Before Joe Chocolate Co. was a full-fledged, buzzing chocolate business, co-founder Sam Tanner and a couple of his University of Washington classmates were just trying to come up with a profitable product to create and market for a class project.
“All we had were sheet pans and our frat house kitchen,” Sam laughed. “We knew nothing about chocolate!” The university’s MBA students made the project a success “because they had the money,” Sam only half-joked.
In the spring of 2016, the venture’s trajectory changed when Sam and co-founder Peter Keckemet sent their buddy Lucas some of their caffeinated chocolate as he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.
“A week later, he was asking for more!” Sam laughed. “It got to a point that his requests were getting quite large, like ten pounds of chocolate!”
Turns out, Lucas, known as Caveman on the trail, was sharing his treats with fellow hikers. Later that fall, as thru-hikers were completing their 2,650-mile-long journey, Sam and Peter began getting emails from people asking to purchase some of their “coffee chocolate.”
Sam remembered feeling a bit puzzled at the inquiries. “This isn’t a functioning business,” he thought to himself. “This isn’t a thing.” But it could be, he realized. That’s when Joe Chocolate Co. went from school assignment to legit.
“We found a target market that really championed our product,” Sam said of the thru-hiking community.
Using a small kitchen facility behind a fish and chips joint in Kirkland, all while juggling full-time jobs and internships, Sam and Peter went to work.
They set out to perfect their product with the finest, best-quality ingredients they could get their hands on. They source their chocolate from a modest fair labor farm. “Hershey’s and Nestle would love to have it,” Sam laughed, “But it’s for small businesses only.”
In order to really catch a buzz, Joe Chocolate Co. uses actual ground coffee beans in their chocolate, not diluted, liquid coffee. Hence, it was of utmost importance that they really dial in their coffee choice.
Sam went on a quest, traversing Western Washington in search of the best Americano he could find, which led him to Seattle’s own Lighthouse Roasters. “Flavor forward, premium ingredients continue to be our tenants,” he said.
While chocolate and coffee are the heart of their product, the brand stands apart by creating their own spin on chocolate flavors like salted caramel, honey almond, roasted cacao and a seasonal frosted peppermint. They never use artificial sweeteners, preservatives, or flavoring oils.
“We’d work till 2:00 am, make maybe 100 bags, put them in any box we could find. What we couldn’t sell, we’d sell at one of the farmer’s markets,” Sam said.
This went on until the regional pharmacy Bartell Drugs took a chance with the brand. Sam remembered their first ‘massive’ order. “We had no idea how to produce that,” he said of Bartell’s 2,000 unit order. “We really started grinding.”
Initially, Sam was happy with their business model and he swore off expanding to retail. “That’s way too big of a bear,” he thought.
But, when a spot at Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market opened up, they decided they could make an exception to the rule.
After a full year of hard work, Joe Chocolate Co. recently opened a full-service café and mocha bar (equipped with plenty of chocolate, of course). Inside, it houses the production line where chocolatiers are busy on-site pouring three pound slabs of chocolate.
Evoking a bit of a Willy Wonka vibe, the metal piping running across the ceiling of the café and into the espresso bar supplies the baristas with hot, melted dark chocolate for their mochas.
The brand will always be indebted to the hiking community that helped them find their footing in the early days. In an effort to return the kindness, Joe Chocolate Co. created the Caveman Dirtbag Sponsorship (CDS).
Approaching their third year, the mission of CDS is to partner with other local and national business to “inspire and energize wild ambitions in the outdoors.”
“Sponsorship is backwards if you’re not doing it collaboratively,” Sam said. “You only need so many rain jackets,” he laughed.
But food? Ask any long-distance hiker, and food is huge. So, with the help of brands like Nuun Hydration, Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, Stehekin Pastries, Lighthouse Roasters, and even giants Arc’Teryx and Patagonia, CDS was born. After sifting through more than 100 applications this year, the sponsorship equipped four thru-hikers with a small stipend, necessary gear, nourishment, and encouragement.
Other than being a huge benefit to the hikers, the CDS provides Joe Chocolate Co. with immediate feedback. “There’s a lot of chocolate out there,” Sam admitted. “Being able to develop for a specific group of people with intense needs makes for great product testing.”
He joked, “If it works for a PCT hiker, it’s definitely going to work for someone in an office.”
It’s the Caveman Dirtbag Sponsorship that brings Sam the most pride. “I thought it’d be a big sales order, but for all of us, the biggest thing is supporting people with the CDS and working with our friends. We help other people, and are having a ton of fun.”