about what constitutes craft chocolate, but let’s try to ask them and open mind and answer them with the focus on doubling market share. Craft chocolate is still tiny, i’m quite sure it can never ever be huge like craft beer, but doubling the current size, yes, let’s start with that as our collective aim.
However, my impression after all my travel is that it’s going to take a lot more than incremental small wins to really make a difference. Many people call the small maker market revolutionary or disruptive and I don’t know if this is actually the case. The small maker movement has been influential in changing many people’s minds, but I think the consumer base is pretty saturated at the moment. What will it take to double the size of market for chocolate from small makers? That’s 100% growth, not 10% growth.
I think the surest way to get there is to ask these questions, not to ignore some pretty fundamental structural challenges.