Ok. First, in January I profiled Pizza Pi, a floating pizzeria in the Caribbean. Next up, I found a cocoa boat with the most exquisite chocolate on board. I met with the founder of Vintage Plantations, Pierrick Chouard, and Patricia Brown, Head of Sales, one Saturday morning in Jersey City, New Jersey. We met at a perfect time, right before Valentine’s Day, one of the busiest days of the year for a chocolatier. We were really grateful Pierrick could make the time to meet with Sweet Travels to share his chocolate story. A former competitive rugby player and now an avid sailor, Pierrick has been working for the last 25 years in the chocolate business. Pierrick is not only passionate about chocolate, he is passionate about the earth, producing environmentally responsible chocolate, and he is a practitioner of social responsibility and environmental stewardship.
How did you get involved in the chocolate business?
Although my family is from Brittany, France, my parents were in the Foreign Service so we moved around every couple of years. I grew up primarily in Africa and Asia. I have always loved chocolate. From when I was very young, I would ask for chocolate for Christmas versus toys or games. So, you can say chocolate is in my bones. I spent my undergraduate years studying Engineering at ISTOM, the College of International Agro-Development. It is a program within the Institut Polytechnique Saint-Louis, a French engineering school. I originally wanted to be an oceanographer but as luck would have it, I was offered a position at Mars. The training program at Mars is where I learned all about chocolate in regards to operations, production, marketing, and sales. While there I created the launch for the Bounty candy bar line. Working with such a professional group of people was truly an amazing experience for me. After Mars, I worked with the Belgium chocolate company, Neuhaus, and then the French chocolate company, Michel Cuziel. My next move was venturing off on my own to form Vintage Plantations in 1993.
How do you differentiate yourself from other chocolatiers?
Vintage Plantations is on a mission to change the way chocolatiers and farmers operate. We are creating true partnerships which focus on sustainability and environmentally conscious operations way which have minimal impact on the environment. We aim to create a community of like-minded chocolate professionals who are passionate about not only their product but also the land and farmers who grow, harvest, and ferment the beans. In the 1990’s while working for the French chocolate company in the Dominican Republic I started a University of Chocolate program to train and educate the local farmers and staff on the art of chocolate making. I have always been passionate about sharing my knowledge of the business with others and trying to create a community of like-minded professionals who care about how they conduct business, operate in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner, and treat farmers fairly.
While working in Ecuador prior to the inception of Vintage Plantations, I realized the importance of educating cocoa farmers on how to grow, harvest, and ferment the cocoa beans in a sustainable, environmentally friendly, and economically sound way. Farmers rarely benefited from the production of cocoa beans as the large chocolate companies typically reap the financial rewards. I wanted to change this going forward by investing in the farmers working with them directly so they would be stakeholders in the entire process. However, by training and educating farmers directly, allowing them more control to manage their business and operating costs, we were disrupting the way business was handled locally. We were considered the disrupters in the marketplace in Ecuador as we were cutting out the middleman and the old establishment. We currently source our beans from farmers in the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Guatemala.
What is your affiliation with the Rainforest Alliance Group?
The Rainforest Alliance contacted me to help them educate farmers and staff in Ecuador while I was working for a French company in 1990. I set up a University of Chocolate program as a nonprofit organization for educational purposes to train and educate staff, villagers, and farmers on the art of chocolate making. Several of our students went on to create their own educational programs throughout the States.
In 2004 Vintage Plantations was the 1st company to produce a chocolate with the Rainforest Alliance Certified Green frog seal. The primary purpose of the Rainforest Alliance is to promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods. Vintage Plantations was awarded the sustainability award in 2010 by the Rainforest Alliance. With the certification, we follow business and land-use practices established by the Rainforest Alliance Group. It is expensive to get certified and to operate your business according to the Rainforest Alliance guidelines but the mission is to change the way chocolatiers and farmers operate to ensure a true partnership focused on sustainability, environmentally sound practices (minimal environmental impact), building a community of people invested in the production of chocolate as stewards of the environment.
What is your mission for Vintage Plantations?
To this day, Vintage Plantations is solely owned which has allowed us to stay true to our goal of producing chocolate in partnership with farmers. My goal is to give hope to farmers by providing the training to enable them to grow, harvest, and ferment beans in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner thereby allowing them to reinvest in their land. Although this is a business, what drives me is the hope that we can help to create a global platform for the production of artisanal chocolate in partnership with farmers and cooperatives committed to our environmental conscious practices.
Tell us a little about your new Swedish Partners and how they fit into your mission.
Our Swedish Partners, Jenny Berg, and Lars Stenborn, currently forage for native ingredients such as Angelica, licorice, wild forest cranberries, and queen of the meadow to add to our chocolate to create high-quality chocolate. We have been in partnership for several years and we look forward to expanding this model to other countries. Several of our Swedish chocolate bars have already sold out!
Vintage Plantations packaging is like a piece of artwork. Who is the artist and what is the story behind the artwork?
The Brooklyn-based German artist, Charlotta Janssen, is the creator of the rich paintings used for the packaging of the chocolate bars. Charlotta and I traveled together to the Dominican Republic to meet the cocoa farmers and over a span of 6 months, she painted 16 paintings, 6’ in height, to depict village life. The Rainforest Alliance loaned their auctioneer to us for an event at the Boat House in Central Park where we auctioned off the paintings. 100% of the proceeds went back to the villagers. Nuns in the village helped us to work with the farmers to buy the necessary equipment to more efficiently and economically harvest their crops. They bought a truck to transport and store their crops. My desire to give back and help farmers has been a top priority for me in every aspect of my business.
Do you recommend any specific pairings from a wine or food perspective with Vintage chocolate?
Every palate is different so it is really hard to specify a particular food or wine to share our chocolate with. However, I have a funny story about pairings. I received a call from the Owner and Founder of Cortez Cigar Company based in Red Bank, New Jersey. The owner is Cuban and he sells our 100% cocoa bars in his shop. I do not smoke cigars. When I met with the owner he was hand rolling cigars. He asked me to try a cigar and then taste a piece of our 100 % chocolate bar. I could not believe the synergy between the two flavors. I did not believe it until I tried it.
Do you have any events planned for the future?
We had an event in November with T Edward Wines that was a huge success. We are looking forward to planning some more events in 2017 with T. Edwards Wine but our focus right now is on our move from Newark to Jersey City. We hope to open our new facility in the spring with a retail chocolate shop.
Other projects include working with farmers in Guatemala to source cocoa beans and establishing a partnership in Thailand similar to the concept with our Swedish partners. Hopefully, we can train and educate partners around the globe to create a worldwide brand that fosters awareness for sustainable growth.
Most investments right now are to buy the land from the farmers and then rehire the farmers to work the land. We work with cooperatives as my goal is and always has been to train the locals on how to make chocolate and then allow them to manage the business.
Have any family members followed you into the business?
Yes, I have a niece who works in the chocolate business for a competitor! It makes for interesting family gatherings.
On a personal note from Moira McCullough…I try a lot of chocolate and I like a lot of chocolate but Vintage Plantations stands out in the field. What caught my eye originally was the incredibly beautiful packaging. It truly is incredible artwork and I almost did not want to open the packaging, which is unusual for me. Once I did, I fell in love with the chocolate. Not too rich or too bitter. Favorite bars of mine include the Dark Chocolate Raspberry, Dark Chocolate with Toasted Coconut, and the Dark Chocolate with Cocoa Nibs. The chocolate peanut butter cups were the best I have ever tried and next on my list is the Milk Chocolate with Sea Salt Caramel.