Serious Chocolate: Chatting with Audrey Lawrence of Theo Chocolate
Back in the spring, one of our employees at Liddabit took a trip to Seattle and was nice enough to bring us back a couple of treats from Theo chocolate. I knew I liked the company as soon as I saw that they had a Bread and Chocolate bar: dark chocolate with crispy bread crumbs and a sprinkling of salt, an homage to a popular European treat.
My interest was further piqued when I saw a couple of their bars were co-branded with nonprofit organizations; and even more so once I visited their website and got to reading about all the environmentally and socially conscious aspects of the company. I contacted Theo, and Audrey Lawrence was nice enough to answer some of my questions about the origins of the company, their involvement with Fair Trade practices, and onion caramels. (Just go with me on that last one.)
So how did Theo get started? What was the impetus?
Our founder, Joe Whinney, spent many years as a conservation volunteer working closely with cacao farmers. A long-time chocolate devotee, Joe was deeply disturbed by the environmental degradation and farmer exploitation associated with the conventional cocoa industry.
Where does the inspiration for flavors come from?
Our chocolatiers are all united by a love of food and bring their inspiration into the kitchen. In our kitchen, no idea is a bad idea—and this generates a lot of trial and error. Recently, one of our talented crew developed a Walla Walla onion caramel that was, frankly, one of the most delicious things we had ever tasted!
How much do you interact with cocoa farmers?
Our degree of interaction varies depending on the country. In countries where cacao is certified organic and Fair Trade and meets our quality standards, we have a straightforward relationship that involves contracting for bean supply at fair prices, providing feedback to farmers regarding quality, and ongoing communication with our sources about our needs and theirs.
In other regions, we have comprehensive partnerships with NGOs to move farmers along the continuum towards gaining their organic and fair trade certifications, and improving the viability of their crops. Currently we are focusing our longer term strategies on developing supply chains in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We're seeing some real improvements and are very heartened by our successes there to date.
You source Fair Trade cacao. What does that mean?
The farmers we buy from—as well as our own employees—are paid a fair and living wage. On the conventional market, cacao farmers earn less than a dollar a day and have little to no access to education or credit. By paying living wages for Fair Trade cacao, we give farmers the tools to invest in their future, farm more sustainably, and send their children to school. In addition, the educational component of what we do empowers farmers to understand what a fair price is for their cacao.
Do you have any advice for other companies who are interested in sourcing fair trade ingredients? Do you think the industry is shifting at all?
Education is the key to motivating and inspiring consumers to choose products that are not made at the expense of people or the planet. We have seen larger companies move toward sourcing Fair Trade products—a step in the right direction—precisely because consumers have begun to demand them. That said, we have a very long way to go.
Theo makes confections and caramels, too. How long have those been around?
Theo actually started in 2006 with a line of artisan confections. As the company has grown and expanded our product line, with chocolate bars and other specialty products, our confection kitchen continues to craft world class confections. Just months ago Theo took home a gold medal at the Fancy Food Show for our ghost chile caramel!
I had a chance to sample the Ghost Chile caramel, and I can see why it's been garnering attention. Thanks, Audrey! Small business is (naturally) very close to my heart; I'm looking forward to seeing how Theo expands their product line and their presence in the marketplace in the coming years.
About the author: Liz Gutman is the co-founder of Brooklyn confectionery company Liddabit Sweets. She spends a lot of time discussing, thinking about, and eating food—particularly chocolate. You can follow her mostly-coherent musings on twitter at @liddabitsweets.