Once you fall in love with the authentic taste of chocolate crafted by the small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate makers from all over the world, you are also drawn to begin understanding the economic and ethical implications of the complex chocolate chain. Your mission as a chocoholic then becomes making sure to find an assortment of retailers of new and already valued chocolate brands.
As with other gourmet things, however, you are not always lucky to live in a location where it’s a piece of cake to get the object of your desire. Here is where the Internet succors even the most critical situations of the Theobroma connoisseurs.
Those who have been following my chocolate reviews for some time are already aware of the fact that I am lucky enough to have a remote content contributor from the US shipping for me the chocolate goodies sold at the most respected chocolate boutique in North Carolina all the way through to Italy. However, what if you live in Europe and have no other chances to look for a specialty shop of bean-to-bar chocolates or, even more so, you only want to try new brands that you cannot find at your usual retailer?
Mercifully, specialty shops of artisan small-batch chocolate bars are popping up all over Europe nowadays and the convenience associated with such opportunity as a buyer is to have different brands delivered at your doorstep, either paying the shipping cost only once or having the delivery free of charge under special conditions, such as minimum amount of items or time-limited off-sales.
Chocoladeverkopers (Dutch for “chocolate sellers”) Paul and Emma have been selling online since 2015, from their location in Nijmegen, more than 120 different chocolate bars, made by small-batch makers with Direct Trade heirloom cacaos.
Exactly like a good chocolate can be described, their motto is “Pure – Honest – Tasty”.
Following is the interview with Chocoladeverkopers I had the pleasure to arrange for the service of anyone interested in knowing a reference in Europe of where to find a pretty wide assortment of bean-to-bar chocolate brands.
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First and foremost, thanks for your availability to be interviewed and the opportunity to know more about your business, Paul & Emma. What’s your respective professional background and how did you come about with the idea of setting up this niche business?
Thanks for your interest!
The idea of a webstore in good chocolate started on cycling holidays—our favorite way of spending our free time. When we cycled, for example in Germany or France, there was always more chocolate available. Back then even Lindt had a very limited availability in the Netherlands, so even those chocolates were quite special to us. From there our love for good chocolate grew, and when Paul’s aunt from Amsterdam gave us a Tres Hombres bar made by Chocolatemakers, the idea became more concrete. A good bar of chocolate, made locally on a very small scale by passionate people, with cacao transported by a sailing vessel from the Dominican Republic—we were in awe.
Afterwards we came across more and more good chocolates, and when the local shop Ieder Z’n Vak opened—a ‘shared store’ in our hometown where everyone can rent a space to sell your merchandise— that was an excellent opportunity to start—and we began by cycling to distributors (and to the Chocolatemakers factory in Amsterdam!), and that’s where it all started…
Half a year later we opened our webstore!
As for our backgrounds, they are not related to chocolate.
Emma has a Master of Science in Nutrition and Health and works at a store specialized in cycling holidays (fietsvakantiewinkel).
Paul studied, yet not completed, philosophy and journalism, working part-time at the local music venue and an internet service provider. Paul runs most of the day-to-day activity of Chocoladeverkopers, but tastings and decisions are done in team with Emma.
How simple was it to figure out the market situation for selling bean-to-bar chocolate in Europe? How is the competition in your country (and in the EU, in general) within your business niche?
Competition is (for us) not an issue at all. There are of course some other people selling good chocolates, both in the Netherlands and abroad. But if they share our love for good chocolate, we can only be happy with them.
For example, there is a wonderful store in Amsterdam called Chocolatl who have a great chocolate selection and knowledge. In Zaandam, there is Zaans Gedaan who have a nice selection of single-origin origin bars and also lead cacao workshops. Abroad, there are some nice online shops as well, like Cocoa Runners in the UK.
The main issue that I think we share with these companies is to make good chocolate more exposed to and appreciated by the mainstream public. As it is now, if you ask on the street, at least 9 out of 10 people won’t know any of the brands we sell and basically don’t know anything about how chocolate is made, what the difference is in bean-to-bar and supermarket brands, where the cocoa comes from, etc.
When more and more people will get to know the chocolates we sell—it will take a couple years, at least—someday there will be a time when even the supermarkets will start selling good chocolate (like they do now with specialty beer from smaller brewers) and by then I’m sure the competition will be more of an issue. However, I think specialized stores—offline and online—who care about a product will always find customers, as long as they share their love and not think about selling as much as possible.
How would you describe your buyers/consumers, and from which countries are you asked for deliveries mostly?
There is one thing that amazes me again and again: our customers are the friendliest people ever and the best customers we could wish for!
In a world where ‘next day delivery’, fancy packaging, and all the extras big companies give you are standard, our customers still appreciate our small specialty store, which won’t give you any of that. And still people are finding us, coming back, sending us compliments, taking the time to think with us about improvements, etc. Recently a customer even sent us a 10-euro tip because she saw we paid a couple of euros more for the postage than what she paid us. And even when something is wrong with an order, customers are very understanding and happy with our solutions.
99% percent of our orders are from the Netherlands. We have had some orders from abroad, Belgium, France, even Romania, but these orders are from ‘hardcore’ chocolate fans who are not daunted by our website that is only available in Dutch. We might make an English version of our website, but it’s not a top priority.
We sell locally in Nijmegen at the shared store, but also in cooperation with other local enterprises, such as the local brewery pub Stoom, which has chocolate pairing on their specialty beer menu. The Steigercafé has a little tasting menu available for their customers, and we try to be at markets, as well.
I have understood from your website that you deliver the chocolate bars by bike within your city for only 1 euro, and within your country (The Netherlands) for just 2.95 euros. Are you receiving order requests also from other EU countries? If so, which countries are the best served by your service?
We do deliver by bike locally in Nijmegen and surrounding villages. The bicycle option takes us some more effort and time, but we love cycling, so we are happy to promote this opportunity to locals by making it just 1 euro. In the rest of the Netherlands, the chocolate is delivered by regular mail service.
We don’t want to offer ‘free shipping’ because even though it may ‘work’ when you think of it as a marketing thing, we feel it’s weird to offer this, as postage is never free and we believe that people should realize that it’s actually quite expensive. I think most customers understand this, especially when they realize they also have costs when they come collect a bar at the shop (if they come by car: gasoline, parking costs) – and we think 2.95 euros is a fair price.
Shipping to Germany and Belgium is available in our webstore—we also sell to other countries, but people can only send their orders by email.
Shipping chocolate bars is a delicate task. Even if chocolate itself is not a perishable food, however, some issues must be considered, like the hot temperature during summer melting the cacao butter contained in the chocolate and, consequently, modifying the original structure and sensory profile of chocolate. How do you handle this aspect, possibly?
Yes, there are two main problems: rough handling and temperature.
Temperature is actually pretty easy: we watch the weather forecast and, when the temperature is too high, we just don’t send—of course, we keep customers updated. In the warmest days of the year, we just close our webshop. Even though we could go for solutions with cooling, we don’t because we think it’s not worth the extra environmental costs. So far we didn’t have any problems with temperature as long as we take good care in storing the chocolate.
Rough handling during shipping is sometimes an issue—some of the bars, especially the thin ones, are delicate, and no matter how much effort we put into packing everything safe and sound, once in a while, a customer will get a broken bar. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s always sad to see it happen, but I think no matter how you send, you will always have a tiny percentage of breakage. So far it happened a couple of times, and luckily customers are always happy with our solutions when something like that happens.
I have noted your chocolate assortment is pleasantly rich and am considering to buy myself from you in the future. In particular, I liked to see there is a careful selection of brands more known in the US, but also of others less known and crafted directly from South America, Vietnam, etc. In layman’s terms, the so-called “tree-to-bar” brands where the maker is close to where the raw material grows (the chocolate trees, in this case). How is your import/export and logistical activity organized to source all these special chocolate names? Are there customs duties to consider and how easy is it to become and manage being a vendor of small-batch chocolate makers?
We love all the bars we sell. This means selecting bars is quite easy, the central question when considering a bar will always be: do we like it ourselves? Of course, we like one bar more than the other—we are mainly into dark bars, but not too dark—however, we do sell a limited selection of 100% bars and milk/white chocolates. But when we just think of all these bars, be it by Tibor Szánto, Cacaoósuyo, Potomac, Marou or Friis Holm, our taste buds are already almost exploding with excitement!
We import some bars ourselves and get others at specialized importers/wholesale businesses. We are happy to have, on cycling distance, two great chocolate importing companies with years of experience and a great love of origin chocolate. We have worked together with these companies from the start and are happy to.
When we import ourselves it’s not so much of a hassle, from the EU or outside of the EU it’s relatively easy (when you have done it a couple of times, and after reading all the quite complex documentation), but the costs of transport are always high. Customer duties can be high as well (from outside EU).
So I think the main difficulty is transportation costs and, consequently, the need for bigger orders when importing. This means we can’t always sell all the chocolates we would like to—but I think so far, and with the webstore only existing for just over a year—we can be really satisfied with what we have. And we are definitely proud of all the wonderful chocolates we are already selling.
It’s great to run our own chocolate company. Each time a customer orders, we get a feeling of happiness again… Another package of great chocolates we can send, another person who will enjoy the same great chocolates that we care about so much.
So yes, even though for us, after a year, it feels still like the beginning of a journey, it is a journey we have enjoyed every moment so far, and we are really happy to continue on this road!