Some of the world’s greatest ideas have come in the form of divine inspiration. Einstein once said that important discoveries “seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.” The writer William Blake believed his poetry came directly from God. In the case of Shawn Askinosie, a successful criminal lawyer from Springfield Missouri, the journey to become a celebrated chocolate maker started with a prayer for job advice.
It was 2005, and the trial-weary lawyer was on a road trip to an elderly family member’s memorial service. He had some time on his hands and began praying for insight on a job opportunity. What he heard back from his higher power was startling. It said: “You need to make chocolate from scratch.” It’s anybody’s guess why the successful criminal lawyer (and later his entire family) with absolutely no idea how chocolate is made would heed such improbable career guidance. But heed he did, and what’s resulted has been something much bigger than just some award-winning, small-batch chocolate.
Shawn traveled to the Amazon soon after his road trip epiphany, and began learning about the origins of chocolate first hand. In the sticky heat of the jungle, he watched the fermenting and drying process of the cacao beans. He witnessed the rural cacao farmers tending their crops and struggling to feed their families. Then, while standing under a canopy of trees in the Amazonian rain forest, the gray-haired lawyer experienced another kind of awakening.
Askinosie realized he needed to leave his law practice.
Perhaps it was his background as a defender of justice that made it possible for Askinosie to see the socio-economic disconnect between successful chocolate makers, middlemen who value quantity over quality, and cash-poor cacao farmers. Maybe it was destiny or a flash of inspiration. Regardless, it was then that the lawyer knew he needed to start exploring opportunities to change the long-standing dynamic between chocolate makers and farmers.
Shawn returned home to Springfield, Missouri determined to start a chocolate company. With the help of his supportive wife, Caron, and their daughter, Lawren, the family spent the next couple of years piecing together the beginnings of their business. Shawn studied the art and science of making chocolate. It didn’t take long for Askinosie to realize that the best way for him to make a great tasting bar was to work directly with the growers. By creating a relationship with the people who grew the cacao beans, he would be able to influence the quality of the product.
Askinosie began fostering relationships with cacao farmers in Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and the Philippines. By paying higher than fair wages and cash up front, he was able to forge relationships with the growers and work directly with them on how they grew, fermented and dried their cacao beans. “Working directly and personally with farmers instead of brokers allows me to help improve the quality of their beans,” Askinosie says. Like a winemaker dedicated to a particular plot of vines from a particular vineyard, Askinosie’s bean-to-bar process results in a final product that reflects the quality of its ingredients and terroir.
The path of the visionary can often be steep. For the Askinosie family, the first challenge began with equipment purchasing. Costly repairs and renovations needed for the building that would house their factory followed. Askinosie spent a year slowly extricating himself from his law practice and court cases.”I used to keep a suit in the closet of the factory,” he admits. “But the court-house is just a few blocks away from our business.” He laughs. “It was a little weird.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle — the crisis that threatened to derail the entire journey — was the chocolate making process itself. Askinosie couldn’t get the chocolate to temper –a heating process that changes the molecular structure of the butter fat which results in a shiny and firm final texture. The chocolate bloomed (when chocolate turns and gets a moldy, white exterior). The texture was off. “I was trying every day and including the weekends for four months,” Askinosie says. Nothing worked.
The factory was equipped. Employees were ready to go. The chocolate bars just weren’t turning out.
Days turned to weeks as the chocolate making process continued to lead to failures. Anxiety dreams plagued Askinosie. There were moments when he and his family feared they might have to pull the plug on their dream. The family persevered until they found a solution to their problem. Salvation came in the form of a German melanger (a kind of mixer that manipulates the liquid chocolate with heat). “After we got that piece of equipment we were ready to go,” Askinosie says.
The Askinosie’s sold their first chocolate bar from their factory in downtown Springfield, Missouri in 2007. With the chocolate bars in production, the Askinosie’s went to work on making great chocolate and creating a culture of ownership within the factory’s workforce. Askinosie followed the business model of Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham (Stake in the Outcome) and opened up they company financials to employees. Employees got involved in building the success of the business and were rewarded for their help.
Askinosie took the idea of rewarding his employees and went one step farther and offered rewards to his farming partners. “I wanted to take that concept and move it upstream to our farmers suppliers,” says Askinosie. Stake in the Outcome has become a tool to award financial incentives to the international growers responsible for the bars’ main ingredient . Every year, Shawn visits Honduras, Ecuador, the Philippines, and Tanzania to give the farmers ten percent of the net profits of the sale of chocolate made from their beans. If the growers’ bean-to-bar chocolate sells well, the farmers do well.
Generosity of Spirit
The Askinosie’s generous spirit doesn’t stop with helping the men and women responsible for making and growing the ingredients for their bean-to-bar chocolates. Askinosie Chocolate commits time and money to improving the lives of the needy in their local community of Springfield, Missouri. Askinosie established Chocolate University, an educational program created to enrich the lives of low-income and needy elementary school and college age kids in Springfield. In addition, the specialty chocolate maker supports educational programs for homeless children and offers jobs to women in a nearby shelter.
“You can’t run a business that claims to share with the farmers and then not share with the community,” said the chocolate maker. “We try to have an impact on the community where we can.” In 2009 Askinosie started Cocoa Honors, an 18-month bean-to-bar program for high school students at Central High in Springfield. The program began as a way for a small group of smart teens to start thinking about business ethics. Their research project: to study the best potential location for Askinosie to develop future relationships with cacao growers.
The teenage students’ research identified Tenende, Tanzania as a prime candidate for the Askinosie bean-to-bar program. The chocolate company began working with the farmers and, in August of 2010, a small group of the Cocoa Honors teens traveled to rural Tenende to meet with the Tenende co-op. The team worked with philanthropist Doug Pitt (brother of Brad) to provide thousands of villagers access to fresh water. And, just a few weeks ago, Askinosie Chocolate helped fund a delivery of textbooks for kids to the villagers. The Tanzania bar is available at Whole Foods and other specialty stores.
Taste of Their Labor
Perhaps one of the most groundbreaking commitments that the chocolate maker has made to the farmers and their families is to offer them something none of them have ever had: a taste of the chocolate made from their beans. “So many other people just gobble the chocolate up and don’t think anything about it,” says Askinosie. The response of the growers to their first taste of their village’s chocolate? “Reverence.”
Humility is the mark of many who are fortunate enough to pluck great ideas from thin air. Shawn Askinosie admits he never could have imagined the direction his life would have taken when he listened to the answer to his prayer.
“Making chocolate is the most professionally challenging thing I’ve ever faced,” Askinosie says. “And I was a criminal lawyer.”
Askinosie says he doesn’t measure the success of his business solely on a balance sheet. Dividends are measured by the triumph he sees in the faces of excited children who have their world view expanded beyond the local homeless shelter. Bonuses are paid out for the joy of cacao growers who have access to fresh water and a living wage. “If the chocolate will help us get textbooks in the hands of kids of Tanzania, then that’s good,” Askinosie says.
For the Askinosie’s, chocolate is a means to an end.
This is the first in a series of essays about the history, culture, trends, myths, and stories behind the business of chocolate.
For more information about Askinosie Chocolate and Chocolate University, go to their website.