From Bean To Bar: Shawn Askinosie Of Askinosie Chocolate

 

Many people claim that chocolate is essential to life, especially as a savory morsel melts on the tongue, warmed before sliding down the throat and sending dopamine to the brain.

For Shawn Askinosie, it’s no exaggeration. The founder of Askinosie Chocolate uses his entire chocolate-making process – from bean to bar – to provide education, construct partnerships and strengthen communities around the world. Millions of chocolate bars a year building “kinship,” as Askinosie calls it. It’s life-affirming stuff for the Springfield, Missouri, company, and it’s a vital mission for everyone involved.

That’s not why you should pick up the chocolate, though. “I want you to buy chocolate because you love the product, you think it tastes great, it’s an awesome value and you want to share it with your friends,” Askinosie says.

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The path to such a delicious, transformative chocolate bar – one that means so many things to so many people – is a long, thoughtful one. After 20 years as a successful criminal defense attorney, Askinosie hungered to do something new and substantial with his life. Overworked and disillusioned, he began releasing his frustrations through food, enjoying grilling succulent steaks and whipping up cupcakes so much that he nearly opened a bakery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But it wasn’t until Askinosie decided to make chocolate from scratch that he stumbled upon his new vocation.

“I’d been making chocolate desserts, but I had zero idea that chocolate came from a bean. I thought, ‘Oh, from scratch, that’ll be cool. Maybe I’ll melt something and mold something and mix something,’” he remembers. “But within a few months of that I was in the Amazon learning from farmers, and then I came back home and realized that’s what I was going to do.”

Using some of the research skills he’d honed as a trial lawyer, Askinosie sought out cocoa farmers around the globe whose beans and techniques offered flavor and quality like no other. Beans with a caramel flavor from Davao, Philippines. Fruity notes from Mababu, Tanzania. Citrus and molasses hints from Cortés, Honduras. Vivid earthiness from San Jose Del Tambo, Ecuador. The undisputed best beans and flavors in the world became the foundation for Askinosie Chocolate.

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But Askinosie wasn’t content to simply jump into the chocolate-making fray as many others had done; instead, he was—and is—determined to create a purposeful, ethically sound business from the ground up. Askinosie Chocolate is based on Direct Trade, in which the chocolate maker develops long-term, mutually supportive relationships with cacao farmers and gives them a share in the company’s profits. Cutting out costly middleman brokers, Askinosie can afford to pay farmers significantly more than Fair Trade market prices while promoting humane, sustainable processes that deliver the best flavor from the beans.

Moreover, every bar of Askinosie Chocolate can be traced directly back to its bean and farm; in fact, the wrappers for the chocolate bars feature the faces of the farmers who cultivated that particular batch of beans. This model, also called single origin, has become increasingly popular in craft coffee, but Askinosie is one of the few chocolate makers in the world to successfully implement it.

“Some people really want to know where a thing comes from. They want to know the source, and they want to know who [produces it],” Askinosie says. “For those people, they want to know that there’s a relationship between the maker and the producer of the bean. And that relationship gives the chocolate, I think, even more meaning for people.”

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The relationship is meaningful to Askinosie, too. Practicing open-book management and providing full financial information about the company, Askinosie makes sure that everyone who touches the chocolate has a complete understanding of the business’s revenues and expenses. From the farmers to the factory workers, contributors can go line by line through the books in their native language to learn about how their efforts impact the company’s bottom line.

But even more than being financial partners, Askinosie sees his collaboration with cocoa farmers as simply the right thing to do. Viewing the farmers as neighbors and friends, Askinosie takes an honest interest in their communities, getting to the heart of what each location needs to thrive. Since its founding in 2005, Askinosie Chocolate has partnered with farming communities to help provide school lunches, offer children business exposure and factory tours through Chocolate University, and present gender equality and empowerment education. In turn, Askinosie continues to find that spark within himself that pushes personal and communal transformation.

“We want to do what we can to partner with them on projects that are of interest to them, not us,” Askinosie says. “My goal is not for us to raise a bunch of money to drill water wells all over Africa. My goal is to, myself, be transformed, and you can’t do that if you just write a check. You just can’t. We need checks, we need money, but we need to experience kinship, and kinship is where transformation occurs.”

“Really small businesses and small groups of people can engage in meaningful work that makes an impact, even if it’s small,” he continues.

Good works beget good chocolate, Askinosie asserts, and the numbers have proven him right. With $2 million in revenue as of January 2016, the company is as successful as it is ethical. But, as Askinosie says, it all still comes back to the chocolate.

“If we don’t make great chocolate that people love and find to be some of the best chocolate in the world, then we won’t be able to do all these other things,” Askinosie says, adding that the best endorsement for his product often comes from the cocoa farmers themselves when he visits with bars of the sweet stuff built with beans from their own crops.

“I’ve done this on every origin trip I’ve made for ten years. I’ve been on 31 origin trips, so I’ve brought a lot of chocolate back to farmers,” Askinosie says with pride. “And the reaction, the response, the appreciation and the gratitude that they have is probably the best compliment that I will ever receive.”

 

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Photography: Attilio D’Agostino.

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