For the Love of Chocolate: A Legacy in the Making
…Then there’s teamwork. Our employees are central to our brand, which is something that we’re all very proud of. The people we employ here at our headquarters are our number-one point of pride. We’ve learned over the years that if you don’t communicate well, you end up stumbling on yourself and others around you. Honestly, that’s something that I’ve not always been great at, but I know that I need to surround myself with people who are tremendously good communicators and who are really good at helping build and maintain organizations.
In 2005, Alex Whitmore, a 28-year-old entrepreneur in Somerville, Massachusetts, began making a product that few people outside of Central and South America had ever seen: authentic stone ground chocolate. He called his fledgling brand Taza Chocolate. Ground on traditional, hand-cut stone mills using fine, organic cocoa, Taza’s “Mexican-style” chocolate was grittier and more robust than the conventional confectionary. Even the brand’s packaging broke the mold. In place of classic bars, Taza’s chocolate came in the form of hockey-puck-sized discs. Today, the company has grown to employ more than 50 people, works with cocoa suppliers in southern Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean, and produces everything from boutique bars, bark, bags of hot cocoa, chocolate covered nuts, and of course, those iconic chocolate discs that made it famous. We reached out to Whitmore to ask why his brand uses hand-carved stone mills to grind all its chocolate, how he leads with passion and purpose, and why he says his work — like that of all ambitious entrepreneurs looking to build something that lasts — is “mostly about the future.”
You’ve said that one of your inspirations for launching Taza Chocolate was an interest in anthropology. Can you tell us more about that and how it led to such an unconventional brand?
I stumbled upon anthropology as an undergraduate in college. I became fascinated with how people build cultures. Anthropology is all about human beings and the roles they play in society and culture.
I wound up studying Mesoamerican civilizations. I was particularly inspired by how important cocoa and chocolate were. The cocoa plant is indigenous to the Americas. It’s thought to have developed as a species in the Amazon basin. Over the centuries, it was widely planted and domesticated by human beings. By the time the Europeans came over and encountered all the different civilizations in the Americas, cocoa had become culturally significant across the entire region. It was one of those exotic crops explorers brought back to Europe, like tomatoes, potatoes, chilies, and vanilla. All of these foods were indigenous to the New World.
The impact these previously unavailable foods had on the world was just amazing to me — in part because when I was in college, I spent a lot of my free time cooking. Imagine Italian food without tomatoes. Imagine Asian food without chilies. The rest of the world didn’t have this stuff before the Europeans introduced it into their trading circuits. Cocoa was one of those crops.
My fascination with people, food, and traditions — and how each plays into culture — didn’t end after college. Neither did my love of chocolate. Of course, most people love chocolate, but I really love chocolate. So, back in the mid-2000s, when I decided to start a chocolate business, the first place I thought of was Oaxaca, Mexico. It was a place I remembered from my studies, and I wanted to go see how that culture continued to embrace cacao and chocolate in modern times.
While I wanted to understand everything about their tradition and processes, the molineros — as millers are known in Mexico — don’t like to share their secrets. There, milling is a closely guarded tradition to this day. But I kept going back, spending a few days here and a few days there. Ultimately, my goal was to learn enough that I could start milling chocolate myself back home.
It was probably about six months before I really began to understand how to use the mills correctly, and to this day we’re still learning. Milling cocoa on stone — the traditional way — is an art that has been carried forward by generation after generation of molineros.
Before you established Taza Chocolate, you once worked at Zipcar. Can you talk about how that experience shaped your perspective as an entrepreneur?
I worked for Zipcar back when things were in startup mode. Prior to the brand going public, and prior to its acquisition by Avis. It was a much younger brand. Meanwhile, I was in my 20s and totally wet behind the ears in all aspects of life.
Robin Chase, one of the founders of Zipcar, was inspirational to me. Robin was the person who taught me that you can take a crazy idea and make it real. Like, actually make it happen yourself. She thought to herself, “Wow. All these cars suck. There are too many of them on the road. Does everyone really need to own their own car, especially if they’re living in an urban environment? Can’t we share some of these cars with each other?”
Then she basically took that idea and launched a car-sharing service here in the U.S. market. She wasn’t the first, but she was one of the first, and she had a unique approach. She wanted Zipcar to provide the cars itself — as opposed to people sharing their own cars — and she wanted to utilize technology to make it all seamless for the consumer. Which is exactly what she did. She raised the money, and she ultimately took this crazy idea and created a thriving company.
That was a revelation to me. I thought, “You can just do that? Just set your heart on your ambition and make it happen?” It blew me away. Robin was an entrepreneur living her dream in the best sense — a true inspiration for me. I thought, “OK, if she can do all that — if she can realize her dream and change how the world drives — I can certainly start a chocolate company and show the world how stone-milled cocoa has been made for generations!” So, in a lot of ways, it was Robin who gave me the strength and the courage to just jump in headfirst and start a brand I deeply believed in.
Can you share some of the core ambitions and values driving you at Taza Chocolate? At some point — maybe it was in The Boston Globe years ago — you said something like, “Zipcar was great, but I wanted to do something more. I had this feeling deep down inside that I was working on someone else’s dream, and not my own.” That really struck a chord because so much of our Legacy in the Making work is focused on people who are driven by long-term personal ambitions.
At Zipcar, I was expending a lot of energy on someone else’s dream. I had a ton of energy and motivation, though, and I wanted to focus on the things that were really important to me. I wanted to work on my own dream.
At the time, my girlfriend Kathleen Fulton and I wanted to build a company where we could be really proud to go to work every day — a company that we could truly call our own and that matched our values as individuals. She and I have always been very driven to express our values in our business, our products, and the company we choose to keep. Well, Kathleen and I ultimately got married, and she wound up cofounding Taza with me.
Even during challenging times, sharing the same dream has made it easy for us to stay focused on our vision for the brand. As a result, we have a great place to go to work every day, and we’re truly proud of what we’re doing on every level.
You asked about our mission and values. Our stated mission is “to make and share stone ground chocolate that is seriously good and fair for all.”
“Seriously good and fair for all”: That part is about our desire to make sure that everything we make has wicked-high standards. We want to be really proud of every product we ship.
As for the people we work with, we look for those who share our core values. I’ll share a few: First off, we look for people with true grit. This is about meeting challenges with courage and a can-do attitude. That’s what it takes to start a company. You’ve got to be willing to just go the extra mile and dig in your heels to make things happen on a daily basis.
We also look for people who are bold. We’re not about doing things quietly; that’s not the kind of company we are. We like doing things differently, and we’re loud about it.
Then there’s teamwork. Our employees are central to our brand, which is something that we’re all very proud of. The people we employ here at our headquarters are our number-one point of pride. We’ve learned over the years that if you don’t communicate well, you end up stumbling on yourself and others around you. Honestly, that’s something that I’ve not always been great at, but I know that I need to surround myself with people who are tremendously good communicators and who are really good at helping build and maintain organizations.
Finally, there’s ingenuity. As a start-up, the only way we could realize our mission and achieve our goals was by being scrappy and coming up with creative solutions. That’s still true. Ingenuity is about being resourceful, and it’s a value that’s particularly important to us as a small but growing brand in an industry full of dominant competitors.
Ultimately, when I think about our products and why we started this business — what makes us proud to go to work every day — it comes down to the fact that we’re engaging with the community and creating value for our customers and employees by making a unique product that expresses our individuality. How many people get to say that about their job? That’s why I love my work. I’m building something of my own that I really believe in.
You once said that your job “is mostly about the future.” What do you mean by that? Is it still true today?
Yes, as a leader of the business — as the leader of any business — you are responsible for expressing the company vision. Inherently, that means describing the future. It means describing where we’re all going and making sure that we’re all headed there together. I think great entrepreneurs have a vision of a thing that doesn’t exist and then they make it so.
In my case, I’ve managed to eke out something special with this chocolate company over the last fourteen years. One thing that allowed us to do that was that we found our niche. We found something that was important to us, something no one up here had ever really seen before. We created something totally new to this market. As the saying goes, we made it so. That vision of the future is something I think every entrepreneur must have.
My job at Taza is and always has been about seeing where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. How we’re going to get there is sometimes a little hazier, but the first part — where we’re going, what we want to be — that’s clearer. Unlike many brands, our version of “looking ahead” isn’t about distancing ourselves from the past. In fact, we’re actually bringing the past forward, introducing the world to stone ground chocolate, an age-old method, in our own modern way. As a result, we’ve sidestepped the mainstream and found our niche.
There’s a lot of value in finding a niche for your values in the marketplace. If you find a niche, and if you are rigorous and stick with it, you can do well. And if you can connect your values with what you do — if you can find a niche of consumers who share those values — you can create your own legacy.
What advice would you have for someone just starting out — someone who aspires to build a sustainable, long-standing brand like yours?
First off, I’d say sidestep the mainstream and find your niche. Whatever you do, do it your own way. You’ll like your work more and you’ll spare yourself the trouble of competing in a crowded category. That’s not just talk; that approach has worked for us.
Beyond that, I’d stress that one of the mistakes I’ve made over the years is occasionally getting distracted by what a competitor is doing — either because they’re seeing a lot of success, or perhaps because I think it’s cool, or whatever it may be. It’s so easy to get distracted by all the noise and the competitors in your space, but the biggest mistakes we’ve made were because we were chasing after some concept, idea, program, or strategy that someone else was doing. Most of the time, that ended in failure. We should have been “sticking to our knitting,” as they say, doing what we do best. We’ve learned a lot from our competitors, but you have to race your own race, and you have to stay focused on your mission and your customer and not worry about what everyone else is doing.
Again, it gets back to making sure you’re focused on your values, your mission, and your vision of the future. If you can stick to it, that’s where people find success. Look at the great entrepreneurs of our day, be they Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or whoever. Truly great entrepreneurs have a singular vision, and they don’t care what anyone else is doing around them. Based on my own failures, this is the advice I would give: Never chase what anyone else is doing. Follow your own vision. Follow your own dream.