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Member Feature: Jody Hayden (Grocer’s Daughter) and Jenny Samaniego (Conexión Chocolate)

January 09, 2020 5:52 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Jody and her family eating ice cream  Jenny Samaniego

Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate is a small, family-owned business based in Empire, Michigan. The company sources most of its chocolate from Ecuador in a unique relationship with Jenny Samaniego at Conexión Chocolate. In this article, Jody Hayden of Grocer's Daughter Chocolate and Jenny Samaniego share how the partnership works, their views on the industry, and more.

Q For Jody Hayden: Can you explain how your partnership with Jenny and Conexión works?

Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate and Conexión Chocolate have forged a unique partnership. Jenny does the hard work of sourcing the cacao and developing the chocolate recipes. She also supervises the production of the chocolate at a factory in Quito, which creates a shorter feedback loop to farmers, allows good paying manufacturing jobs to remain in the country of origin, and reduces overall costs for production.

We rely on Jenny and her brand, Conexión, to source 100% of our couverture from 4 different small-farmer groups: Esmeraldas (UOPROCAE), Manabi (Fortaleza Del Valle), Los Rio (APOVINCES) and Puerto Quito (Juan Carlos Mesias and neighboring farmers). We’re fortunate to be able to travel with Jenny to Ecuador annually to visit farmers and we strive to create mutually beneficial relationships along our entire supply chain. In return, we receive rave reviews from our customers about the quality of our chocolate. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Q For Jenny Samaniego: Conexión has been working for a number of years in Ecuador with small scale cocoa farmers. You are now selling bean-to-bar chocolate, including bars with HCP designation. Can you explain how Conexión is able to improve bean quality, along with ensuring better environmental stewardship and incomes to farmers?

All the steps of the chocolate making process are carried out in Ecuador, starting with the continuous visits that we make to the farms. We build close relationships with each farmers cooperative so that we can communicate the quality principles that are required in the harvest and post-harvest processes. Working together with the cooperatives, we zoom in on harvest areas within each province that we search for our cacao. This allows us to ensure that the cacao comes from the same trees and increases the consistency of flavors in our couverture and chocolate bars.

We make all of our chocolate with Nacional cacao, a genetic variety that only exists in Ecuador. We pay the producer 25% to 30% more than market price, if it meets our required standards of cacao fermentation. In this way we hope to motivate producers to continue preserving Nacional cacao, by offering them a different option from the common market.

We developed a project with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund and the farmers cooperative APOVINCES to save old varieties of Nacional growing in Los Ríos Province. This cacao has an amazing aroma of flowers and fresh fruit, so we developed a special flash-roast process to preserve it. This is our Virgin chocolate line, which we sell as both couvertures and chocolate bars. We look to strengthen ethical cacao farming practices, the lives of cocoa farmers, and education.

Q: FCIA is proud that many of our member companies are women-owned and operated. Do you find this unique to the fine chocolate industry? What are the specific challenges and opportunities for women-owned businesses in fine chocolate?

I’m delighted to see more and more women with exceptional leadership skills at the helm of businesses and organizations in the fine chocolate industry. Going forward, the industry has the opportunity to further elevate women leaders by offering access to education, mentoring and honest story-telling. Some of the topics I think might be useful to women business owners include financial literacy, how to access affordable capital, sharing of business experiences (good and bad), leadership development, and cultivating employees.

As a woman business owner and an older mom of young children, my specific challenges are driven by my desire to be a present, loving mom, wife, friend, and employer, while overseeing and growing a small business. It’s a balancing act every single day.

It’s great that there are more women-owned and operated businesses within fine chocolate and generally. Personally, I have benefitted from mentors and peers in the industry who are both men and women. Early in my career I had the opportunity to work for French chocolatier Pierrick Chouard, and that was part of my inspiration to create excellent single-origin Ecuadorian couvertures with Conexión years later.

When I was just starting my chocolate business, approaching different farmers cooperatives as a young person and as a woman, it was hard to get them to trust me as a partner. But, I worked hard, and when they saw that I came back to visit and buy more cacao, I gained their respect. I think for anyone, if you work hard and keep at it, you get what you’re looking for.

Q: FCIA partnered with the National Confectioners Association (NCA) this year on a nation-wide survey on chocolate consumers. Do the findings mirror the preferences and trends that you are noticing with your customers? Are you optimistic about the growth potential of the fine chocolate market?

I am optimistic, and here’s why: We are seeing an annual increase in customers seeking us out because we offer higher cacao percentage chocolates, and fewer, more natural ingredients. This bodes well for our entire industry.

It’s not just the US that has a growing number of fine chocolate customers. In Ecuador, we’ve seen this market increase so much in the past decade. I think the FCIA and NCA study is spot-on that consumers are more concerned with their health and wellbeing, and with the social and environmental effects of their food choices.

We are very committed to educating consumers here in Ecuador on fine chocolate. We Even do public tastings, because we feel it is important to connect Ecuadorian consumers with their own heritage. We talk about how Ecuador is the origin of the Nacional variety of cacao, how it tastes floral and fruity unlike other chocolates, and how it’s disappearing now as farmers switch to monocultures.

Before they talk to us, a lot of people think European chocolate is the most luxurious or ‘best’ chocolate, but in fact Ecuador used to supply a lot of the cacao to those old European brands. The town of Vinces, where our project with HCP is today, used to have so many people traveling from there to France to trade chocolate that it became known as Little Paris. We want to build pride about chocolate made in Ecuador and chocolate made in the Americas.

Q: Conexión and Grocers Daughters have joined with FCIA and other partners to host a Cocoa Summit in Quito, Ecuador in May 2020. Can you tell us more about the conference, its objectives and why companies should consider attending?

We are excited to host our second Cacao & Chocolate Summit in Ecuador, and thrilled to have FCIA co-hosting this year. The first Summit was an amazing opportunity to have fine chocolate makers and cacao farmers from the same country sitting at the same panel. It was a gathering of the whole value chain, and we were all able to make connections and learn from each other. For chocolatiers who bought our couverture to see the farmers that harvested it was amazing, and for the farmers to see the chocolatiers demos was very affirming as well.

This year the Summit has been extended to two days instead of one, and there will be another day of chocolate workshops for chefs and chocolatiers. The panels include farmers, makers, chocolatiers, scientists, international non-profits, and governmental officials all together in one space discussing the most pressing issues in fine chocolate.

In addition the FCCI will be holding their cacao grading class, as they did last year. Also in connection with the Summit, we will lead another one-week Cacao Expedition, visiting cacao farms and cooperatives in the many regions of Ecuador. For anyone interested in seeing first-hand the diversity and beauty of Ecuadorian cacao, please get in touch.

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