One of the most exciting things about running a startup is the potential for experimentation and innovation - you can do what you want with less compromise. And nowhere is this more evident than in the proliferation of small businesses where quality and technique is paramount. One business doing this is Lucocoa, London's first bean-to-bar company. Co-founder Ama Uzowuru chats to us about the startup journey.
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How did we start London’s first bean-to-bar chocolate company? Well, that’s a good question to ask someone who has no background in food or confectionary, but felt that there was a job to do.
After graduating from running to amateur boxing, I was really keen on looking deeper into nutrition. After looking at a wide range of foods and wanting to start a business that offered healthy food I really felt that there was a job to do with chocolate. It’s one of the few things that we eat so much of in the UK but know so little about.
Andy and I looked at the journey of chocolate from Mayan and Aztec times, when chocolate was seen as food of the gods. Over time we managed to reverse that to be a guilty pleasure by adding emulsifiers, white refined sugar, additives, preservatives, vegetable oils and more. As a result we are used to paying very little for chocolate – and believed that chocolate should be cheap. The more we discovered, the more we were horrified. To add to that, we discovered that amongst the hundreds of brands selling chocolate in the UK, hardly any were making the chocolate from scratch using cacao beans as their first ingredients. Rather they are buying half-made chocolate (cocoa mass, cocoa liquor) and finishing off with their own ingredients. As a result, there are these perceptions of dark chocolate as being bitter, milk chocolate being too sweet and white chocolate being barely classed as chocolate.
So in Dec 2014 we decided to change this. We wanted to roll chocolate back to being closer to the food of the gods by importing the best-quality cacao from around the world, using coconut sugar and lucuma (a superfood fruit from Peru) instead of refined sugar to sweeten all our bars, and spending up to four days making our chocolate, which allows the multi-faceted flavour of the chocolate to emerge. Finally, we also avoid the use of additives, preservatives and emulsifiers. By doing this we joined a niche, small group of around fifteen bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the UK.
Imagine if I told you that chocolate is actually like wine or coffee, that different regions in the world create different flavours. Now, that’s the chocolate we need to get to know and love.
After spending our Christmas in 2014 experimenting with cacao beans (they are such complicated little things), we roasted, crushed, ground and tempered batches and batches, testing roasting times, grinding days etc. We taught ourselves how to make chocolate through reading books and scrolling through the internet! After a while we finally hit alchemy, and decided that we really wanted to shine a spotlight on real chocolate.
We found some amazing farms that had the fairest practices. We pay our farmers more than Fair Trade rates as we felt this was the right thing to do for the quality we were getting in return. We import our beans from Madagascar, Belize, Guatemala and Dominican Republic. Haiti will be coming soon!
We were so passionate about our mission to reveal the real face of chocolate that we imported 250kg of beans. We were learning on the job, and when the beans landed in Heathrow DEFRA didn’t blink and seized the beans because we didn’t have a certain piece of paperwork. This was 3 weeks before we were due to launch at the Chocolate Festival in March 2015. Panic set in, but we negotiated with DEFRA and thank God our beans were released.
We got on with making our chocolate and launched at the chocolate festival. We sold our first bar of Dominican Republic 70% to a guy called David, and we were off! We had a great festival and we loved the reception we received. We did quickly realise that we wanted to refine our product as this was version 1.0 - it was well-received, but we knew it could get better. We spoke to an amazing chocolate maker called Duffy, who happens to be one of the first chocolate makers in the UK, and we learnt lessons pretty quickly.
From the festival, we moved into markets. We were trading at Brick Lane’s Backyard market for about a year before moving over to Primrose Hill market. The number one thing markets are great for is product testing, refining your product and testing your concept. Our concept was; will the public pay the right price for a premium bar of chocolate? What do they think about the sugar alternatives, and how can we get feedback on the bars that we had already? Can we use the markets for new product development?
Tick, tick, tick, tick. The public paid, they loved the coconut sugar and lucuma combo, they helped us develop the flavours of our bars and. after demanding a milk chocolate, they helped to bring our 50% Dominican Republic milk chocolate to life, crowd-sourcing it. Is there a better way to make something work?
Where we are now
I still work full-time - I’m a project manager at Unicef, and after working a full week and doing markets it began to tire me out. Andy ran the numbers and we decided that for the ROI we should say goodbye to markets and hello to stockists.
One of our first stockists was Raw Press and it was great to be able to get the ball rolling with a brand that our values aligned with. After that came Wholefoods Market, ACE Hotel, Ethos Restaurant, Origin coffee etc.
We love running our bean-to-bar chocolate company. Challenging the chocolate status quo and educating people about what real chocolate should actually taste like will take time, but we’re enjoying the conversations, feedback and support we’ve had from people that interact with our chocolate and other bean-to-bar craft chocolate companies!