For my latest interview I caught up with Sharon Terenzi, aka The Chocolate Journalist. Over the past decade Sharon has become a well known figure in the craft chocolate industry and a leading voice for the bean-to-bar movement. Through her excellent blog and huge social media following, Sharon promotes high quality and ethical craft chocolate, educates producers and consumers alike, and generally helps to spread the word about fine flavour cacao, small-batch chocolate making and chocolate marketing. As she spends so much time promoting the work of other people, I thought it might be interesting to find out more about Sharon's own chocolate story...
What is your background and how did you get into the chocolate industry?
Marketing was my biggest passion before chocolate entered my life. I have a bachelor’s degree in International Marketing from Italy, did one year program in Marketing in New York, and I’ve always loved reading books on consumers’ psychology, how we choose what to buy and why, and how to market a great product at its best. Chocolate entered my life back in 2012 when I used to work for an Italian importer specialty foods in New York.
Because of the frustrating office job, I would often find myself wandering in the retail store looking for some comfort food. A big wood table in the middle of the store called on me every time. Laying on top of it were the best Italian chocolate brands at that time: Guido Gobino, Domori, DeBondt and others. Bite after bite, I got curious about the simple ingredients lists, the great flavours, and chocolate in general. I started diving into the companies’ websites, buying chocolate books on Amazon and reading any possible article on chocolate I could find online. Soon I became the chocolate expert of the office, and then decided to start collecting all my findings in my blog, The Chocolate Journalist. This is how the story began.
What are some of the core aims of the work you do as The Chocolate Journalist?
On top of the list, I feel the visceral need to make consumers understand the difference between industrial and craft chocolate. Most chocolate consumers don’t realise all the work and care that goes on behind artisan chocolate, often judging the price tags as “ridiculously high” when they don’t know that those prices are the bare minimum to keep craft chocolate makers afloat. By highlighting the big differences between these two industries, I hope to open the eyes of unaware chocolate lovers.
My second biggest goal is to talk about the latest news, trends and issues in the craft chocolate industry. There are some topics that you only see discussed in big conferences, in private professional events, that nobody cares to talk about publicly, or that would be too difficult or too nerdy to explain. I want to be that bridge that in a simple, digestible and entertaining way passes on some crucial info and news to both professionals and consumers.
Lastly, I want people to discover the endless variety of origins, flavours, and stories enclosed in every craft chocolate bar, so I like to write compelling tasting reviews for everybody to enjoy.
Was there a particular bar that opened your eyes to bean-to-bar/craft chocolate?
Want to know a fun fact? The first craft bean-to-bar chocolate I ever tasted was from Mast Brothers.
On the weekends when I was off my job, I used to tour all the chocolate stores in New York, and ended up one day at the Mast Brothers factory in Brooklyn. It was 2013, and their chocolate tasted absolutely terrible, even to an unexperienced palate like mine at that time. Thank God that didn’t stop my search and study of fine chocolate, and soon after I tasted many other brands that gave me the opposite experience. I don’t think there was a specific bar that opened my eyes to craft chocolate, but more so the repetition of amazing flavours, bite after bite, that confirmed the colossal differences with the supermarket chocolate I was used to eating before.
How do you keep up to date with everything that's happening in the chocolate industry?
I used to rely a lot on Google News, but now all the mainstream articles are filled with paid ads, biased research, vague info, or written by food writers that clearly don’t know a lot about chocolate. So I now draw my own conclusions by observing and listening to the market.
Primarily, I use Instagram. By being on the platform all day, I get to see the latest products that companies are releasing, which is a great way to spot trends. Also, the comment section under my posts is always filled with experts willing to share their knowledge on every topic I present, something that I highly appreciate. The second tool is joining any possible online conference or workshop organised by professionals in the industry, for example by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association or the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, but also yearly events like Chocoa or the Northwest Chocolate Festival, whether they are online or in person. Thirdly, it’s all about hearing directly from chocolate companies: asking questions here and there, reading their Social Media posts, signing up to their newsletters. Lastly, I have good chocolate friends that send me messages and emails every time they hear about some major news. They are truly precious.
Many small-scale chocolate makers don't have a lot of time and money for marketing. What are your top three marketing tips for makers in this situation?
First, I believe that we MAKE the time for what we care about and believe it’s important. So my first suggestion for small-scale chocolate makers that don’t have a lot of time and money is to have a set schedule for their marketing actions. Even if those actions are limited or sporadic, there should be a specific time of the day and day of the week when those actions are performed. For example, create a Social Media calendar. Even if you only post 3 times a week, choose the specific days and times when you are going to post, and stick to them. Another example is the newsletter. Pick a specific day of the week or the month when you are going to sit down at your desk and spend one hour crafting and sending out the newsletter. Things shouldn’t be left to “when I have the time”, but planned out strategically. Your discipline and consistency cost no money, but will be rewarded big time.
Second, make loyal customers feel special. It doesn’t cost any money to repost the beautiful picture of somebody enjoying your chocolate on Instagram, like it doesn’t cost any money to send them a private message to say thank you for their purchase. These are simple actions that will stick to a customer’s mind for a long time. Also, how about Loyalty Cards? I have yet to see something like Loyalty Cards for craft chocolate. With all the wide range of choices now in craft chocolate, chocoholics that stick to the same brands should feel rewarded for their loyalty. Loyalty Cards allow to accumulate points at every purchase. Once a specific number of points is reached, the rewards can be unique discounts, free chocolate bars at the next purchase, or special treats. These rewards cost peanuts to the company, but will make loyal customers feel appreciated and will also stimulate sales.
Third, have a great website. In 2021, there is no need to pay a web designer to create an e-commerce that looks stylish, professional and welcoming, especially with platforms like Squarespace, Winx or Shopify. Big colourful images, compelling product descriptions, easy and intuitive navigation, informative pages, are all things that can be achieved at low costs and that don’t need major modifications for a long time. With all the competition in the craft chocolate industry, the bare minimum is to have a great website where consumers enjoy shopping for your chocolate.
How has COVID 19 affected your work?
I feel blessed that 2020 has been my best year yet, and it’s only getting better. With a lot of craft chocolate companies unfortunately closing down their physical locations during 2020, they put all their efforts and resources online (finally understanding the importance of a user-friendly website and a consistent presence on Social Media). So I gained new clients for my Social Media management and consultancy services, and I also got more opportunities for paid content writing from companies that wanted to drive more traffic to their websites with educational blog posts. I also started paid sponsorships on my Social Media accounts for the promotion of chocolate products, events and courses that align with my value and I believe will be useful to my audience.
For being a solopreneur, I’ve now reached full capacity, to the point where I have to turn down work that I can’t possibly find the time for, and I am incredibly grateful for that.
Is there a big following for craft chocolate in Italy?
Despite Italy being the land of fine food, chocolate is still a tough one to be seen as “specialty”. We have Ferrero here that got us all used to cheap, buttery and sugary chocolate products since a tender age. But things are slowly changing here too.
There are a lot of craft chocolate makers around now, from North to South. I’d say at least 10-15, spreading the culture of good quality chocolate first in their local areas, and then nationally thanks to distributors that give them space in their assortment all around Italy. There are also more craft chocolate retailers, importing international brands that definitely catch people’s attention thanks to their fancy designs and intriguing flavours. Consumers here are developing a palate for dark chocolate too. You hear less of “dark chocolate is too bitter for me” around, which is a great relief. So the following for craft chocolate is growing in Italy too.
Do you have any predictions for upcoming trends in the craft chocolate industry? Any flavours or styles that are becoming popular?
I see craft chocolate makers drifting away from “pure” assortments made only of single-origin dark chocolate bars. It seems that, after getting skilled with cocoa origins, craft chocolate makers are now having fun experimenting with intriguing, mouth-watering and exciting inclusions. From instagrammable green, yellow and blue chocolate to the addition of unexpected salty ingredients, craft chocolate lovers can now enjoy a larger variety of flavours that they could only dream of 2 years ago. Fine cocoa is often not the main protagonist, but the great base for delicious inclusions. Honestly, I am happy about this trend, as these fun and delicious creations get new customers closer to craft chocolate than 80% dark chocolate bars ever could.
Other trends worth mentioning: collaborations between local businesses where the chocolate maker and the coffee roaster, the whisky distiller or the tea curator come together to create a limited-edition chocolate bar that highlight the best of both worlds; chocolate bar sizes that differ from the traditionally rectangular chocolate bar, taking on other shapes that catch the eyes of consumers (like square bars); monthly subscription boxes with chocolate bars not available to all customers, but crafted exclusively for the subscription members.
This is a tricky one, but could you tell us a few of your all-time favourite chocolate bars?
Nothing tricky about that! Some of my all-time favourite origin bars: 70% Piura by Cacaosuyo for an explosion of fruitiness; 70% Uganda by Solstice Chocolate for a complex journey of flavours; 75% Ghana by Francois Pralus for a chocolatey heaven. Some of my all-time favourite inclusion bars: Black Fig by Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate; 68% India with Nibs by Fjak Sjokolade; Gianduia by Hogarth Chocolate; Green Tea Crunch by Raaka Chocolate; Cardamom by Roszavolgyi Csokolade; Filter Kaapi Coffee by Soklet.
What is your favourite thing about working with chocolate?
That craft chocolate is never only about the finished product. In every bite, there is the effort of hundreds of people, there are thousands of miles traveled, there are at least 2 or 3 different cultures involved, there is a long journey of transformation from the seed to the chocolate, and a lot of incredible stories to share in between. As I witnessed in the past 7 years, one bite of craft chocolate can create hours-long conversations between people that never even met before, whereas with supermarket chocolate there isn’t much to talk about. I guess “complexity” is my favourite thing about working with chocolate. You can approach it from so many different points of view that you never run out of things that can fascinate and surprise you.
*All images supplied by Sharon Terenzi.*