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Theo Chocolate

Sixteen years in

Being the first organic, fair trade certified chocolate maker in North America sets a certain expectation. Now in their sixteenth year with many new (and continuing) team members and CEO, are they meeting/exceeding their original dreams and goals? The short answer is, yes.

They still believe that organic ingredients are better for everyone, and that fair trade practices are the way to help farmers make a living wage. "Our premise is to support farmers and a crop that needs more exposure," explains Outreach and Education Manager Aaron Lindstrom who has been with Theo for seven years. "We're using single origin cocoa from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and pay a premium price for high-quality beans and to ensure living wages are paid, along with fair trade development fund premiums. Watalinga cocoa farmers determine where fair trade development funds are used to benefit their communities. They choose to have a portion of the money go into building local education and another portion to the farmers as cash. The Congo produces a fraction of the world's cocoa, but we're a small company. We find that we can do more good on the ground level by focusing on one area. The quality of bean harvests coming from the Watalinga community is amazing. It's a symbiotic relationship; we help with finances and stability by buying their beans. We turn them into chocolate products to make a profit, enabling us to continue to buy their beans."

Chantal Patane, Etienne Patout, Aaron Lindstrom

Etienne Patout was hired in 2018 as the CEO. His background was in senior positions at Kraft Foods, Kellogg's, and Pharmavite. "We needed to take Theo Chocolate to the next step," notes Aaron. "It's like a garage band that needs help going big. We needed to move from a start-up to a small company. The family company feel is still here along with our pillars of organic and fair trade practices; we're keeping the heart of Theo." They've always believed they should do the right thing for the industry and customers, even if it makes things more difficult for them. For instance, most chocolate makers use soy lecithin as an emulsifier, but it's a huge allergen concern. Theo uses extra cocoa butter which is harder to work with due to its high fat content, but it allows more people to enjoy Theo Chocolate.

Their confection team creates smaller store items, and two product development managers work on larger items like chocolate bars. Katy Radtke has been with Theo for eight years, and in 2020 Chantal Patane stepped in to play a larger role in product development. "Now they are the dynamic duo," laughs Aaron. Some of the new items are organic bars: extra dark (85%) vanilla cocoa nib, hazelnut crisp milk chocolate (45%), and extra dark (85%) salted cashew. New items are always in progress, but the current excitement is over the new organic Cookie Bites: snickerdoodle with vanilla cookie in cinnamon milk chocolate, mint chocolate-chocolate cookie in mint dark chocolate, and double chocolate-chocolate cookie in dark chocolate. "We come up with good things all the time, but these are amazing," says Aaron. "You have a few, then a few more, then you realize you've gone through the bag! In June, the Cookie Bites became available in Whole Foods Market. You can find other Theo treats at all types of grocery stores in the chocolate aisle, baking aisle, candy aisle, healthy snacking aisle, as well as on"

Factory tours, classes, and the retail store had to be shut down due to the pandemic-bad for the bottom line and for customers. Two employees had cars and began a delivery service, Theo To Go. An Amazon store was opened, "…which is why we're here today…" says Aaron. In one day, they shipped more packages than an average Fed Ex location. "All of this was a powerful experience," recalls Aaron. "One woman bought chocolate twice a week for a long time. Many people with scheduled paid tours told us to keep the money; one even bought an extra ticket to help us more. My job was teaching classes, so I suggested we try a virtual class. We put together a box with six bars, cocoa nibs, and peanut butter and jelly cups which we sent to the people who signed up. Virtually, we'd share a PowerPoint presentation, go through the box, and talk about how to eat chocolate (let it melt in your mouth!). We did one a week. Then businesses wanted to use the class as team building events. In December, the virtual tours became family reunions. Last June we did four virtual classes. In April 2021, we did 124. Now we have two assistants to book classes and have hired teachers. We're launching a second round of classes at our one year anniversary, like a vegan class and a ganache-making class. We're also upgrading the virtual classes by showing a tour of the factory and including a pairing list for the items in the boxes. We hope by the end of summer/early fall that actual tours will return, based on science and CDC requirements." Aaron has also written a children's book on chocolate that was illustrated by the Theo design team. It's part of a new virtual Kids Chocolate Story Time class launched in June."

Focusing on creating as little waste as possible, they've found a way to recycle hair nets and gloves. Before the pandemic, they had incentives to get to work by bike, bus, or carpool. They worked on their 2020 Impact Report, just released, which provides transparency on their sourcing and overall impact." Theo also has a diversity and inclusion committee that looks at hires, as well as companies they buy from, like gloves and hair nets. They no longer deliver chocolate, but pick-up at the factory continues, as does the Amazon store and their web store. Ten people are allowed into the retail store at this point in time. Orders can be placed two days ahead of pickup time and can be picked up in-store or at curbside.

Beyond the good they do for farmers, communities, customers, and employees, they also give back and offer ways for customers to give if they'd like. "People value us and our policies for good. As we grow, there are more opportunities for all of us to help."

If you actually need reasons to eat chocolate, all of these should steer you toward Theo.

Connie Adams/June 2021

Theo Chocolate
3400 Phinney Ave N
Seattle, WA 98103

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