Liz Rowe studied journalism and fine arts before an overseas trip changed her life. Now she’s turning craft chocolate into an art form.
Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason behind a business start-up story. In Liz Rowe’s case, it was simply a case of one thing leading to another.
Ten years ago the trained journalist decided it was time to fulfil her long-time desire to attend art school. So she completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Dunedin. Next she studied Spanish, simply because she wanted to, and spent six months in Mexico and Latin America on an exchange through Otago University.
While in Mexico she noted the lack of dark chocolate in supermarkets – considering the importance of cacao in early Latin American cultures, this was surprising.
Liz’s research on chocolate made her curious about how chocolate is made. She began to think about the possibility of opening some kind of chocolate business on her return to New Zealand.
“I met a chocolate maker in Ecuador who told me to find out lots more about chocolate before I even thought about making any. So when I got back I did an online ‘bean-to-bar’ course, which was mainly about tasting a lot of chocolate and learning the differences between industrial and craft chocolate, and then different styles of craft chocolate,” Liz recalls. “From there I bought a little bit of home/hobby level equipment from the States and some beans and started experimenting, eventually deciding that I could scale up quite easily and do this as a business. ‘Easily’ being famous last words!”
In August 2013 Liz started selling chocolate at the Otago Farmers Market under the OCHO (Otago Chocolate Company) brand; online sales followed soon after.
Her first big milestone was sourcing her initial small shipment of cocoa beans from Papua New Guinea (PNG). There have been many other smaller milestones since – hiring her first part-timer (she now has two); securing her first wholesale client; and getting through her first shipment of 5,000 chocolate wrappers.
“I hope to use my second order of 5,000 packages twice as fast as the first,” she says. “Then I might be ordering 10,000 at once.”
Liz’s goal is to make OCHO profitable enough to support at least two or three full-time employees. “If I can do that it will mean that I’m also buying more cocoa beans, which means more money to farmers,” she says. While all her beans currently come from farmer cooperatives in PNG, Liz would also like to buy from other Pacific countries.
“I don’t buy fair trade certified beans because that imposes quite a cost on the growers, but I always look to pay fair prices for what I buy with the intent of helping communities be sustainable.”
Selling more chocolate is the key, along with “converting the masses” to the delights of craft chocolate. But that’s easier said than done because many people have no idea where chocolate comes from or understand the differences between craft chocolate and industrial chocolate, she says.
Business has its challenges
It may not sound a big deal, but this year Liz made the important decision to give herself a Saturday off from the Farmers Market every month. Her biggest challenge has been figuring out how not to spend seven days a week on the business, and find more time for planning, marketing and sales.
“There is such a temptation to do everything yourself because you know you can do it and because you think it will save money,” she says. “However, I know I can’t grow this business unless I have some help and I’ve had to work out where the best place is to put that help.”
Other business challenges included employing staff (an experience she says that was made easier by utilising Thankyou Payroll) and technical issues associated with manufacturing chocolate.
Liz says the best way to get up to speed is by just doing it. “Scaling up from a small bench-top grinder/conch to two larger machines was much harder and more confusing than I thought it would be. Sooner or later I’ll have to scale up from these two machines, so I’ll be facing similar problems again.”
Meeting other chocolate makers at a conference in Seattle last October was a huge help in solving some of the technical issues, she says.
Getting her head around funding has also been a major issue for Liz. “If you’re growing [your business] there always seems to be something new to invest in and your bills seem to increase just as fast as your income. So far I haven’t wanted to take out a loan for the business or get other investors [on board], so I am essentially funding the growth from personal savings plus my own time. I’d have to look at other options if I wanted to grow faster.”
Liz admits that her chocolate business has required more effort and time than she ever imagined. The whole experience has reinforced the fact you need to be in business for the long haul. And don’t ever do it if it’s just about making money.
“It’s a cliché, but you really do have to enjoy what you’re doing, because more than likely it will be harder and take longer to make money than you think.”
Where you start a business can make a difference too, and this is where Liz’s loyalties clearly lie with Dunedin.
She loves the cheaper rents, the city’s compact size and ‘small town’ nature. “You can do five jobs and be back at the kitchen, while someone in Auckland would still be stuck in traffic trying to get to their first appointment.
“People are generally really supportive too,” she says, adding that the Farmers Market is a brilliant place to start out.
“Not only does it mean a weekly cashflow, but it’s a way of connecting directly with customers and meeting all sorts of people you’d never talk to otherwise. I spent some time chatting to a pastry chef from London recently who was visiting Dunedin. She took some chocolate back to London and has emailed with some amazingly positive feedback from her current and former head chefs at some very prestigious restaurants.”
But perhaps the biggest lesson of all for Liz has been the realisation of the huge gap between having a good idea and writing plans and strategies on paper and doing it for real.
“There are lots of good ideas out there and lots of people having good ideas, but it takes tremendous effort and determination to actually make things happen for real.”