So you’ve started your own chocolate company and have found some loyal customers and gotten a few great pieces of press published. Congratulations! Now you’re looking to scale. But it’s easier said than done to move from a home business to a more professional environment.
After 10 years in business, Fruition Chocolate Works knows this firsthand. Here are our four top tips for scaling your business.
There are two important ways to differentiate your company.
The first is to consider how to differentiate your products from similar lines on the market. Your products and services probably already speak for themselves. Maybe you make delicious bean-to-bar chocolate. Maybe you create seasonal bonbons with local ingredients. But are there other things to add to your line that will be “easily fan grabbing,” in our CEO Dahlia Graham’s words? For example, knowing that customers love chocolate-covered caramels, Fruition took the idea and made it our own, differentiating ourselves by using our own bean-to-bar chocolate to enrobe them as opposed to chocolate pistoles (what 99 percent of chocolatiers use).
The second way doesn’t involve rethinking your chocolate. Instead, it’s about how you engage with the market more generally. Most businesses find one method that works for them and then stick with it — say, social media and awards. But this can be narrow and limiting.
The trick is to combine many methods into an overarching strategy that allows you to broaden:
- Cold calls
- Social media
- Awards recognition
- Organic growth
- Direct distribution
- Working with distributors
In particular, working with distributors internationally will ensure that your customers will be able to find your products across the world: We work with A Priori Fine Foods in the U.S., Cocoa Runners in the U.K., and the High Five Company in the Netherlands. These three plus our own efforts mean that we’re in nearly 500 locations worldwide.
However, don’t underestimate working directly with stores or organic growth. Both of these avenues are instrumental.
Many brands believe that in order to scale, they need to take on investors and make a drastic shift to a larger factory. There was a time we looked into larger growth and toured commercial real estate. But this shift isn’t always necessary. We opted to stay in our original space, because it required the least immediate investment and the smoothest channel for growth without changing too much at once. This was instrumental in keeping staff, furthering a sense of place and identity, and continuing the ability to have everything under one roof.
Similarly, many companies believe they need to set goals like tripling sales year over year. But a modest goal of 40 percent to 60 percent growth year over year adds up. It also allows you to keep laser focus on quality and constant improvements to your product line. For us, this improvement has come in the form of new cacao origins, the flavor of finished products, limited-edition items, and new items.
If you put a quality product out there, then people will come back for more. Word of mouth is powerful. (Though we’ve spent more hours on Instagram marketing than we’d like to admit.)
Balance Production and Sales
Owning a chocolate business is a constant seesaw of production and sales. It can be tricky to find the right balance. As demand increases, you need more people and more-efficient equipment — as well as more physical space.
At Fruition, we live by co-founder Bryan Graham’s mantra: “Never grow so fast that we can’t maintain or exceed the quality.” This extends to two main areas. First, new gadgets are fun, but it’s essential to carefully select equipment that you feel can help your company meet the growing demand and actually aid you every day in making better-quality chocolate.
This mantra also applies to hiring. As a small business owner, you probably have your hands in most tasks on a day-to-day basis. But if you find yourself filling in jobs that you, as the owner or CEO, shouldn’t be doing — taping boxes, stamping expiration and batch numbers on bar wrappers, answering every customer service inquiry, and jumping in as barista — then it’s time to hire someone. At that point, you already know where the gaps in staffing are and can make adjustments accordingly. That way you can step back and, as Dahlia does when everything’s running smoothly, focus on strategic growth and partnerships.
Attend Industry Events
This is the fun part! Industry events not only connect you to your consumer audience but also to your peer group of businesses in the chocolate industry. It’s one thing to email with another chocolate company or cacao bean distributor. But to meet face to face (or these days, over Zoom) cements the relationship in a concrete way.
We’ve made some of our strongest friendships through craft chocolate — so much so that we were involved in the organizing committee for three years of Chocolate Maker’s Summer Camp, where chocolate makers and cacao-sourcing friends gathered together for three days in the Catskills to exchange ideas around the bonfire. Being involved in industry events also paved the way for Dahlia to become current chair of the membership committee for the Fine Chocolate Industry Association.
Here are a few other industry events that are well worth attending:
- Fine Chocolate Industry Association twice-yearly meetings
- Good Food Awards
- International Chocolate Awards celebration party
- Fancy Food Show
- The Big Chocolate Show
- Dallas Chocolate Festival
- Northwest Chocolate Festival
One of the best parts of the chocolate community is that these events feel less like networking and more like catching up with old friends — and meeting new ones.