Behind the scenes: Crafting chocolate excellence in the land of fire and ice

The coronavirus pandemic continues to pose the confectionery sector key challenges, but as Kjartan Gislason, co-founder of award-winning Icelandic business Omnom Chocolate, explains, there’s a renewed sense of optimism as conditions improve. Neill Barston reports

When Icelandic chef Kjartan Gislason teamed up with childhood friend Oskar Þórðarson in setting up a small bean-to-bar chocolate business in a former petrol station on the outskirts of Reykjavik, scarcely could they have imagined how their enterprise would evolve.

Just eight years later, and the pair are now enjoying significant international interest in their enterprise, gaining phenomenal exposure last year featuring in a Netflix documentary with US actor Zac Efron, of The Greatest Showman movie fame, who experienced making chocolate with their forward-thinking company. See our exclusive video with Omnom here.

As 44 year-old chocolatier Kjartan explains, that fateful television appearance could not have arrived in more timely fashion, with the business in the process of setting up a US store, and attempting to pull free of the deeply challenging covid crisis.

The amiable entrepreneur concedes the past 18 months amid the pandemic have thrown a series of curveballs, yet the firm continues to build its global reputation.

As he enthuses, with the support of his colleagues, there is some considerable light at the end of a notably testing period for their venture focused on the international premium chocolate market.

Its evolving success plays to its strengths in creating a strong core of sustainably sourced milk and dark bar varieties that are continuing to demonstrate a good deal of invention.

This includes a key addition to its range featuring local barley and Icelandic lava salt – a particularly hot topic amid the headline-grabbing news of a freshly
erupting volcano near Reykjavik within walking distance of the country’s capital.

He admits there have been moments of stress of the kind experienced by any small business owner, including having to briefly make some of his team redundant at the peak of the pandemic. This saw tourism shut down in Iceland overnight, as well as all segments of the island nation’s economy experience a steep downturn.

But as he notes, as conditions continue to improve, he’s re-hired all those who were laid-off, and its increasing presence in the US and across Europe is set to secure its next chapter of growth.

“We are still in business after a really weird year of ups and downs,” notes Kjartan with a wry smile, reflecting on unprecedented times that are prompting innovation and experimentation.

“What I am most proud of is that we have a really good team – some of them have been with us five or six years, and they remind us when you’re maybe feeling a bit down, that they still have the level of enthusiasm that we had when we started out.

“So, at the core of our company, we try and involve all our staff with things like everyone having to make their own chocolate bar and recipes, so they have the same passion we have for it,” he adds of their enterprise, which now employs a total of around 30 people.

Business creation

According to the company’s co-founder, its development has required plenty of initial effort to get it off the ground, stemming from a lifelong fascination with the food industry.

The chef, who hails from the Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland, adds that he gained an awful lot from working in high quality restaurants across Europe, yet says he was keen to establish a business in his own homeland.

As he relays, after pitching an idea to a childhood friend Oskar that opening up a pastry shop in their native Iceland would be a good way to go – making their own, that it was this experience which set him on a road of experimenting with recipes which would lead to the company’s extensive range of products.

“So, I started out roasting cocoa beans at home in my oven, offering that experience of getting your hands dirty while trying to unlock the secrets of chocolate making.

“I had previously only thought that it could be done on an industrial scale, so to discover that it could be done in your own kitchen was something that went straight to my heart,” adds the confectioner and chef, who concedes he became hooked on learning about the sourcing of beans and the story behind them.

Identity

Clearly, creating a unique identity for the business was a pressing priority, and as Kjartan explains, while working hard is at the heart of their endeavours, having fun along the way as well is something not to be underestimated. Consequently, Omnom, a frivolous yet popular internet ‘meme’ taken from people enjoying eating food, emerged as the frontrunner for a name, and ‘it just stuck’.

Beyond their carefully crafted bars, the distinctive, bold packaging crowned by the company’s wolf logo is particularly engaging, evolving from a previous image conjured by the team’s graphic designer.

Moreover, as Kjartan asserts, it’s been something of a rollercoaster over the past few years in seeing his business dream fully materialise, with few local precedents to serve as a blueprint for its operations, which poses key challenges.

“It has been amazing this journey we have taken – it’s never been easy, but there’s been a lot of fun, and a lot of learning has been done. I feel like we have always taken steps that haven’t come out of any book, so it’s been a big learning curve for my career as a chef, as well as a food manufacturer. “Our sales have been constantly growing – we never had guidelines for what we were aiming for. We didn’t really have a business plan in the beginning, as it just kind of started,” remarks the entrepreneur, who says its early days were boosted by gaining a valuable sales channel in the duty free section of the country’s airport.

Since then, the business has steadily grown to deliver an annual turnover amounting to several million dollars as its reputation spread. Notably, while the international market perhaps holds greatest potential, he says there have been a few local adaptations including a liquorice variety, which remains a fan favourite among Icelanders. Sustainability While he says his initial thoughts for sourcing key ingredients, namely cocoa, were driven by a desire to find the best quality possible, he is especially pleased that the locations it uses (Madagascar, Tanzania and Nicaragua), remain comparatively small operations with a high degree of traceability and concern for the payment and welfare of farmers. As Kjartan, reveals, using a mix of cocoa from around the globe and local flavours including sourcing milk from Icelandic dairy herds, is proving a winning formula. 

“Chocolate is a fun medium to work with. You’re working with flavours as well as product concepts in the confectionery world. I grew up eating candy like any other kid, and a lot of inspiration comes from those childhood memories,” explains the chocolatier, who says the business continues to be taken to the next level at its relatively new location, not far from their original base. He adds that while there’s a definite sense of purpose and determination about their work, this is hopefully balanced by enjoyment and creativity that led to them extending their interests to include an ice cream store on its production site, which remains a firm favourite with the team.

Though forging some moments of indulgence for its customers is something that they’re all too happy to oblige in, they’re also aware of the global focus on health and wellbeing, which Kjartan says he’s keen to impart with his confectionery. “When you think about how much sugar is in products today, I have tried to be very careful about not over-using it, because I think it’s like a seasoning for chocolate. It’s very bitter, so you need to have it sweet, but you can go overboard with it. “As it’s a preservative, you don’t need much of it unless you are looking for a very long shelf-life. I like the confectionery world to be more thoughtful in terms of texture and flavour and I love playing with those elements,” notes the chef, who says he is proud of the fact one of its series, a Nicaraguan variety, has already gained an international chocolate award.

He’s not one to rest on his laurels though, confessing that his work is also his hobby and he is looking forward to visiting some key sourcing locations around the world when conditions allow. With coronavirus restrictions easing in Iceland, life is regaining some balance. “There’s been a very big learning curve for everyone, we have understood our strengths and seen our flaws, and there’s a lot to take away from the experience of the past year,” reflects Kjartan, who concludes he’s remaining upbeat for the future, as the business continues on a very positive path of sustained growth.

 

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