I get to meet the most interesting women writing this column.
I had never met a chocolatier until I met Jen Winter from Koko Chocolates. Meeting Jen combined two of my favourite things: my oWOW column and my love of chocolate. And she did bring me samples of her chocolate and it was truly divine. Free of preservatives, no added sugar, gluten-free and many dairy free options, I felt like I was eating the purest most honest form of chocolate. And since she was sitting right across from me while I ate it, I had the sense I was eating something she herself had created, which is exactly what Koko Chocolates is. You know how mom's cooking is the best and nothing else compares? Eating Jen's chocolate was just like that; she had created the chocolate with her own hands. It couldn't be any more handcrafted than that. Given the way our food today is highly processed, with additives and preservatives and put in boxes, it was divine to eat something fresh, local and hand made. Brilliant.
Speaking of local, Jen sources local ingredients whenever possible; with the exception of the chocolate itself. She partners with Ottawa based companies like Michaelsdolce (for the jam that is found in her Plum Star Anise kokoEgg), Upper Canada Cranberries and a local tea supplier.
So how does one become a chocolatier? Surely this must have been a lifelong dream to someday not only create chocolate but to own one's own chocolate company? Not exactly. Jen was a VP at a market research firm in Vancouver before she bought Koko Chocolates. She had also previously owned a stain glass business and was an entrepreneur at heart. She wanted to get back to building a business that let her combine her creative talents with business ownership. And, she loved chocolate.
You don't have to be enormous to be successful. Not all businesses are meant to grow in that way.
So when a friend informed Jen that she was moving to Australia and was actively looking for a buyer for her two year old company Koko Chocolates, Jen bought it. Now she had to train to become a chocolatier, which she did at the prestigious Callebaut Academy in Montreal taking an intensive program to learn everything about making chocolate. It's hard to think of any hardships when you think of working with chocolate every day, but finding qualified employees is difficult, "To work at Koko Chocolates you must be a trained chocolatier; and those are hard to find," explains Jen. "Many people I find are pastry chefs, who have worked with chocolate as a means of creating pastries, but this job requires a full concentration on chocolate. And that is hard to find," she explains.
Business is a process; personal growth is important
Jen has a hand in everything at Koko Chocolates. She creates the flavours, products, seasonal product ideas AND she does the production along with all the other aspects of business ownership: developing retail partnerships, sales, packaging, HR, marketing and more. The garnishing on the chocolates is done by hand not via a machine. Jen has a small team of employees but she is involved in every aspect of the business. Jen has also recently started offering chocolate courses. "These are currently suited for the general public who wish to learn more about working with chocolate," Jen says.
You learn a lot about yourself when owning a business
"The idea for Koko Chocolates is to be the best; and that means using the best ingredients, making the best products and creating the chocolate in the best way," explains Jen. Koko Chocolates has a whole range of products including: truffles, bark, ganach-filled bars and seasonal products (Easter eggs for example). It is as much about the art as it is about the chocolate. In fact, last November Jen created a Movember inspired chocolate product to raise money for prostate cancer research and education: chocolate truffles with very male infused flavours such as bacon and scotch. "My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011," explains Jen. "This is a cause I am passionate about. And our Movember inspired chocolates are very popular."
Bring passion to the business; this is what keeps you inspired
"The business I choose must fit my lifestyle," admits Jen. "I make decisions based on that balance." And that balance includes her hubby and six year old son, who admittedly thinks his mom's job is pretty cool. "He does have a very refined palette for excellent chocolate," Jen laughs. "And he likes to experiment with making chocolate. He is learning what it takes to run a business, particularly one owned by a woman," Jen explains.
Does she give away a lot of chocolate? "Yes," laughs Jen. "It's hard not to when you own a chocolate company." In fact Koko Chocolates donates to approximately 50 local charities annually and shows Jen's commitment to her community.
Jen has built retail partnerships with many local companies who sell her chocolates in their stores. And you can always buy chocolate from her website. Although she didn't reveal what's next for Koko Chocolates, for the time being she is putting a lot of love into her chocolates. And that tastes good.
Editor's Note: as of October 2014 Koko Chocolate closed. This is the message from founder Jen Winter:
It is with mixed emotions I announce the permanent closing of koko chocolates. Since putting the business on hiatus in February, I have experienced the extreme joy of the birth of our beautiful daughter Emilia, the profound sadness of the unexpected loss of my mother, as well as a move from Ottawa to Kingston.
Through these experiences it has become clear that it is time for me and my family to move on to the next chapter of our lives. We are excited for what lies ahead.