Easily one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global food industry is the chocolate business. According to reliable statistics, chocolate sales in the United States amounted to nearly $21 billion in 2015 alone. Gourmet chocolate in particular is seeing stellar growth as producers look to accommodate the tastes of increasingly finicky buyers. There’s plenty of room for hungry newcomers that manage to differentiate themselves from the competition. If you can develop a solid business plan and stick to it, launching a chocolate brand can be incredibly remunerative in the end.
Settle on a Unique Niche
A side chocolate business can take a variety of forms depending on your interests, prior knowledge and access to capital. Attempting to compete with a giant like Nestlé or Russell Stover is probably not the greatest strategy. Your odds of success go up substantially if you choose a specialty niche like organic, sugar-free or fair trade chocolate. Offering a novel array of chocolates that incorporate unusual ingredients like currants, hazelnuts or popcorn into the mix is a surefire way to stand out. The idea is to come up with a fresh approach that has broad appeal.
Establish a Business Model
Once you’ve nailed down a solid niche, you’ll need to figure out how you’ll actually profit from it. For example, will you go with a direct sales model or will you offload your goods to a third party distributor? Think about whether you’ll use an online storefront, a traditional offline bricks-and-mortar model or a combination of the two. It’s probably best to start out small selling to local buyers to build buzz. You can also sell small batches to discriminating chocolate lovers on the web as you grow your brand’s name recognition.
Round Up the Required Gear
Anyone can start a small chocolate shop from home given the right tools. A large mixer as well as various molds and pans are going to be required at a very minimum. Look at Ecole Chocolat or Home Chocolate Factory to window shop for some starter gear. While you’re at it, look for suppliers of bulk foodstuffs related to your new business such as cocoa beans, dairy products and nuts. Order from a variety of vendors at the outset to get a feel for what’s available in terms of price and quality.
Learn the Trade from the Pros
While the basics of producing chocolate aren’t difficult to grasp, it’s the details that’ll set your product apart. Look for cooking classes in your area to get your feet wet. To take your skills to the next level, an online chocolate-making course is a cost-effective way to gain knowledge and expertise. Trade organizations such as the National Confectioners Association or the Fine Chocolate Industry Association are great resources for would-be chocolate entrepreneurs. More niche-specific organizations like the Fairtrade Foundation and the Rainforest Alliance can likewise assist you in becoming better informed.
Set Up a Legitimate Kitchen
Whether you’re outsourcing production or doing everything in house, you’ll need a solid kitchen for experimentation and manufacturing. You might need to get a certificate or license for producing food either at home or in a commercial space. Check with your local chamber of commerce and get in touch with state health authorities to see what you’ll need to do to become legitimate and avoid legal hassles. Regular health safety inspections will probably be a requirement. Contact the United States Department of Agriculture or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for information on labeling.
Structure the Enterprise
The last step to take before you start to actually sell your wares is to take care of a little paperwork. An LLC or other corporate entity is usually the best way to structure your new chocolate business in the beginning. They’ll protect you from legal and tax liabilities to some extent. Come up with a brand name and logo, taking care to have them registered and trademarked as need be to avoid complications down the road. If you’re operating out of your home, check with the local zoning authorities to make sure that you’re not breaking any laws.
Take a Practice Run
Use your friends, family and professional colleagues as guinea pigs to test your chocolates out on. You can use that feedback to tweak your recipes as you prepare for prime time. Passing out free samples locally on the ground at community events such as fairs or parades is a great way to generate organic word-of-mouth notoriety in your area. The important thing is to perform as much in-depth market research as possible to ensure that your chocolates are a success right out of the gate once you finally choose to go live.
Launch the Business
In order to sell your goods offline on the ground, all you need to process non-cash payments is an app like Square and a tablet or mobile phone. To sell your goods online, a platform like Shopify or BigCommerce is usually the easiest way to set up a storefront. You could also use Amazon and even Etsy to sell confections to faraway shoppers. Set up merchant accounts with shippers like FedEx, UPS and the United States Postal Service so that you can get discounts on rates. Be sure to stock up on packaging and labels.
Market Like Crazy
Attaining profitability as soon as possible is going to come down to aggressive marketing. First things first, create a flagship website for your business to act as a landing page that you can promote via social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Take pains to visually highlight the aesthetic appeal of your chocolates around the web. Use viral videos on YouTube and topnotch content on your blog to draw in prospective customers. If you play your cards right, a loyal cadre of die-hard fans will promote your candies for you for free.
Keeping the Dream Alive
The mercurial nature of the food industry makes it difficult for small businesses to keep their heads above water. If you want to stick around for the long haul, diversification and adaptability will be the keys. Be on the lookout for new opportunities and quickly respond to emerging trends in consumer demand. Experiment with new chocolate products while offering an array of core staples that fans have grown to love. With a little luck and some creative marketing, your chocolate side business will rake in the cash for years to come.