Jody Hayden looking at cacao drying
A growing number of fine chocolate companies are seeing the advantages of building partnerships with other specialty food companies in their communities. This can be particularly appealing and profitable in locations where consumers are interested to sample or try new combinations of specialty foods. We recently interviewed FCIA member Jody Hayden of Grocer's Daughter Chocolate, who was featured in a recent FCIA webinar on this topic.
Can you tell us about the history of Grocer's Daughter Chocolate in Empire, Michigan? What type of products do you offer?
Jody Hayden: Grocer's Daughter Chocolate is a small family-owned specialty chocolate shop founded in 2004. Along with our brick and mortar shop in the small village of Empire, which accounts for 74% of our revenue, we have online and wholesale sales channels. Our hand rolled and molded bonbons drive our profitability as a business and they are also a great vehicle for ingredients from local business partners. We also make bars and bark, chocolate covered items, drinking chocolate (mix and by the cup), fudgesicles/shakes and this year we'll be expanding our frozen treat offerings into housemade gelato.
Most of the confections we make at Grocer's Daughter Chocolate feature an ingredient from a local partner, from our dairy to the honey we use in our caramel recipe to dried fruits, jams, teas, flowers and spirits. Our shop is located in a picturesque small town on Lake Michigan in the middle of the popular Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and our location in this busy tourist destination provides us with a busy summer and fall season. Visitors come from all over the world to visit the Dunes, plus we're a bedroom community for cities like Chicago and Detroit. For the small size of our year-round population, our region is a foodie destination with many value-added food businesses including wineries/breweries/distilleries, small farm stands, craft coffee/tea purveyors, cheesemakers, etc. As a result, we have great options for collaborations with other specialty food businesses and not only do we source from dozens of them but we often co-market or co-brand items for cross-marketing purposes. Our partnerships with like-minded specialty food businesses are not only advantageous for attracting new customers and increasing visibility and revenue but are truly foundational to the success of our business.
Mimi Wheeler and Jody Hayden at Grocer's Daughter Chocolate
More on the history of Grocer's Daughter Chocolate: We were founded by our dear friend and chocolate fairy godmother, Mimi Wheeler, a Danish woman who didn't approve of the chocolate found in stores in the US. She started making her own European-inspired 70% dark chocolate bonbons (she didn't offer milk chocolate when she started) with chocolate from El Rey, Santander and Pierrick Chouard. Mimi's were the best chocolates around and she cultivated a regional customer base of chocolate 'purists.’ Zingerman's in Ann Arbor became one of her first wholesale customers.
Mimi and I became fast friends in 2005 via a collaboration among local businesses to offer a Northern Michigan holiday gift and fundraising program. At the time, I was working as co-founder/owner of Higher Grounds Trading Co, a specialty coffee roaster in Traverse City. In 2008, Mimi asked me to co-lead a trip to Ecuador with her, where we first met Jenny Samaniego, founder/president of Conexion Chocolate, and we all became friends.
Fast forward a few years and Mimi decided that, although she loved working with chocolate, she didn't love running a business and she decided to sell. In 2013, my partner, DC Hayden, and I purchased Grocer's Daughter Chocolate from Mimi and immediately I reached out to Jenny about making chocolate for us. Jenny was well on her way to building a cocoa ingredients exporting business and her contribution to Grocer's Daughter Chocolate as our chocolate partner has been integral to our success.
During the FCIA webinar last month, you were on a panel with local beer and spirits companies from Michigan to explain the specialty food partnership. Can you tell us more about this and who and how it was initiated? How is it being implemented today?
Jody Hayden: Yes, Tina Schuett, owner/brewer of Rare Bird Brewery, and Sarah Anderson, partner at Iron Fish Distillery, joined me to talk about cross-production opportunities between beer, spirits and chocolate as well as cross-marketing. In the case of Rare Bird, Tina uses a chocolate concentrate and nibs to brew dozens of chocolate beer recipes. At Iron Fish, Sarah and team use chocolate and cocoa butter in drink recipes, they use nibs to make cocktail syrups/bitters and our plan is to create a GDC/IFD chocolate spirit together this year or next. In turn, at the chocolate shop we used a Rare Bird stout in a special vegan Valentine's day truffle recipe and we regularly use Iron Fish Whiskey in our bonbons and filled figs. Also, Sarah and I led a private whiskey and chocolate tasting for a law firm last month and we've done ticketed pairing events for holidays.
Collaborations like these with Tina and Sarah feel natural to me because we're in a small community where most of the business owners know one another. It's easy to dream up an idea for a collaboration and make it happen quickly because most of us are really good friends and we're regularly communicating with one another. As another holiday approaches or we have new recipe ideas, we always look first to our local, like-minded business friends to source ingredients. And, when events feel safe again, we'll continue our circuit of classes, tastings and pairing events hosted by a variety of local food partners from wineries to yoga studios. The opportunities to partner are only limited by your imagination.
Grocer's Daughter Chocolate collaboration with Iron Fish Distillery
Has the COVID pandemic impacted the partnership in a positive or negative way? Do you believe the partnership will change post-COVID?
If we're learned anything from COVID it's that we need our community partners more than ever. Early in the pandemic, we shared information about mandates coming from the State, labor strategies, financing opportunities and much-needed moral support. And, frankly, the cross promotion of one another's social media posts helped us to relay important information to our customers about mask and service policies. So, for example, if a couple was coming to the area to visit from Detroit, they would see that Grocer's Daughter, Rare Bird and Iron Fish all have strict mask policies and limited service options. It helped us set customer expectations as a community and, ultimately, that was about protecting our staff and our communities.
Post-covid I think our partnerships will continue to deepen because, as I mentioned before, these relationships are at the core of who we are at GDC. Our group of like-minded businesses have linked arms more tightly this past year in an effort of solidarity to uplift our community as we collectively recover from the pandemic and find ways to support the beleaguered and invaluable people who comprise our service and hospitality workforce in Northern Michigan.
What have been the successes of this partnership in regards to increased sales for each of the companies involved? What are the necessary ingredients needed to make this work in terms of consumer base, geographic proximity, business culture?
For a small business it's difficult to track the impact of each of these partnerships to our financial bottom line because much of the value is in the cultivation of community capital, not readily trackable, and customer loyalty. Of course, the cost of using a partner's ingredients must work in our pricing equations and, if they don't, then we price the product accordingly.
I think the necessary ingredients for a successful partnership model are simple. It's best when there's a natural affinity, similar values and commitment to quality, a shared customer demographic or geographic customer base and, obviously, an ingredient that works well with chocolate. Also, do not give your time or your product away for free to every potential partner. Make sure you properly value your contribution to the partnership, as well as theirs.
What advice would you give to a fellow FCIA company member considering a partnership with another specialty food/beverage company in their area?
Find someone who is fun to work with and brainstorm product ideas and events together. Source ingredients from companies you admire and tell their story in your communications. Create gift bundles featuring local partners and ingredients you use in the chocolate. Make sure the collaborations are making sense financially -- price accordingly.
Feel free to reach out with questions/comments: Jody@grocersdaughter.com