What better way to introduce you to Cocoa Runners than to ask co-founder Spencer Hyman and “Chief Chocolate Officer” Dom Ramsey a few questions from Kavey Eats.
Can you give us a brief synopsis of what Cocoa Runners is all about?
Spencer: Cocoa Runners is trying to bring our customers the world’s best bean to bar chocolates. We do this via a monthly delivery service where we send our customers four bars picked around a theme, in a specially designed box that fits through your letter box. Every box also contains detailed tasting notes for each bar alongside introductions to their makers and growers. And our online Chocolate Library gives our customers access to more bars and more information
What gave you the idea for Cocoa Runners and how did you develop and fine tune it?
Spencer: We all love chocolate, and we were all frustrated by how hard it was to find great chocolate. Almost every corner store and supermarket sells chocolate. But much of the chocolate they sell is confectionery and there is no guidance or easy way to find great bars. So we thought about how the likes of Hugh Johnson and Tony Laithwaite made wine accessible and available – and now we are trying to use the web and mobile to do the same for fine chocolate. We’ve a team that has been doing ecommerce since the beginning and we very much believe that online gives you great opportunities to access and learn about what your customers want. For example, pretty much from the outset we’ve heard from our customers that they wanted a “dark only” option – so we’ve developed this. Similarly many of our customers want to gift a subscription – so we are now rolling out this functionality
I think Cocoa Runners has come at just the right time, as more and more Brits are discovering the joys of good chocolate but so many are new to it and keen to learn more. How did you decide it was the right time to launch and what were the key challenges you faced in bringing Cocoa Runners to fruition?
Spencer: Thanks! We think it’s the right time too. We’ve wanted to do this for ages. And we do think that now is a great time for great chocolate – not least as we’re seeing more and more artisan manufacturers launching “bean to bar”. The UK has been blessed with Willie and Duffy, who’ve been around now for quite a few years. And now almost every week there are new makers – for example in the UK there’s Pablo (Forever Cacao), Chris (Pump Street Bakery) and Ali (The Chocolate Tree). The US is also exploding – makers such as Mast, Frution, TCHO, Taza and Dandelion pioneered the way and last year over 50 new “bean to bar” manufacturers launched. And outside of this, bean to bar is taking off in cocoa growing regions – from South America and Madagascar to Vietnam and Hawaii. So we can really spoil our customers with a choice of makers from Brooklyn to Budapest, Saigon to San Francisco and Copenhagen to Cleethorpes.
You’ve sampled hundreds of bars to choose the ones to include in the Cocoa Runners boxes. Can you tell us a little about how you narrowed down the selection and what criteria you considered when picking the perfect bars?
Dom: Before we even taste a chocolate, the first thing we look at is provenance. We think it’s important that chocolate is traceable, sustainable and that it’s doing good for the cocoa farmer, and if we don’t think it lives up to those standards, we won’t consider it.
When it comes to taste, sometimes it’s a clear “yes” or “no”. When you’re dealing with small-batch craft chocolate, the passion and attention to detail of the maker often comes through in the flavour. More often than not though, we’ll still pick specific stand-out bars from a range rather than take everything.
I think it also helps that there are two of us doing the tasting. I taste most of the chocolate with Jennifer Earle, and although we’ve both been tasting chocolate for many years, we have different personal tastes. That helps us see past personal preferences and just choose the best chocolate.
Talk us through your chocolate profiling system and how you are using this to make recommendations that help customers find chocolate they love.
Dom: When developing Cocoa Runners, we looked at many different systems for profiling the flavour of chocolate, from flavour wheels to graphs. They were mostly difficult to decipher or just not very useful. We wanted a really simple system that would both help us classify the bars as we taste them, and let our members see what to expect at a glance.
What we came up with was a simple list of the most common attributes we find in chocolate. The list encompasses texture (smooth, coarse, etc.) and the natural flavour notes found within chocolate (fruity, spicy, earthy, etc.). We mark out each attribute that applies to the bar we’re tasting (so you can, for example, search for all ‘fruity & spicy dark chocolates from Peru’), then pick out three attributes for every bar that describe it at a glance.
Our tasting cards and website have icons these attributes, so you can see at a glance what to expect. This also means that we can build personal recommendations based on the types of chocolate you’ve liked in the past. Like a dating site, we find the attributes you’ve enjoyed the most and can recommend other bars that share those attributes.
What is it about chocolate that makes it so popular?
Dom: I think the first thing that makes chocolate popular is the taste. It’s wonderful, comforting, and a little indulgent. But with the kind of chocolate we have eaten in the past in this country, there’s also a level of guilt attached. We want to change that part!
We really want to spread the message that great chocolate is good for you and makes a tangible difference to the lives of cocoa farmers in some of the poorest parts of the world. All of the chocolate makers we feature have fascinating, uplifting stories themselves, and we think sharing those stories is a vital part of what we do. These people are passionate about flavour, sustainability and the environment.
It’s such an exciting world to be involved with, and we just want to share that excitement with as many people as we can.
So what did I think of my box?
I like the packaging on two levels. Firstly, it’s designed to fit through the letterbox and protect my chocolates in transit. Both of those it does very well. Secondly, it looks good – I think the logo is really attractive and I love the old-style map printed on the inside of the box lid (see below).
Of course, the name of the business is great too; a clever play on words suggesting that chocolate is the recreational drug of choice and these guys will break all the rules to get the very best of it to my front door. It’s bold and a little risqué without actually using any naughty words at all and it makes me smile.
The tasting attribute icons are very helpful. Really easy to identify, they categorise each bar according to chocolate type, added flavourings, texture, flavour strength and flavour notes. Each bar comes with a card featuring the three key attributes for that chocolate plus more detailed tasting notes on the other side. As Dom has explained, this makes it easier to identify your preferences and find other bars with similar profiles. My only issue here is that each chocolate is summarised with just three icons, and given that one is always chocolate type, that only leaves two icons to cover the other four categories. Still, it’s a simple system and I can see it being really useful to customers. Oh and the graphic design on the icons is beautiful too.
The chocolate itself is absolutely superb. This much I expected, as the team includes some very knowledgeable experts who are passionate about great chocolate. I’ve already been introduced to some marvellous chocolate via these same experts over the years, so I knew they’d choose only the best to go into these boxes.
Each box has a theme. The first three boxes in any subscription will be Origins (which includes chocolate from some of Cocoa Runners’ favourite cocoa growing destinations), Texture & Flavour (which, as the name suggests, explores some of the wide range of both that you can find in chocolate) and Intensity (which, likewise, does what it says on the “tin”). After that, you’ll be sent boxes according to the theme Cocoa Runners have put together for that month.
The introductory offer is £16.95 per box (dropping to £14.95 if paid quarterly rather than monthly) and each box will contain 4 bars. That price includes UK delivery; they can also ship to the EU for an additional £2.50. You can specify in your profile that you wish to receive dark chocolate only, but as the FAQ points out, “there are some fantastic milk chocolates that most people have never tried. Some of them are even 70% cocoa.” Certainly the Menakao Madagascan Vanilla 44% milk chocolate in my box is delicious and something I think even those who usually eschew milk chocolate may enjoy. Cocoa Runners also offers subscribers the option of purchasing additional bars (either of chocolate they’ve received in their boxes and loved or of any other bars in the extensive chocolate library). Postage for these orders is £2.50, free on orders over £20.
Earlier this year, one of the client projects I worked on meant long video conference meetings with colleagues in the US every week. The meetings were long and (let’s be frank) a little boring so I took to bringing in chocolate samples I’d been sent to review, to add a little joy to proceedings. I was delighted to bring at least a couple of my colleagues around to the idea of taking origin and flavour profiles of chocolate into consideration and giving higher quality chocolate a chance over the cheap, sugary brands they were more familiar with.
Cocoa Runners aim to do this on a far larger scale and with even more exciting chocolate sourced from all around the world.
I think it’s an absolutely excellent idea and it is just as good in execution. Colour me impressed.
I am delighted to invite readers to enjoy £3 off their first month’s subscription to Cocoa Runners by using discount code “kaveyeats”. This code is valid until 31 January 2014.
Kavey Eats was sent a review box by Cocoa Runners.
I believe in open and honest disclosure; please note that I am friends with several of the Cocoa Runners team. As always, I have shared my honest opinion of the product.