| UK

Can craft chocolate hit specialty coffee’s sweet spot?

The specialty coffee industry has done a remarkable job of educating consumers to upgrade their daily caffeine hit and creating occasions to savour – the craft chocolate movement should watch and learn, says Spencer Hyman, Founder, Cocoa Runners

Spencer Hyman, Founder of London-based Cocoa Runners | Photo credit: Cocoa Runners


Coffee and chocolate have many similarities. Both are beans, both are farmed in a belt of countries close to the equator before being fermented and roasted. Both shot to success with the emerging merchant classes of 18th and 19th century Northern Europe, who wanted an alternative to rowdy taverns and gin lanes. Both have a lurid and dark history involving slavery, smuggling, deforestation, colonisation and commoditisation. Both are often accused of being ‘addictive’. 

Both now have global sales of over $120bn per annum. And over the last few decades both have witnessed the emergence of a specialty and craft segment that focuses on flavour, paying farmers a ‘fairer’ share, protecting the environment and promoting wellbeing. Both are fixated on finding the worldʼs best beans and creating delightful flavours and extraordinary experiences. 

However, whereas specialty coffee has grown to 15-25% of total coffee sales in many developed markets, craft chocolate typically represents less than 0.1% of any chocolate market. 

Craft chocolate would benefit hugely from learning a few lessons from specialty coffee to enjoy similar growth. Based on conversations with specialty coffee experts like James Hoffmann, Steven Morrissey, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, Ewelinia Kania – and many others – we think we’ve identified a few hints. 

Make the upgrade both obvious and easy 

The difference between a jar of instant coffee and a bag of specialty beans is visually obvious. Similarly, the ambience and vibe of a major coffee chain is palpably different to a specialty coffee store like Prufrock or Colonna Coffee. 

In comparison, the difference between a bar of Lindt or Green & Blacks (yes, those really are the chocolate equivalent to high street coffee chains) and many craft chocolate makers packaging
wrappers, sadly, isn’t as obvious. 


“Craft chocolate is rarely a simple upgrade from commodity chocolate”

(Hint: if you do want to try and tell if a chocolate bar has been mass processed, check the ingredients to identify both where the bar has actually been made and where the beans came from). 

Of arguably even more importance, upgrading from commodity to specialty coffee doesn’t involve a change of habit or occasion. Specialty coffee aficionados still pick up coffee on their way to work, but they’ll visit a specialty operator rather than a major chain. Hanging out, meeting friends or holding an interview in a specialty coffee store also provides added social kudos in many social circles, and thus added impetus, to make this upgrade. However, the same itch is being scratched, but it’s just cooler, better tasting, better for the farmers – and the planet. 

In contrast, craft chocolate is rarely a simple upgrade from commodity chocolate. Most of us consume mass-produced chocolate in the late morning or during the afternoon. This occasion is often a solitary pick-me-up or guilty treat hidden at our desks. Many of our Cocoa Runner’s club members will savour a few squares of chocolate after dinner, sharing with their partner when watching TV, etc. That is to say it isn’t a simple ʻswapʼ or upgrade. 

Skating to the puck 

When asked for the secret of his success the great Canadian Ice Hockey Player Wayne Gretzky explained “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”. Specialty coffee has done the same. If you look at the concentration of tech and design start-ups in major cities around the world there is an uncanny overlap with the location of specialty coffee stores. 

This isn’t just because design agency creatives, social media experts and software engineers like great coffee. It’s because if you work in a one-room start-up you need a place to hold team meetings, interview staff, give feedback etc. Specialty coffee stores offer the third space here. The emergence of laptops, noise cancelling headphones and availability of Wi-Fi in cafés has achieved a similar ʻskate to the puckʼ for self-employed workers, students and anyone wanting to work out- of-home – they go to their local specialty coffee shop. 


“A few craft chocolate makers have tried to replicate the wine tourism ‘experiential route’”

Arguably the wine industry, with its wine tours in Napa, Sonoma and indeed all over the US West Coast has also predicted the position of its puck. Spotting the influx of tourists to the Sunshine State on the one hand and the influx of tech workers into Silicon Valley, the California wine industry created ʻwine toursʼ. Today, after Disney World, wine tourism is now the second largest tourist spend on the West Coast (and now even has its own movie genre). 

Sadly, no one has (yet) found a similar way for craft chocolate to skate to the puck. A few craft chocolate makers have tried to replicate the wine tourism ‘experiential route’ – in particular Austria’s Zotter and Portgual’s Vinte Vinte (an offshoot of Taylor’s Port). A few more have tried to go down the experiential café and chocolate route – such as Mirzam in Dubai, Plaq in Paris, and Raaka in New York – but they are very much the exceptions. 

The barista as advocate 

Specialty coffee has another great asset at its disposal. For the most part, the staff who work in specialty cafés are passionate about coffee – indeed that’s often one of the key factors in their career choice. 

Baristas and other store staff are not only well-trained, they also love talking about their passion for coffee. As you wait in line for your morning or lunchtime coffee you can’t help but learn about the latest gesha or roasting profile. 

And because craft chocolate doesn’t (yet) have many experiential, out-of-home locations, the industry doesn’t have an army of proselytising baristas. 

The good news is that more and more craft chocolate makers are starting to offer ‘experiences’. Sometimes this is done by emulating the coffee shop model – for example Plaq (Paris), London Chocolate (London), Dandelion (San Francisco), Raaka (New York) or Mirzam (Dubai). Others – like Vinte Vinte (Porto), Zotter (Vienna), Duffy (Cleethorpes) and Fu Wan (Pingtung County, Taiwan) are modelled more on the Napa Valley wine model. 

It will take time to catch up with the number of locations offered by specialty coffee (or West Coast wineries) but it’s starting to happen. Moreover, tastings and training courses – modelled on the great work of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) – are boosting craft chocolate’s appeal. 

Craft chocolate may not be a straight, or simple, upgrade to mass-market confectionery. But once you start to unwrap the background and craftsmanship of the cocoa beans in your craft chocolate, and begin to savour the amazingly complex flavours, you really won’t want to finish your lunch or dinner any other way.  

Spencer Hyman is Founder of Cocoa Runners, a London-based craft chocolate stockist, passionate about educating people on the enormous benefits of converting to craft chocolate. 

This article was first published in Issue 17 of 5THWAVE magazine.

Subscribe to 5THWAVE to receive each edition in print and digitally or sign up to our newsletter and be the first to read the latest articles and updates on World Coffee Portal research.

Related News & Insight

Registered in England. Company No. 8736608
© 2024 World Coffee Portal Ltd.