Building a modern business from ancient cacao traditions, the To’ak Chocolate way

Over the past five years, Ecuador-based To’ak Chocolate has successfully served up some of the rarest and costliest cacao in the world. Neill Barston speaks to company CEO James Le Compte on navigating the pandemic and prospects for its future development

“Our mission is to transform the way the world experiences dark chocolate,” explains the team behind Ecuador-based luxury confectionery business To’ak. From making its initial bold entry into the market five years ago, the company’s elegantly packaged chocolate is continuing to gain an enviable global media spotlight. Its unique selling point amid a crowded field of premium products is its use of an incredibly rare strain of cacao, ancient Nacional, which was thought to have been extinct, until the company contributed to its revival.

Significantly, its founding principle stems from being environmentally aware across its operations in offering a core commitment to ethical trading. This extends to the fact that its team not only manufactures high grade chocolate, it is also actively involved in its harvest and ensuring that the small band of regional farmers it is engaged with, are rewarded fairly.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, its prized products, which include locally hand crafted wooden boxes for its signature chocolate range, were seized upon as being the ‘world’s most expensive’ luxury confectionery. Costing around US$260 at the time of launch per item, the company certainly set its stall out to make an impact – but as the business explains, product pricing reflects the extreme rarity of its superior sourced cacao.

As the company’s CEO James Le Compte explains to Confectionery Production, having previously worked in a number of sectors including setting up a peer-to-peer lending venture in his native Australia, he was “drawn to the magical story” of To’ak, which continues to gather attention across the world for its sustainability principles.

“With our chocolate we try to recreate some of that ancient wonder and value that it has always had, in a contemporary sense, and in doing so, we can also do justice to the farmers of this incredible plant, and ensure they get a fair share. We pay them between four and eight times the normal farm gate price of what they would normally be getting.” He reveals that despite the major challenges of trying to operate a global business during a pandemic, it remains a rewarding industry to work in.

In terms of his recently adopted new home, he describes Ecuador as ‘a complex and beautiful country’ that offers incredibly diverse conditions, which are perfect for growing cacao. Its territory, encompassing areas of Amazon rainforest, Andes mountains at 5,000 metres, and access to the Pacific ocean make it a rich and fertile land.

As he enthuses, his fascination in the origins of chocolate are particularly deep-rooted, and were at the core of making the decision to uproot with his family and make a major move to South America. “My interest in cacao and fine chocolate has been lifelong, as it was pretty much the only treat that we had in our household when I was a child.

“So I grew a liking for it from an early age, and by coincidence, my wife Rita is from Ecuador, so when we visited her family, my father-in-law had run a cacao farm for 20 years. Whenever we were over there, we used to spend as much time as we could at his place.

“It was a real privilege to learn how the industry all starts on a farm level, to hold those cacao pods and the fruit. From there, I grew even more obsessed by the world of fine chocolate and the special place Ecuador has in that universe,” he adds, noting that the country’s rich history is intrinsically linked with the development of cacao, which traces its origin in the region back over the past 5,000 years.

From its revered roots reserved for ancient tribal nobility, through to its modern day status as a globally consumed luxury treat, its cultural significance continues to resonate and prove globally significant. This is underlined by the fact the chocolate market segment in the region is, by some market reports, set to be worth over $20 billion by 2023. He notes that the catalyst for the company’s development came from a cacao conservation project in Ecuador involving founding business partner Jerry Toth. Thankfully for the confectionery world, the success of his mission gave rise to the business, which continues to carve out its place amid a highly competitive global market.

Handling a pandemic

Delivering the next chapter of the company is certainly proving something of an adventure, despite facing considerable tests amid the coronavirus pandemic. While every aspect of the business is under pressure as the world moves to adapt to an altered landscape, the CEO says its team is working extremely hard to continue its core activities.

“Like every other company or person on the planet, we are doing our best in adjusting around the new reality. It’s the day-to-day matters like being able to get into our office here in Quito, or not being able to have face-to-face meetings, that you notice. “Also, we are not sure whether we will have a harvest this year. If we do, it’s likely to be very late and we are not sure what that will mean in terms of its quality and quantity. With the pandemic conditions, our main bricks and mortar sales channels in retail have also not been open, which is another real issue,” explains the CEO.

However, he says the business is keeping in close contact with the small co-operative of farmers that handle its highly valued crops. Significantly, he concedes it is a question of having to rapidly enhance its digital communications and online strategy to ensure To’ak remains as visible as possible during the unprecedented global conditions.

Clearly, in an age when consumers have instant access to a host of products from around the world, the premium segment of the market is particularly competitive. Intriguingly, within the brand’s range, each batch of chocolate displays the year of harvest, lending each series a level of prestige aiming to mark it out from the crowd.

Among its luxury range is a bar sourced from two Galapagos island cacao farms, which has extremely distinctive properties that lends it a fudge-like quality. Another especially notable focus of the company has been in adopting an ageing process for some of its series, based on that used for products such as whisky. Presently, this includes its tequila cask aged variety, and Islay whisky series, which have both spent three years in barrels to mature and intensify their flavour profiles. Its portfolio is further bolstered by a drinking cacao, as it seeks to broaden the scope of its product offering.

However, it’s the range-topping Origin series that has gained a key spotlight, with its award-winning packaging centred upon a hand crafted wooden box, with individual bar numbers engraved upon it. Besides its chocolate, the company has made creative ventures with an enterprise of art prints from renowned local Ecuadorian artists focusing on traditional themes. Perfecting the process As Le Compte notes, its comparatively high price point is a deliberate strategy that reflects its rarity and the costs of production that the small group of local farmers they work with have invested to revive the ancient strain of cacao.

However, he says the company is continuing to evolve to a point where it is becoming available at a more accessible cost to consumers (with some of its bars starting from around $25), as its production processes increase. As the business continues to expand, it is finding a growing fanbase of chocolate lovers around the world. Another key to its success, he says, has been the fact that the business is one of the few that actually goes to the extent of genetically testing its prized cacao supply sources. “We also have a unique approach to making the chocolate, we harvest cacao with the farmers, which undergoes six stages of handling.

After it has been fermented and dried, and removed those beans that have any imperfection, we then sort them by size so we can roast according to size to get an even roasting profile. “We have also tried to create an experience around chocolate, as we want consumers to be guided on something of a journey when they receive it. “That starts with the first impressions of the packaging for our Origin collection, which come in hand crafted boxes, wrapped in gold foil, with a set of bamboo tasting utensils that comes with its own 60-page colour book, so it’s really a visual and tactile experience that primes them for getting to this special bar of chocolate.”

Sustainability matters

While some manufacturers talk about sustainability and of improving the lives of farmers on the frontline of the industry, To’ak specialises in taking this to the next level. This is achieved in pledging payments significantly above average prices within the sector, as well as taking a direct involvement in cacao harvests. The company is fiercely proud of its trading on an entirely ethical basis. As Le Compte adds, the business is at heart a social enterprise, and it is endeavouring to refine its overall activities to be as environmentally responsible as possible.

Earlier this year, Confectionery Production reported on one of its most notable joint initiatives, Orijin, which was unveiled at the Chocoa confectionery event in Amsterdam. This ambitious digital storytelling and traceability scheme for the speciality food sector uses an Android-based web app mapping cacao farms. Its tracking activities examine harvests, fermentation, drying and sale of cacao, passing the data up the supply chain in order to improve the raw value of the crop. This will be accessible by small and medium-sized companies that will now have access to such systems that were previously only available for large corporations.

According to Le Compte, it’s an issue close to the hearts of many within the business, through going further than existing industry benchmarks to help set new standards of operating. “For us, it’s the only way of doing things. Everything we do we look at through a sustainability perspective, and from the perspective of not being satisfied with the status quo. “From a farmer’s view, there are a lot of systems and value chains that are tired and unequal, so having built relationships with them and being cacao farmers ourselves, as well as chocolate makers, we have more empathy with them.

“When we talk about sustainability, it’s not just about sustainability of our businesses or our small slice of the supply chain, it’s much more of a holistic approach, and we are aiming to push the boundaries of what sustainable chocolate means,” explains the CEO, stating that the company’s chocolate remains both Fairtrade and certified as being organic, which is central to its involvement with the Orijin traceability scheme in the region. Despite the numerous tests ahead amid uncertain markets, he remains optimistic about the company’s fortunes, as it continues to enhance its highly distinctive range.

“We are really excited to connect with a wider community of chocolate connoisseurs, so to do that we need products that they can enjoy more easily and frequently, which we are working on to do this in a way that won’t compromise the raw materials.

“We are also fascinated by the products’ functional benefits, which has seen us develop a range of drinking chocolate, as well as a 100 per cent cacao powder. So those are the key things on the horizon over the next two years,” he says, mindful of keeping an eye on an ever-changing industry that he feels is showing encouraging signs of progressing in delivering on fundamental sustainability targets to ensure the sector’s future.

To’ak factfile

– To’ak was founded by Jerry Toth
and Carl Schweizer, with the business
emerging from a rainforest conservation project led by Toth in Ecuador in
2007.
– After working on reviving nacional
cacao, To’ak, meaning earth and tree,
gained its launch in 2015
– With headquarters in Quito, Ecuador,
the company both makes its own chocolate and assists with harvesting
– The business is pioneering varieties
of aged dark chocolate, which significantly enhances flavour, and now
exports around the world.

 

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