Every year around Valentine’s Day, people start having visions of giving and receiving chocolate. Chocolate bars. Chocolate cake. Chocolate truffles. Chocolate pie. Chocolate mousse.
But what about chocolate with a vision? That’s the mission of Amsterdam-based Tony’s Chocolonely, which launched its U.S. sales operations in Portland two years ago. The bars are produced in Belgium and imported to the U.S.
Tony’s is a certified B corporation, meaning that it has met rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. In fact, one could argue those principles drive the product.
The story of Tony’s Chocolonely begins in 2005, when Dutch TV journalist Teun van de Keuken discovered the world’s largest chocolate companies were buying cocoa from plantations that used child slavery. He contacted the heads of the major chocolate manufacturers – but when they would not talk with him, Van de Keuken decided to take matters into his own hands.
He ate 12 chocolate bars and turned himself into the police as a “chocolate criminal;” he had purchased an illegally manufactured product. When the trial didn’t result in his conviction, he decided to start a chocolate company, Tony’s Chocolonely, dedicated to realizing a 100 percent slave-free chocolate industry.
As an example of how prevalent the issue of slavery is, a recent study by Tulane University found that more than 2 million children were forced workers in hazardous conditions in the cocoa production industry in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and that number continues to grow.
Despite initial crowdsourced concerns about packaging (it’s too loud), the size of the bars (they’re too big) and talk of slavery with a treat (it’s too depressing), Portland has embraced Tony’s chocolate. For that matter, so has much of the West Coast, as of January, the Rocky Mountain states, and soon, the Midwest region will be introduced to Tony’s. Peter Zandee, Tony’s Chocolonely U.S. sales manager, says more than 500,000 bars were shipped to natural and specialty U.S. grocers last year.
Portland-based New Seasons Market was the first domestic grocer to sell Tony’s.
“(Tony’s chocolate is) a crazy mover,” says Angela Bozo, New Seasons’ retail event and merchandising senior manager. “It has consistently just sold. After it launched, we were just like, ‘Are we going to be able to keep up with this?’”
Bozo pulled stats for a random 13-week, non-holiday period and reports roughly 40,000 bars sold in 19 New Seasons stores. The top two sellers for New Seasons are the milk chocolate caramel sea salt bar, and the dark chocolate bar. They sell six types of chocolate bars total.
While New Seasons stocks a number of fair trade and socially responsible chocolate items, she says Tony’s really goes out of its way to share their “1,000 percent mission-driven story,” in their packaging and promotion.
The bars brightly colored wrappings have a story, too. They are made from uncoated, unbleached, 100 percent recycled Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper, sourced in an environmentally friendly and socially responsible manner.
A message on one of the wrappers reads: “I’m an unusual kind of chocolate bar. I exist to end slavery in the chocolate industry. You’re probably thinking ‘huh, slavery?’ Yes. In fact, right now 460,000 slaves are working on cocoa farms in West Africa, many of them children. My mission is to make 100 percent slave free the norm in chocolate. With incredibly tasty chocolate, I lead by example. Please share a piece of me and my story. Alone I make slave-free chocolate, together we make chocolate slave-free.”
Another clues consumers into why Tony’s chocolate bars are not divided equally. “Isn’t it weird that all pieces in a normal chocolate bar are the same size when in the chocolate industry things are shared so unequally?”
“It’s very powerful,” Bozo says. “We are always going to have consumers who are interested in that. Chocolate is absolutely associated with issues, and Tony’s has just gone so much further and really fought for transparency and letting people know where their product comes from and how it’s made.”
Zandee says that raising awareness and changing the industry really is the goal, rather than to merely sell more chocolate eventually to the masses. And it’s not just consumers Tony’s aims to educate. They located in the U.S. because it is home to three of the world’s biggest chocolate manufacturers.
“If we continue to be just a niche player, we would never show up on their radar screen,” Zandee says. “We need to get the large companies to change the way they source their cocoa. To do this, we need to show with our business model that we can conduct business in a commercially successful manner that can be scaled by large chocolate companies.”
Zandee says Tony’s has built direct, long-term relationships with cocoa farmers and other supply chain partners to create a transparent and traceable bean-to-bar process. It agrees on better prices for the farmers and trains them to increase productivity on their farms.
Now that Tony’s has successfully demonstrated how it can be done, its corporate representatives are stepping more into an advocacy role, including work with Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Zandee says.
For more than 80 years, a loophole existed in U.S. trade laws that allowed the importation of goods produced with forced labor. In 2015, the U.S. Senate passed the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, barring products made with slave labor at any point in their supply chain.
“I have heard firsthand from Peter Zandee and others working at Tony’s Chocolonely in Portland about the importance of the successful fight to ban the import of goods produced with forced or slave labor,” Wyden says.
“That ban in the Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 has allowed socially responsible companies to build both on their own efforts against overseas exploitation and has proven to be the right thing to do morally and economically for those companies trying to protect workers and consumers from the bitter legacy of forced labor,” Wyden continued.
That's a bitter legacy Zandee says Tony’s aims to change with better chocolate.