The Sweet Science Of The Chocolate Business

Northport’s Roxanne Browning, owner of Exotic Chocolate Tastings, said commodity chocolate prices may go up because of a cocoa harvest hampered by efforts to stop the spread of Ebola in western Africa. 

Northport’s Roxanne Browning, owner of Exotic Chocolate Tastings, said commodity chocolate prices may go up because of a cocoa harvest hampered by efforts to stop the spread of Ebola in western Africa. 

Fine chocolate may become a sweeter deal for both consumers and purveyors of artisanal chocolate, a part of a $110-billion global industry that is consistently one of the world’s top four commodities.

“First is oil, then comes sugar and [chocolate] is usually swapped in an out with coffee [at third and fourth],” Northport’s Roxanne Browning, owner of Exotic Chocolate Tastings, explains.

The former advertising executive from Northport, who served as a Northport Village trustee from 1996-1998 and mayor from 1998-2002, decided after exiting politics that she “wanted a sweeter life” and tapped into her entrepreneurial spirit to launch Exotic Chocolate Tastings. The business hosts wine and chocolate tasting pairings featuring artisanal chocolates from Madagascar, Peru, Ecuador – in the Amazon, Bolivia, Venezuela, Philippines, Vietnam and New Guinea.

Not only does she help her clients dazzle guests – many of them at corporate affairs – with carefully-tailored pairings of fine wine and chocolates produced from nuanced heirloom beans, she also gets to advocate for the small chocolate makers she features. Sometime’s it’s just as simple as letting people know they exist, an effort that became a business five years ago.

“It helps the farmers and the rainforests where they grow. There’s a green, environmental impact as well,” she explains. “Our goal is to spread the mission of these fabulous chocolates and raise awareness of them.”

Technology, she said, has helped bring artisanal chocolate more to the forefront.

“The world is a lot smaller due to technology and outreach – it makes it easier for me. Even if these chocolate makers existed 30 years ago, it would have been much more difficult,” she said.

Browning said businesses like hers that deal in artisanal chocolate have not been affected by the recent Ebola outbreak that has spread throughout western Africa and beyond. Recent responses aimed at stopping the spread of the virus have hampered the annual cocoa harvest by putting a crimp on the flow of labor and trade.

That could drive up the cost of mass-market commodities chocolate, which represents about four-fifths of the chocolate market, bringing it closer to the prices of artisanal chocolates, which represent about a tenth of the market. Artisanal bars typically run $4 to $20, Browning said, and greater price parity might encourage shoppers to broaden their horizons.

“A customer may say, ‘I can buy better chocolate. It’s a few pennies more,’” Browning said.

Both are part of a world chocolate hierarchy. The mass-market chocolate, in which Browning does not deal, produces boke flavorless beans and is fueled by cheap land, cheap labor and sometimes human trafficking.

Then there’s Fair Trade chocolate trading, similar to coffee, in which market-based approaches are used to empower farmers to get a fair price for their harvest, improve working conditions, provide a decent wage and guarantee the right to organize. Then there are the chocolate dealers that she works with in the world of direct trade, in which buyers can generally offer farmers 10 times more than Fair Trade pricing.

“They’re not going to get rich, but it’s going to provide their basic needs,” she said of the direct trade model.

Some fine chocolate makers in the United States and Europe also work with farmers in the tropical belt under a profit-sharing model. Others, like the Amazonian Kichwas, who produce the popular Kallari single-source organic line of chocolate bars sold in Whole Foods, created a co-op model in which they keep all of the profits.

“They’re true entrepreneurs in the jungle. They created a co-op of 850 families - they all have a job to do and they bring this fabulous chocolate to the U.S. market,” Browning said.