Real life Willy Wonka chocolatier Stu Jordan opens up about working in his dream job and the benefits of running and owning his own chocolate business.

A brief description of the business
Kako Chocolate is a little artisan chocolate business that I started from scratch five years ago. What we've done is built a big following behind our premium, high-end chocolate, and it's been harder than you could possibly imagine. At the moment we're going through around 300kg of chocolate a week.

What sparked the idea?

I was actually a national sales manager for LogiTech and when the global financial crisis hit I was made redundant. After feeling sorry for myself I decided to [contact] the buyers and the executives that I used to wine and dine with - with big marketing budgets - and not one of them would take my call, the doors all slammed shut and it really made me realise how empty sales can be.

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I put so much of my time into it [the job] so I decided, after a month of crying, that it was time to do something for myself, where I could put a few more ethics into the business which I felt were lacking in the corporate world, with values that were a bit truer.

I love chocolate and I had always tinkered around with it, so I decided to have a go.

Where are you based and how big is your team?

Our little factory is in Glen Innes, Auckland and we've been as high as 12 staff members but right now we have seven full-time employees.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced?

The challenges have really come in that people are happy with supermarket chocolates so they're more than happy to eat Whittaker's, Cadbury's.

As a result, when you're selling real high-end chocolate, even though it's at a different level and a different style of product, we're dealing with people who are happy enough and get their chocolate cravings satisfied by the cheaper mass-market product and buy our product for treats or gifts so it's a lot harder than I realised to get people to consume your brand on a more regular basis.

The problem is bad chocolate is still better than good broccoli and the net result of that is people pay a lot more as they get the value or satisfaction they need from the cheaper chocolate, so we have to be really unique. There's been a real explosion in the artisan area of handmade and there are so many entrants into the market that it's getting harder to stay out in front, at the top of people's mind.

Kako Chocolate founder Stu Jordan with a box of chocolate from his subscription service.
Kako Chocolate founder Stu Jordan with a box of chocolate from his subscription service.

How does your business stay on top of its game?

That's where we're repositioning ourselves as a disruptor in the market.

It's a big claim to fame of course, and we're just starting out, but we had a team meeting at the start of January and looked at where we were going, what we were doing and it became very apparent to us that the further you go into the artisan and the weird flavours we create, the further removed we get from the roots in what we have, and the emotional connection people have to chocolate.

We set ourselves a goal of trying to reconnect with our own chocolate memories as children; what attracted us to chocolate, what is it that chocolate does for us and how do we indicate that through product? And that's when we decided we needed to make some changes. About a month later we launched My Chocolate Box which is premium chocolate, subscription model but without the fancy finishing, costing $30 per month plus $5 shipping nationwide.

Bad chocolate is still better than good broccoli and the net result of that is people pay a lot more as they get the value or satisfaction they need from the cheaper chocolate.

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The subscription model allows us to go direct to the consumer with no wholesalers or retailers taking cuts, and we're not using any expensive packaging. We have a distinct advantage as we manufacture, so we can put a lot more in the box.

It's coming up to seven weeks now and we've already crossed over the 200 subscriber mark - it's going so much better than we could have hoped. Every month we have nine different assortments of chocolate and each month we change it up, giving a decent assortment of each. It's great for sharing and trying new flavours you might not otherwise have access to.

Chocolate pours from a tap at Kako's Auckland factory.
Chocolate pours from a tap at Kako's Auckland factory.

What was business like during the lead-up to Easter?

Easter has been solid, interestingly most of our Easter sales have come from online so there has been a real shift this year and I don't know whether that's because we've maybe got better at online and built our audience a bit wider, but I'd say over half of our Easter revenue would have come from online this year.

At Easter we have a couple of staples that are very popular. We've got crazy eggs with different expressions filled with salted caramel and they're by far our best seller at Easter, but this year we moved away from the overly hand-crafted, painted stuff and simplified our range but we've seemed to have done more [sales] which is strange. Every year we bring out different designs and ways of presenting our eggs because it's fun to be creative.

What is the best thing about running Kako?

The best thing is the freedom to be able to do what I want to do.

I couldn't go back to working for somebody else, I'd really struggle because I really enjoy being able to work when I want to. With that said, as a small business owner - and I'm sure all would agree - you work far harder for far less money than you ever would in the employee world, but it is very rewarding.

I wish more people would understand that doing what you love is infinitely better than working in something you hate - it changes your whole life.

What's your advice for those wanting to start their own business?

Don't just jump in blindly like I did, because I made a lot of mistakes.

Talk to people, get advice, build a business plan. You can be passionate about a product but you've got to learn the business side of things as well. Get good mentoring and good coaches, and don't try to do everything yourself.