As a class project, two undergrads at the university’s Foster School of Business dreamed up a company to sell quality chocolates infused with caffeine. Now they’ve got their product on the shelves at Bartells and at Nordstrom’s cafes.
Joe Chocolates, a company started by students at the University of Washington, is generating some buzz, not just for nibblers of its caffeinated chocolates but also among retailers.
Born during a 2015 entrepreneurship class at the UW’s Foster School of Business, the company now has its products on the shelves of some two dozen local retailers, including Bartell Drugs. It recently landed a deal that will put its chocolates in Nordstrom’s coffee bars in several regions.
“Who thought a school project would turn into an almost nationally distributed product so fast?” said Sam Tanner, 23, CEO and co-founder. Before the Nordstrom deal, the company’s first widespread distribution arrangement, “we were self-distributing through Seattle, driving my car around.”
The idea of making a caffeinated chocolate arose during the Foster School’s two-quarter Creating a Company class in fall 2015. Tanner and his fellow student and company co-founder Peter Keckemet, 22, wanted to make something tasty that would help themselves stay energized during long study sessions or hikes, and that was easy to grab and eat on the go.
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Other caffeinated chocolates were already on the market, but “we found the quality of the chocolate way too low and education of customers — about how much caffeine was in them — way too low,” Tanner said.
So they set out to make their own higher quality chocolates, receiving mentoring from the likes of Jean Thompson, owner and CEO of Seattle Chocolates; Fran Bigelow of Fran’s Chocolates; and Bill Fredericks of Chocolate Man in Lake Forest Park, and who is president of the Northwest Chocolatiers Guild..
As part of the Creating a Company class, they received $1,200 to launch Joe Chocolates (the name is a play on the expression “cup of joe”), creating the caffeinated chocolates in a shared commercial kitchen in the University District. (They were able to pay back the $1,200 with subsequent profits from the company.)
Tanner, who grew up in a family of chefs, and Keckemet, who has worked in the food industry, decided to grow the company after both graduated in spring 2016. Keckemet is now chief operating officer of Joe Chocolates. The company has one other, part-time employee — a friend from college.
They currently operate out of a production facility in South Park, where they temper dark chocolate couverture (chocolate with a high cocoa butter content) from Guittard Chocolate. They mix in coffee beans from Lighthouse Roasters, as well as their own handmade inclusions such as caramel and toasted coconut. And they package the products themselves.
The company has three mainstay flavors — sea salt caramel, honey almond and midnight coconut — with a fourth of chocolate, coffee, and roasted cacao coming soon, as well as seasonal flavors. Each 2.5-ounce bag of the chocolate says it includes the caffeine equivalent of two cups of coffee.
Funding to grow the company came from a $25,000 grant from the UW Foster School’s Jones + Foster Accelerator program for student-led startups, as well as their own savings and contributions from family and friends. They’re currently talking with other potential investors.
Tanner and Keckemet initially focused their distribution on smaller retailers to test their price point, hone their recipes and find their profit margin.
Bartell Drugs started carrying the chocolates late last year after Jean Bartell Barber, one of the drugstore chain’s owners and vice chair of the board, was contacted by the UW Alumni Association about the product.
Bartell’s decided to take it on since candy is one of the company’s main product areas, Joe Chocolates is local, and it had a smart business plan and tasty product, said spokesman Ric Brewer.
“We’ve been very pleased with the performance of their product line,” Brewer said.
The Nordstrom deal came about after Tanner gave samples of Joe Chocolates to some Ebar workers at the downtown Seattle Nordstrom store, then persisted in giving more samples up the levels of Nordstrom management.
“Joe Chocolates was an easy choice,” Bill Wilson, Nordstrom’s national director of specialty coffee operations, said, adding that the fashion retailer likes to offer tasty local or regional products that complement the Ebars’ beverages.
Tanner says his goal is to have Joe Chocolates become a regional staple like Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.
“My dream is to run into someone in the back country and see a bag of Joe Chocolates peeking out of their backpack. Or as me and Pete call it, ‘spotting Joe in the wild,’” Tanner said.