Before Jean Thompson took the helm at Seattle Chocolate Company a decade ago, the scene wasn’t too far from her regular duties wrangling young kids at home. Communication was strained, facilities were in disarray, and opportunities to advance were being missed. After years of unsound financial investments and general mismanagement, the state of Seattle Chocolate Company was dismal, and the company’s leadership was resigned to let the failing ship sink.
A crossroads came in the aftermath of the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. During the 6.8 shake, the original production facility moved back and forth so much, it had to be condemned in the months that followed. Original angel investors, already under strain from previous years, were quick to peel away in succession.
Jean saw an opportunity to revamp and revitalize an ailing brand she loved.
“Maybe because we’re chocoholics,” she explained to Daily Blender. “We said, “We’ll do it!” so we moved the location and I became the owner at that point.”
Over the last ten years, she’s done more than just right the ship. She’s operating one of the top chocolate companies in the Pacific Northwest. Her culinary-inspired jcoco line has donated over four million meals with its food-focused charity work. And since 2017, through tours and events at the south Seattle manufacturing facility, she’s been working to bring a greater education and understanding of the process of chocolate to the Puget Sound community.
Learning By the Seat of Your Pants
Q: You were an investor with the Seattle Chocolate Company to begin with…
A: Yes, at the beginning of its life, which was 1991, there were about a dozen angel investors, and I was one of those. And then it never really caught traction. I think they over-invested in the machinery and put us in a really bad debt situation, and then the Nisqually earthquake happened and that destroyed the one building we were in. I think the investors were done at that point – they had been doing it for nine years, and it just didn’t seem to be working, so they left.
Q: With your professional background, you started in the marketing department at Seattle Chocolate Company?
A: Yeah, when I began, I wasn’t going to take a salary since I was only working part-time. My daughter was in kindergarten fifteen hours a week and I thought, Well, I’ll just work then and then come home and be with her. I started working on the marketing, which was terrible at that point – they didn’t even have a Valentine product. You’re a chocolate company. You have to have a Valentine product. But I was also the owner, and of course, I had opinions on things, and the person who was the CEO wouldn’t share business details with me. He seemed threatened by me, and we had a bit of a conflict, and he quit six weeks in. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I hadn’t had the chance to really learn from him, so it was sink or swim, figure it out. We didn’t have the money to hire a CEO, so I thought, Well, I guess I’ll do it. But it was full time, so I had to hire a UW student to watch my kid, and started working fifty hours a week.
Q: How did you get up to par with learning the business?
A: As I reflect back, I had no grand scheme. I just thought I’d take it one day at a time. I joke that it was kind of a kitchen remodel strategy. So I started with the shipping department, and when I walked in, it was a mess. The person who was working there would just yell out, “What do you want?” when people walked in. It was so bad. So I thought, We’ll start here, and you need to go, and we can organize that. And then the other departments were looking shabby. So I just did it one department at a time. To this day, there’s one person who was there back then who’s a food scientist and still in charge of R&D, but everyone else is completely different and new. I needed my own team.
And then a problem would come about – and there were always so many – and I would use common sense and think, This is how I would solve this problem. And lo and behold, that’s the best way to solve a problem. Then you learn something and you know how best to solve it moving forward.
It probably took ten years before I finally felt like an expert, because I had to learn so much. It was such a long learning curve. If you think about it, I had to learn about the manufacturing process. I had to learn distribution. I had to learn sales. I had to learn about a grocery consumer product channel. The marketing was easy, but I had to learn what was going on in the chocolate industry and those competitors. What are my price points, etc.
That’s the Way the Chocolate Crumbles
Q: Throughout your years in business, have there been any big surprises for you?
A: The one that pops to mind with that one is that I was under the assumption that bigger is better. You always see in the Puget Sound Business Journal or Wall Street Journal, the “Fastest Growing” or “The Biggest.” That sort of thing. So I thought bigger was better. I learned the hard way that growing at all costs was basically going to be the demise of my company. Just the costs, the infrastructure, not being able to deliver on time, or scale up quickly enough. It was the biggest learning curve.
The industry keeps getting more and more competitive, and I think we’re at the point where we finally understand how the channel works, as opposed to people who are new to the market, to the chocolate business, who are still learning that stuff. I feel lucky that I got a bit of a head start before it became one of the most popular industries to be in.
Q: I really love the jcoco line, both in its community involvement as well as being more a “culinary” chocolate bar. How did that concept come about?
A: Our jcoco line was something we came out with at the tail end of the recession. One of those things that was like, rather than staying close to our core, this is a great time to do something different while everyone else was hunkering down. We wanted to come up with our high-end chocolate bar. We felt like that was the part of the market that was heavily protected – most people with money don’t want to be overly showy but they still want to be able to do the stuff they want to do. Then we thought, Let’s do everything in this line that we have learned about in the chocolate industry that’s important to us.
So we made it a solid bar – the Seattle Chocolate Company truffle line is meltaway centers and is still super popular, but we wanted to do something different – something bigger with whole pistachios or figs, or puffed quinoa. Culinary ingredients instead of the standard comfort flavors like mint or marshmallow. We had a different strategy for the line so that we would understand what was a jcoco innovation and what was a Seattle Chocolate Company innovation.
We were always very generous whenever we received requests for donations – we always did it but we weren’t focused about it. No sense of accomplishment of having made a difference in any one area. It was scattered. So we thought, Well what would we do? Let’s do something with women and children. Most organizations weren’t interested in our donations because they didn’t meet a certain level of money, because, you know, we’re little! So we thought, You know, at the end of the day, we’re a food company. And every day it breaks my heart to hear about people struggling – one in six Americans have a food challenge. Kids going to school without breakfast and counting on lunch, and in the summertime, they don’t eat at all. So we thought, Well we are food, so what if we gave to food banks? Not just giving assistance during the recession. Not going to the origin, which is clearly in need of assistance but rather in our own backyard.
So that’s what we’ve been doing for the last seven years – almost four million servings of food that have been donated! And in 2020, it’s time to do something a little different, so we’re thinking first, making it bigger, so it’s not just jcoco but both brands giving. Everything we do would give back. It makes a difference with us, and it’s made a difference with our consumers who have said, “Yes, we needed a good excuse to buy chocolate and now we’ve got one.” We’re thinking perhaps shifting our focus solely to women’s causes because we are a woman-owned company and that’s also resonating with people. Women and children are near and dear to our hearts. Maybe smaller organizations and moving more into a grant format. We’re hoping to roll that out over the next five to six months. We’ll continue to do the food mission until that launches.
Q: With the climate change crisis happening, does it keep you up at night wondering where the chocolate industry will head over the next decade?
A: I don’t think it keeps me up at night, but it’s certainly something we all need to worry about. We went to Nicaragua – I’ve been to a number of the origin countries to gain a greater understanding of how the process works, what the farmers’ lives are like, how they’re growing. One particular farmer we met with, who is successful with his work, showed us the map of his whole property, and how he’s replacing his coffee plants with cocoa. Coffee requires wild swings of temperature to grow but with global warming, you have to be at a higher and higher elevation to achieve that. He only owns the property he has, so he was finding that he needed to replace the coffee with the cocoa in order to keep his business going. He had his own small weather station where he was studying the rainfall and the temperature and mapping it with how the crops were growing.
He was very scientific in his approach, and most growers are not and will be scrambling as temperatures shift, so we try to work with the Rainforest Alliance certification to go in and train them on good farming practices and what to do protect themselves as its happening. Cacao luckily is a little more resilient, but it’s a rainforest crop, so it needs the water, the canopy, so many things that if they went away, it wouldn’t grow anymore. It’s a real concern.
The reason I don’t stay up at night worrying about it is because the whole world is facing this. Are we going to have whales in ten years? Are we going to have gorillas in five years? To me, it is so depressing, I can’t stay up at night worrying about it. I’d never sleep.
So we try to buy our Seattle Chocolate Company chocolate from places that are thinking about it, working with the farmers. We’re trying to be more in the direction, especially with jcoco, of going to the grower directly, rather than working with a manufacturer who sources a mix of beans.
Q: Who are the leaders who have inspired you along the way?
A: I don’t think there was necessarily a leader in the chocolate industry who inspired me, but since I worked at Microsoft, I always come back to Bill and Melinda Gates. I didn’t know them, but I always looked to them, and what they’ve done. He was so brilliant running that company, and I worked beside her way back when, and she was equally brilliant. What they’re doing with their money is so inspirational. We’re so tiny and we’ll never be able to be them, but in our little corner of the world, we’re able to make a difference. I like the way they think about the realities of the real world. They’re kind of my role models, as some would say.
Q: What are your hopes for the future of Seattle Chocolate Company?
A: Our mission is really to brighten people’s days, and we use chocolate doing it. We just had a haunted chocolate factory for Halloween. We have our tours, which is really about entertaining people with chocolate. But something that’s near and dear to my heart, tying back to your earlier question, I’m really hoping we can build more partnerships with other people in our industry to elevate chocolate a bit, where they don’t think of it as sugary candy anymore, they think of it more like a food. They think of it as something that is fermented and dried and roasted and all this process that goes into making a delicious chocolate bar. Not to mention, there are so many varieties of cacao that are out there in the wild that nobody’s using, that taste different. When you break them open, even in the middle of the field, the pulp tastes different from one pod to the next. From one tree to the next. It’s fascinating, and so many people know nothing about that, which is why we opened the tour. We want to keep educating the people who visit more and more on the complexity and the sophistication of cacao.
We need, in order for the farmers to have a better living, to pay them more. We have this really tough, artificially low ceiling in chocolate where people are like, Oh my God, you’re charging $5 for a chocolate bar? And I’m like, Yes, are you kidding me? If I drew out and diagramed every person who touched this bar, every process that went into it, you would be blown away at how inexpensively we do it. And honestly, nobody’s making any money; the farmers least of all. So I think we need to start thinking more about chocolate, and giving it more respect, which it deserves. Then you wouldn’t bat an eyelash at paying ten dollars for a chocolate bar, because you’re not going to gobble it down. It’s going to last you a day or two. We should liken it more like wine. Twenty-five dollars for a bottle of wine and you don’t even think twice about it – and a lot of work went into it!
*Photo credit: Jean Thompson/Seattle Chocolate Company