You select options when buying cars: rims, spoiler, GPS, that monster engine. Ditto with computers: RAM, processor, a souped-up video card. We’re a country of individualists who assert our personal independence by putting our stamp on things. That works well, except with buying food. Sure, you can ask a chef to grate a little more truffle onto your risotto, or have a Whopper your way, but, short of cooking it yourself, prepared foods usually can’t be customized. Except for chocolate.
Create My Chocolate and Chocomize are two websites dedicated to the pursuit of bespoke chocolate bars. You pick the chocolate, they add the toppings. Creations run the gamut from the sublime, Dark Chocolate studded with Sour Cherries, Roasted Almonds and Organic Cane Sugar, to the unspeakable, Dark Chocolate with Edamame, Cinnamon, Sea Salt and Jelly Beans.
On each site you first choose milk, dark or white chocolate (Create My Chocolate also offers strawberry). Next, up pops a category page with a staggering array fruit, nut, herb, spices, grain and candy toppings including: bananas chips, dried raspberries, organic flax, parsley, M & Ms, toffee, chives, jalapenos, marzipan carrots, corn nuts, currants, beef jerky, vegetarian bacon, potato chips, basil, fennel, coriander, candied lilac, wasabi peanuts, etc.
Mass-customization, says Create My Chocolate CEO, Carmen Magar is commonplace in her native Germany. Muesli, the German oat, fruit and nut cereal, started the trend by inviting people onto their website to customize their cereal. Magar got a University of Chicago MBA - “on an international global level, the United States gives the best education,” she says - intending to follow her goal of introducing Victoria’s Secret to the European market. While pursuing a position there, she remembered the German custom-chocolate bar website, Chocri.de, which launched in 2008. By ‘09 they were selling close to 18,000 bars per month.
“Germans are comfortable with mass-customization and I wondered if Americans would like it,” says Magar. She contacted Chocri’s owners, Franz Duge and Michael Bruck and straight-out asked if they wanted to enter the US. Victoria’s Secret hadn’t gotten back to her and she figured she had nothing to lose.
Her market research with focus groups and social networking sites showed that Germany and the US were the two largest markets for chocolate, and that sixty to seventy U.S. customizing websites covering various industries had launched in the previous ten months. “Plus, Vosges had proven that there was a market with their high-end bacon, salt and toffee chocolate bars,” she says. “We felt that Chocri in the US made sense. It was a question of letting Americans become familiar with creating their own product,” she says. Declining an offer from Victoria’ Secret, she launched Create My Chocolate in January 2010.
They added new flavors for Americans: peanut butter drops, bacon, M&M-type candies, chocolate drops, cookies and toffee. Strawberry, hazelnut brittle and roasted almonds are their most requested toppings; candied rose petals and gold flakes their most exotic. The only German ingredient axed for the US was hemp seeds. And just as in Germany, they feature a “Chocolate of The Month.” Click on in August for Chocolate with Potato Sticks.
They use only organic, fair trade Belgian chocolate, allotting a percentage of profits to Div Kinder, a charity they established in the Ivory Coast where they’re building an orphanage. They’ve had tremendous growth in the US because “chocolate is an affordable luxury,” says Magar. She points out that Hershey Park lets visitors create custom chocolate bars. “It helps advertise the category of mass customization. It’s great for all of us. But we’re still the leader,” she laughs.
“Right before we launched I was an unpaid intern, Fabian was looking for work and Nick was in my parent’s basement,” says Chocomize co-founder Eric Heinbockel.”
Less than a year ago, Heinbockel along with fellow Columbia University graduate Nick LaCava and their German exchange student friend, Fabian Kaempfer launched the online chocolate retailer. They used online services like Survey Monkey and relied heavily on social networking websites for research, input and feedback. “Our name was actually suggested by someone in one of our Facebook surveys,” says Heinbockel of the Cherry Hill, New Jersey company.
Chocomize was born out of Kaempfer’s job despair and knowledge of German customization websites, Heinbockel’s unpaid internship at a structured finance firm and LaCava’s subterranean existence at chez Heinbockel avoiding the job market and trying to make the US National Rowing Team. Last summer LaCava accidentally let a pile of chocolate, nuts, granola and candy melt in his car. He ate the hot mess on a dare and Chocomize was born.
The dismal job market, even for Ivy Leaguers, made them realize they’d have to create their own jobs. “We took high-end European chocolate and this young, emerging concept of mass-customization and merged them,” says Heinbockel. Like Magar, they researched the idea of “mass customization, co-creation, whatever you want to call it,” says Heinbockel and found there was nothing like it in the US. Their best-selling combos are Milk Chocolate with Marshmallows and Teddy Grahams, and White Chocolate with Oreo.
Profitable in their fourth month, Heinbockel is positively messianic about mass-customization. He predicts that it will become the rule rather than the exception in the way things are marketed.
Some of Chocomize’s odder orders, including the above edamame bar above, include: Bacon, Pop Rocks and Ground Coffee; Chipotle Peppers, Peanut Butter and Sour Patch Kids; Beef Jerky, Mango Dices, Skittles and Sea Salt; and Cashews, Basil, Peppercorn, Lavender and Marshmallows. If customization is the wave of the future, the future may be very bright. Just be careful or it might not taste very good.