Better Than Internet Sex: Internet Chocolate
Crafting beef jerky-studded Belgian chocolate was not what Eric Heinbockel had in mind when he graduated from Columbia University in 2008. The Moorestown native was shooting for a career in structured finance, but had stumbled into the job market — or rather, job-less market — of the Great Recession.
Fast-forward two years: He and his partners, two other recent Columbia grads, are at the helm of a Cherry Hill-based online-only chocolate company that has already garnered national attention from the New York Times and Oprah and is already profitable: Chocomize. The online chocolate personalizer lets customers create their own chocolate bars by choosing from more than 100 ingredients ranging from traditional (hazelnuts) to bizarre (vegetarian bacon) to mix into a chocolate base.
Click through to read about how these young food entrepreneurs built their recession-proof idea using the internet, a move back in with the ‘rents in South Jersey, and a fortuitous accident during a trip to Wegman’s.
After graduation, when, Heinbockel says, “I was interviewing for jobs on the days that Bear Stearns and Lehmann Brothers went under,” he worked as an unpaid finance intern and shacked up in his friend Nick LaCava’s dorm closet for nearly a year. The bunkmates’ situation convinced both that conventional career paths were dead ends.
“We started really considering alternatives and realized that we may be better off creating our own opportunities than looking for traditional jobs,” Heinbockel says.
The pair recruited another Columbia pal, Fabian Kaempfer, to create a business plan based on the German trend of mass customization, which allows consumers to personalize a pre-existing product (think custom-mixed granola). All three twenty-somethings moved into Heinbockel’s family home in Moorestown, turning it into a think tank for customizable foodstuffs. They considered a make-your-own-muesli business, but a serendipitous spending spree in the local Wegman’s penny candy aisle led them to the winning idea: the sweet-toothed LaCava purchased a bag of chocolates, gummi bears, nuts and fruit, then accidentally left in the back of his car, where it melted. His housemates froze the candy glob and hatched the plans for mass-customized chocolate.
The entrepreneurs had never made candy before, but with guidance from a German chocolatier and the folks at the Callebaut distribution center (located just 15 minutes from Chocomize’s Cherry Hill production site), they learned how to temper and blend Callebaut chocolate in November 2009.
And, since Chocomize makes candy designing the customer’s job, the college boys don’t have to anticipate the market’s taste. Chocomize does offer some pre-made “favorite” bars based on ordering trends—the s’mores bar (milk chocolate, Teddy Grahams, and marshmallows) is most popular. But, grosser combos prevail too: “We found that if you want a dark chocolate bar with almonds, it’s not hard to find that at the store,” Heinbockel explains. “We appeal to the periphery of the taste buds—someone that likes beef jerky and Pop Rocks won’t be able to find that anywhere else.”
The most gag-inducing creation yet? Milk chocolate with edamame, Pop Rocks, and bacon.
Appealing to marginal tastes — even in a recession — has proved lucrative. Chocomize became profitable after only four months of sales and has doled out as many as 10,000 custom bars a month. Oprah plugged the candy in the June issue of O magazine, Google placed a bulk corporate order, and the company is looking to sell to retail stores in January.
The Chocomize boys — former Columbia lightweight rowers — are reacting to the influx in orders with a good old college try. They recruit members of the U.S. National Rowing Team to handcraft candy bars. Premium candy bars, made-to-order by Ivy Leaguers and hulking crew jocks? Only in this job market.