The patient ways of chocolate - Issue #00013

Two lawyers trade billable hours for something more valuable: time. Which led to travel, exploration, and single-origin Thai chocolate.

This week we have another story of a midlife crisis turned awesome food business. (For newer readers, have a look at our interview with Rachel Elman O’Shea who co-founded the Laos Buffalo Dairy out of a mid-life crisis.)

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INTERVIEW: The patient ways of chocolate

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Paniti and Nuttaya Junhasavasdikul had stars in their eyes. They had just spent two weeks in Hawaii with Nat Bletter, a pioneer in the bean-to-bar chocolate movement, and at the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute in San Francisco with chocolate scholar Carla Martin. From Dr Bletter they learned how to produce and package bean-to-bar chocolate, and from Dr Martin how to grade cacao, the better to evaluate the beans they were buying directly from farmers. 

Their idea of having one’s own brand of chocolate…seemed…possible. 

They had already planted 400 cacao seedlings on a plot of land in Mae Tang, in Chiang Mai province. Which they found while on a motorbike trip around Thailand. Which they had done to slow their lives down after two decades working as lawyers clocking billable hours. 

“Those hours, we only spend them and we don't get anything back,” Paniti says. “Lawyers have a good life. We get paid well, we reward ourselves with cars and watches. But finally, we felt that this wasn’t for us. So we tried to enrich ourselves with more experiences than objects.” 

The plan was to build a retirement farmhouse, eventually. But in Thailand, unused land is taxed heavily, so a farmer suggested they plant cacao. “We can grow cacao in Thailand!” Nuttaya thought. “This is interesting.”

Following their curiosity, they crisscrossed the country on their own cacao learning tour, then Nuttaya taught herself how to make chocolate. The texture of these early batches wasn’t great, but they discovered that cacao from different provinces presented unique flavor profiles. 

Cacao from Chumphon, on the Gulf of Thailand’s western coast, has “notes of ripe grapes and red berries.” Just 200 kilometers north, Prachuap Khiri Khan, which grows pineapples and coconuts, is “bright and citrusy, with a smooth floral aftertaste.” Beans from Chantaburi, in the east, hint of “passion fruit, mango, and a honey-lemon creamy body.” 

“And that was it, the idea ran wild,” Paniti laughs. 

Kad Kokoa, their brand, celebrates Thai culture through chocolate. Now three years old, Nuttaya and Paniti have self-funded it to where it is today: a retail space, a cafe, a lab, a talented team, relationships with farmers, awards, the support of top chefs, an outpost in Tokyo, and a growing base of regular customers. 

Paniti used to think this was the time to scale. They met with many investors and almost closed some deals. The typical response was: “We like your brand very much, but you need to move a needle. If one day you make half a billion [baht], talk to us then.” On reflection, this type of investment was not for them. “We cannot take money then suddenly we are running like a rat trying to deliver investor returns from chocolate.” 

So until they find their “investor soulmate,” as Nuttaya describes it, someone who has patient capital and is investing for impact, they’ll continue to bootstrap. 

In this interview, Nuttaya and Paniti share what they’ve learned about patiently building a product, a brand, and a creative life from scratch.

Find a teacher who can impart super-specific know-how.

“Our knowledge about the chocolate business was zero,” explains Nuttaya, “so I decided to write to Nat Bletter of Madre Cacao in Hawaii. There were months and months of silence, but finally, he said we could come.” 

There’s a proliferation of online learning platforms today where one can go from “noob” to “informed” through self-paced online video -- or at least share a certificate that claims it. 

But to go from hobbyist to craftsman, from amateur to pro, requires customized learning. It requires one-on-one instruction. It requires context. It requires walking around a cacao plantation on Oahu with a pioneer of bean-to-bar chocolate.

“Nat taught us how to prune, how to pick the cacao pods, how to ferment. Even how to wrap the chocolate bars. He showed us where to place a sleeve or a sticker, what information you need on your packaging. We can say that we learned from a guru.”

Bake your mission into the brand.

“Kad” is the word for “market” in the Northern Thai dialect. It’s a nod to the place where their idea took seed and reflects their mission: to become the gathering point for lovers of Thai cacao and the ecosystem it supports. 

“That's a key part of our brand-building. We don't want to compete with anyone in terms of who makes the best chocolate? Are we more expensive? Why we are not as sweet? Let's look at the impact we make, how we help the community as a whole.”

At the core is the commitment they’ve kept with farmer collectives from whom they’ve consistently bought cacao for three years non-stop. 

A post shared by Kad Kokoa Official (@kadkokoa_chocolate)

“Right now, the hardest part is managing cash flow. Business has been slower because of COVID, but the beans are not affected by COVID. They’re even thriving more. So our job is to make sure we make good quality chocolate that customers like, and sell it as soon as we can because the next batch of cacao will come again very soon from the farm. We cannot stop buying from them. Otherwise, we will break the chain.”

Ask yourself if your product can attract top talent and advocates.

“We don't believe in the concept that the founder does everything,” says Paniti. “I think you should try to work with someone who's better than you. We know our weak point: we are not pastry chefs. So we need to make up for the lack of domain experience.”

To do this, Kad Kokoa had to be good enough to attract top F&B talent. So Nuttaya left her legal work and, with a small team, focused on developing the product and the brand. 

To highlight the flavors, they make their chocolate with only two ingredients: cacao and organic cane sugar. “Chefs know we are using the best cacao we can source and we don't add anything else. We let the chocolate speak for itself.”

Soon after their launch in 2018, they won awards and had the support of one of Bangkok’s top pastry chefs, Laurent Ganguillet, who added Kad Kokoa to his long-running, show-stopping chocolate buffet at the Sukhothai Hotel. 

Chocolate became their tool to build a brand imbued with Thai-ness. Their packaging reflects Thai craft, with the new season inspired by textile weaving patterns from each region. The café itself is a rice barn from their farm in Chiang Mai. “We needed to save costs when building the cafe, and since we weren’t spending time in Chiang Mai, we disassembled the barn, moved the wood to Bangkok, and rebuilt it. It looks like a friend’s house. It's not uptight, it's relaxed and casual.”

Kad Kokoa’s pastry chefs and chocolatiers gravitated to them from the city’s top hotels. Thailand’s Bocuse d’Or team is using their chocolate for the cooking competition in Lyon, France. They are partnered with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to promote community tourism. Their Japan partnership started in the same way: Yumi Sawahira, an industry veteran, visited the cafe every day for a week, then proposed the idea of setting up shop in Tokyo. 

“While we make chocolate, we sell more than chocolate,” Paniti explains. “We look at how the brand can represent Thailand, from any angle.” 

Recognize and nurture your real customers

While industry pros were quickly won over by the high-quality product, educating consumers has been a different matter altogether.

Kad Kokoa, from the product to the packaging to the space, is Instagram-ready. This ensured opening-day crowds. But four months in, the scene had changed. Those early visitors were cafe-hoppers who needed social media fuel, showing up once then moving on. It was an eye-opener.

“Don't get complacent when you open something and the first three months you are so busy,” says Paniti. “You think that's going to be your forever model. No. Month four, month six, you will feel ... hey, where are they? The posts about you are down in Instagram...deep down.”

This launch phase was a test of patience for Nuttaya. “The cafe-hoppers didn't understand bean-to-bar chocolate that well, so they just complained, in good ways and bad. And we were disappointed because we thought we could please them. But we decided not to change the taste of our chocolate. We stuck with our philosophy and chose to educate our customers more.” 

“We are 50,” Paniti adds, “and a lot of the time we had to please young customers at a cafe. That was hard for us!” 

So they sifted through their customers and found their real fans. For Kad Kokoa these are people who like craft food and health-conscious consumers. “They will come every week to fill up their stock of chocolate. Then this is the key: let them speak for themselves. If they like our chocolate, they will refer their friends. This way takes time, but it lasts longer.” 

Even with a growing fan base, customer education is a never-ending job. Kad Kokoa’s fruity flavor is unique, so every Saturday, Nuttaya and her team host chocolate tasting workshops. “Instead of one-on-one, we can do eight to ten guests, but that's it. So it will take time for the scale to tip.” 

Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle. Design your life accordingly.

In this partnership, Nuttaya takes the lead on the brand and the product. With characteristic humility, Paniti says, “My job is not much. It’s designing our lifestyle, making sure we can still cover the downside, and most of all, managing our time.” 

His job is not “not much.” It’s the key to their ability to build patiently. His experience as a lawyer working in private equity and venture capital is a unique advantage for Kad Kokoa because he has knowledge of all the ways startups can fail. This informs how they design their business.

“We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket. When we decided to do this, we had to separate our roles. Nuttaya was focused on her chocolate-making skills and thinking about the brand concept, and I support her. So I still work on some legal advisory cases to pay the bills.”

It’s also why they decided early on to build a team, and why stock options are part of employee compensation. “When we started, our brand was nothing. Chefs came to try the gig for a while, and if it didn’t match their passion, they moved on. But the current team has been with us for two years. They prove themselves, and we put the money where our mouth is. This way, instead of going out and opening another brand, they feel that Kad Kokoa is theirs.”

And the search for their investor soulmate? “Financial investors want a return. They will look at discounted cash flow. A business like ours is more about brand equity than cash flow. So you will keep arguing with investors about the valuation forever. We meet a lot of investors all the time. They like to own this beautiful brand, but we haven't struck good chemistry with anyone just yet.”

Because Kad Kokoa is generating revenue, they can focus on building brand value for the next few years. “Right now it's the happiest time. We keep our face down and keep grinding. I think building brand value is still important for us. And we still believe that one day we are going to meet our soulmate.”

Kad Kokoa has an online store at kadkokoa.co and @kadkokoa_chocolate on Instagram. Their cafe is located at Naratiwas 17, Sathorn, Bangkok 10120 Thailand.

For people who want to apply a startup mindset to their small business, Paniti recommends the book The Fail-Safe Startup by Tom Eisenmann.

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