We’ve seen a number of categories explode with premium products in recent years: coffee, beer, and even peanut butter. But recently chocolate has been on the rise. In fact, specialty chocolate is the fastest growing segment for chocolate.
Wellington Chocolate Factory is New Zealand’s original craft bean-to-bar chocolate company, and has been the market leader ever since.
“We boast the only certified organic chocolate bar in New Zealand. We’re very much driven by quality in product and the ethics of how we source our cacao beans, and being a force for good,” says founder Gabe Davidson.
“Most people don’t realise that chocolate can be like wine and coffee — origin and varietals play a big role in the flavour.
“Most of the chocolate people eat is the varietal ‘forastero’ and predominantly from West Africa. Big producers pay less for the variety — underpaying the growers — and then over-roast the beans to flatten the flavour. We source our own beans directly so we can manage quality and bring out the flavour of the bean.
“The other reason for sourcing our own beans is ensuring ethical labour in harvesting the beans we buy. About 20 years ago, major chocolate producing companies signed an agreement to eradicate slave labour in the industry. It’s estimated there’s now more slave labour in the industry than ever before — up to 2 million children have been trafficked and enslaved to service the industry.
“So being a force for good improves the outcomes for the growers that we source our beans from and the product is a way to continue to pay fairly for beans and highlight the plight of those in the wider industry.”
Wellington Chocolate Factory’s bean to bar process is more involved than your standard chocolatier using industrial chocolate.
After the beans have been ethically sourced from growers around the world, the beans are hand sorted and then lightly roasting in small batches to retain more of the natural flavour. The beans are then stoneground over 72 hours, before being tested for mouthfeel and flavour. The chocolate is then tempered and any flavours are included. Each bar is inspected before being packed and ready for customers.
I asked Gabe how he got Wellington Chocolate Factory started.
“I was a struggling musician, working part-time in hospo. I worked as a barista at Fuel Espresso and fell in love with coffee. I was on a band trip to Melbourne and spotted a gap in the market for high quality takeaway coffee laneway style,” says Gabe.
“I decided to give it a crack so I just packed up here and went over to Melbourne with $800 in my pocket. I opened a little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop to start with. It went really well and we opened another three cafes plus a roastery.
“That was a turning point — we started sourcing our own beans, delivering around Melbourne on bikes — not just to our other sites but to other cafes in Melbourne.
“In the midst of that, I couldn’t find a good drinking chocolate, so I started blending my own. That became quite popular and then my friends running Coffee Supreme in Melbourne suggested that I start bagging hot chocolate with a little sticker and they could use it and sell it in their cafes.
“When it was time to come back to New Zealand, I ended up selling the cafes to a group called Streat — they transition businesses into social enterprises — that really opened my eyes to how business could be a force for good.
“But I kept the drinking chocolate business supplying Supreme and Havana and other coffee companies like that across Europe, US, Malaysia and Singapore and Japan, and that’s been its own thing.
“Working with coffee and hot chocolate got me really interested in flavour.
“One day, I came across this video on the Mast Brothers and they were these hipster guys into making bean-to-bar chocolate. Around that time a friend brought me some craft chocolate home from a trip to San Francisco. I was eating this bar and I thought ‘wait, chocolate can be more than one flavour?’
“I was thinking to myself ‘this raspberry flavour is great’ but when I checked the ingredients, I realised it was only cacao beans and sugar. It blew my mind that chocolate could taste like more than one thing.
“When I moved back to New Zealand, I realised no one was making bean-to-bar chocolate here. In 2013, I teamed up with Rochelle, a pastry chef who could actually roast the beans and make the chocolate, and I had the capital and experience to open the Wellington Chocolate Factory. Since then we’ve had 10 bean-to-bar companies open in New Zealand and there’s enough of us that we’re wanting to start an association.
“Over time, my role has changed from a GM role to a brand promotion and ambassador role, basically finding ways to grow, innovate, collaborate with other brands and develop new products.
“I reached a point where I realised that I had too many things going on, I was burning myself out and I wasn’t being effective — someone else would be better placed to step into the business and take it to the next stage.
“It’s what the business needed — it’s really difficult to transition from a small business to a medium-sized one. We were in independent supermarkets but not any of the big chains. New Zealand is pretty small and we had to keep growing and getting chocolate in front of new customers.
“In the end, being in supermarkets has saved us because we were an essential service during lockdown — we were able to keep up cash flow because we were supplying supermarkets.”
I asked Gabe what three things he focused on to grow the brand.
“First has been production efficiency — lowering prices to serve supermarkets just amplified our inefficiencies as any room we had to move was gone in slow production if we wanted to maintain quality.
“Second would be getting the right people onboard. Getting our new GM, a new production manager — hiring people who weren’t just friends of friends, but people with the right skills, has really lifted our capability to grow.
“And thirdly, ensuring our brand and image was on track. We’ve had Inject Design with us from the beginning, and we’re now working with Thorn PR, and between the two of them, they’ve helped us stay on brand and make sure we had the right messaging to get out there and in front of people.”
I asked Gabe what advice he’d give to someone wanting to kick off their own venture.
Says Gabe, “It’s important to find something you’re passionate about to drive you through the tough times.
“Find a purpose greater than the business itself. That purpose helps you attract good people and they stay longer when they buy into the vision.
“And don’t be shy to spend money on a good designer. It stands out and staff take pride in it. You can spot terrible design and a good designer sets a standard for your brand. We’ve also been able to work with great New Zealand artists and give them creative licence and it’s resulted in aligning WCF as a creative brand.”
I asked Gabe what’s next for Wellington Chocolate Factory.
“Our 50,000 feet goal is making a better tasting world, one bean at a time,” says Gabe.
“This feeds into our areas of focus. We’d love to be a tree-to-bar company, and we’re working in the Pacific and looking to partner with growers there to that end. Part of that will be promoting world-class cacao and training those growers in the steps to improving the product.
“We’re also keen to look at exporting — the more we sell, the more beans we can buy, the better it is for farms in the region.
“And we’re also wanting the opportunity to start growing varietals, maybe through a shared farm in Samoa or Vanuatu.
“Chocolate is where coffee was 30 years ago — it’s awesome to see the industry develop but as a company we’ve got to stay ahead of the curve.”