Feature: Fine Chocolate Industry Association flies the flag for premium artisan ranges
As executive director of the US-based Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA), Bill Guyton has gained a huge amount of industry experience. Editor Neill Barston quizzes him on the how his association has dealt with the pandemic and its hopes for 2021. Read the feature below, as well as the extended exclusive video interview here.
Q: How has the FCIA coped with the pandemic this past year?
A: If I look back to last March, I don’t think any of us could have realised the effect on our lives that it would have. At that time, we were at a trade conference and festival, and the news came out about the growing threat of coronavirus. We realised the FCIA had to change to address some of the problems that were happening with this, so our board looked at how to provide better education and information for members through webinars which we’re continuing to do, and how we could help with their sales online. So, we developed a new website, MakeMineFine.com, which now lists over 100 companies. It’s not only a marketplace for consumers, but it is also there for equipment sales, experiences, and on sustainability within the cocoa sector. We have had a really positive response, and are seeing an uptick around the holidays of around 20-30% more visitors.
Q: What inspired you to originally set up your organisation?
A: It was formed back in 2007, and at that time it was just a handful of companies that had a passion for fine and quality chocolate. Gradually, we have seen it expand to over 300 company members and professionals. What’s exciting is that it’s not just bean-to-bar makers, who are an important component of what we’re doing, but another third are chocolatiers, buying chocolate from processors and making wonderful products. The remaining third are farmers and farming groups, cocoa traders and specialist retailers, so it covers the whole supply chain.
Q: How important is it that cocoa sustainability is delivered?
A: If I look at the fine chocolate industry, sustainability is in the DNA of the association, it’s part of our mission statement talking about ethical sourcing. We want to go beyond this in actually proving it, and we have many companies who are actually doing that. They do this through purchasing beans directly from cocoa farmers, and investing in programmes and training to improve the quality of cocoa, and rewarding farmers with premiums, so we are seeing success stories with many of our companies. We want to build on that to show best practices that can be rolled out across the sector.
Q: How significant is it that issues of child labour and farmer renumeration are being addressed?
A: If you look at the sourcing of fine chocolate – 80 per cent of our members purchased from Latin America, as well as Africa and Asia, so we have seen there are great opportunities to improve farmer incomes through not only providing premiums to producers, but to help farmers diversify into other food crops to improve their livelihoods. I think that it is critical we solve these issues. I’ve worked in Africa for many years and I know there are some good programmes going on through companies, as well as the governments. I think that everyone needs to take a step back and remember to put cocoa farmers first – and how we help them, taking aside the politics and understanding how to help those who are growing this important crop.
Q: In what ways are fine flavour businesses innovating?
A: I think fine chocolate companies are innovative by nature, their practices are able to adapt to new conditions, so I’m hoping that this is how we’ll increase the percentage of the fine chocolate market. On this, it’s about continuing to make quality products, and explaining where the cocoa comes from, as well as having better promotions. It is also about showing consumers that fine chocolate is different from commercially produced chocolate. It uses quality products, is higher in cocoa, its texture is different, and it is an experience. Whether you’re a high end or lower end consumer, you should have the chance to experience it. I have seen such a variety of products over the past year. I think that there has actually been a lot more innovation in the market, as people are sampling, as well as pairing more chocolate. We have seen things like chocolate bombs – which are discussed during the holidays, different kinds of chocolate with ginger and other ingredients, so the sky is the limit where you can go with fine chocolate. I think this will continue into 2021.
Q: What are your business priorities for 2021?
A: For the first quarter of 2021, we have some really interesting webinars lined up on chocolate making and chocolate sourcing, through to improvements on business practices. We also collaborated with the Specialty Food Association live event (between 19-21 January), with a virtual pavilion, which will help our members link with retailers. We’re excited about that, and we’ll also hopefully be able to stage an in-person event towards the end of this year if everything works out well.
Q In your view, what are biggest challenges ahead this year?
A: I think the challenge for us is how do we keep connected, as we have companies of all different sizes. We previously had two events a year, in New York and San Francisco where everyone was able to get together in person, sell some products and get together on a personal level. We’re doing the best we can on this virtually, and in some ways, we are succeeding better than we did before. A lot of the smaller member companies weren’t able to attend events due to the cost and time involved, so they’ve kept more connected with us now being on a virtual platform, and we want to continue to support them. Many of these companies receive small business loans to help them through the rough patch and they’re looking to see in 2021 what the business climate will be like. Can they now expand? Will they be able to get back to brick and mortar sales? – For more information on the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, visit www.finechocolateindustry.org