Finally the loons are getting some credit. Or at least some face time on what is fast becoming one of New Hampshire’s top chocolate brands.
Manchester, New Hampshire-based Loon Chocolate, led by unassuming proprietor Scott Watson, and dog, Jackson, took their own spin on the state motto “live free or die” to craft the (more palatable) “live free and eat great chocolate.”
Grit Daily: You had your own interesting entrepreneurial adventures before Loon Chocolate. Share those.
Scott Watson: Back in the mid 90s I was the head brewer of a small craft brewery in New Hampshire. After about 7 years of creating craft beer for a career, I had to stop because of the wear and tear on my body.Fast forward to 2017, I was watching a documentary on Vietnam and in a small cafe, they were roasting cacao (cocoa beans) to make chocolate.
This got me wondering, How do you make chocolate? What makes great chocolate? Why don’t I and many Americans know this? I began researching craft chocolate and admiring the products that were coming out of different parts of the country. To me it was all very similar to the craft beer market I was apart of in 1995 to 2000s.
Chocolate makers were using traditional techniques and limited, high quality ingredients to make craft chocolate. Makers were embracing the diverse flavor profiles of Cacao from different countries and regions. Starting in May of 2018 we put our heads down and got to making our version of great chocolate. Loon Chocolate was born.
GD: For the uninitiated, what is “ethical chocolate making?”
SW: For us, Ethical chocolate starts at the source. We work with importers that bring micro lots of organic Cacao to the states. Normally from small estates and co-operatives (currently from 5 different countries). For example our Maya Mountain Cacao from Belize is grown by a co-op of just over 300 farmers — about 15% of which are women.
These farmers are paid about 125% over the average prices in West Africa where 2/3rds of all Cacao is grown. So for us, paying a fair price for highly premium ingredients that places more funds into the hands of the farmers, is important to us and we want to continue to support those efforts.
GD: What’s behind the Loon Chocolate name?
SW: Before I started the company and choosing a name, it became very important to me that the product was going to represent New Hampshire the best we could in our packaging. The Loon is an black and white aquatic bird found in many parts of the country, known for being independent and a quite good yodelers.
Loons have always been a special sight to see when in the Lakes Region or the White Mountains since I was a kid camping on the lakes of New Hampshire. Whether its a mother with her floating nest, or carrying their young on their backs in the early days and watching them dive deep fishing — always waiting for them to pop back up — they have been a unique bird and a joy to watch. We think it represents our unique New Hampshire style very well.
GD: Why wade into what looks like a very crowded market for chocolate?
SW: While the category of chocolate might seem endless, I don’t think the craft chocolate market is a crowded market at all. No different than Napa wines in the 70s, or craft beer in the 90s and the recent boom of 3rd wave coffee. Other specialty categories have seen the same in recent years like; Heritage pork, Heirloom tomatoes and Brick Oven pizza.
Foods that used to be part of everyday life and got lost in an industrialized mid 20th century. Today’s consumers are willing to try and embrace the diversity in the food they consume.
GD: Your “spirit elixirs” that combine alcohol with chocolate are a twist. What’s the story behind that?
SW: Our Elixir Kits were inspired by some others craft makers in the Pacific Northwest making similar items. The Elixir kit is a DIY for people to infuse chocolate flavors into their favorite spirit. It’s a fun interactive gift for people and it is also a way to educate people that chocolate doesn’t just have to be about an over sweetened candy bar. By making it themselves, customers can also control the sweetness level to there personal preference.
GD: What has been your best avenue for sales so far? Or — at least — what do you know doesn’t work for sure?
SW: For us, being a young company we are still learning to swim (pun intended). Currently using social media to drive brand awareness has been very helpful. But getting the opportunity to be at pop up events and get face to face with customers has been extremely valuable.
Getting the 2-3 minutes with a consumer that is interested and may or may not know what they like or even what a cacao pod or bean look like. For our market to grow, education is a large part of it and we try to put in the time to do so.
It makes me very happy to meet someone that doesn’t eat chocolate because of an allergy to dairy, corn or soy and see their eyes light up when we tell them that most of our bars are made with just cocoa beans, organic cane sugar and cocoa butter. Gluten, soy and dairy free.
I think what doesn’t work for us: focusing on price. When scale allows us to do so, we will adjust our prices and carry over to the consumer, but for now creating our best chocolate and getting the opportunity to share with others is our primary focus.