Hummingbird chocolate maker takes artisanal path to success

Hummingbird chocolate maker takes artisanal path to success

ExportWise is counting down our 10 best performing stories from 2016. This story, first published on March 25, is #6 on our list.

Hosts of businesses begin life as enthusiastic dream talk around the kitchen table. Most come to nothing.

That is not the case with former aid workers Drew and Erica Gilmore and their fledgling artisan chocolate-making company Hummingbird that operates out of the Eastern Ontario town of Almonte.

Much of the Gilmores’ careers had been centred around working with farmers in developing countries, farmers who crafted a living in difficult conditions and with few resources. They regarded the farmers as true artisans and respected them for it.

Small wonder these artisanal leanings, coupled with a love for chocolate, would become a passion that began life with experiments in the couple’s home. Friends acted as tasters and their enthusiastic responses persuaded the couple to turn their hobby, their passion for chocolate, into a specialized business.

That was three years ago. Since then, sticking to a set of principles that have grown as Hummingbird has grown, they have quickly established an increasing international reputation.

From the beginning they vowed to adhere to labour-intensive techniques from the last century. They never had any intention of competing with the big chocolate makers, considering them a completely different product. They learned all they could about cacao beans and the farmers who grow them, visiting Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.

They are uncompromising in where they source their cacao beans, which they regard as the heart of the chocolate. “You need great beans to make great chocolate – simple as that.” It’s a Hummingbird mantra.

Hummingbird beans come mostly from Central America – the Dominican, Guatemala and Belize – and most recently from Vietnam. And it is imperative the farmer receives better than Fair Trade price; that the cacao is grown with sustainability; and that it is farmed ethically and humanely – i.e. no child labour.

They scoured the Internet, took courses, devoured knowledge as they worked on producing a unique bean-to-bar artisan chocolate. “We are all about brand and quality,” says Drew Gilmore. “We are not going to compromise quality for quantity. If your product is not absolutely the best you can make it you are going to be dead in the water. That is why quality must always come ahead of quantity.”

That principal may sound counter-intuitive. What business opts to turn away potentially large-scale buyers, losing marketing and sales opportunities along the way? The Gilmores have no qualms about this decision, perhaps buoyed by the number of potential clients across the world from as close as the United States and as far off as China.

Gaining a reputation in such a short time is no accident. First Hummingbird needed to establish an identity so a great deal of thought went into labelling. The Gilmores took a close look at other products and realized how important is to create a memorable logo.

The hummingbird migrates from Canada to Latin America each winter and most of the beans they import to make their chocolate are grown in that part of the world. They recognized this as a natural connection. Besides, they loved the hummingbird image. A search through thousands of pictures led to what they have incorporated into a logo that has proved uniquely distinctive.

Next they needed to find a way to draw attention to the chocolate they craft. So they decided to enter national and, hopefully, international competitions. First, barely into their second year of existence won a host of awards in the Canada/ U.S. championships.

Then they flew with Hummingbird bars to London and the 2014 world championships. They won two awards. That attracted potential buyers from around the world. Hence serious attention from China.

With the world knocking at the door, the Gilmores continue to tread carefully. There are a great many questions to answer. “We are still debating where to go from here,” says Erica Gilmore.

How fast and how far do they grow?

A broader market requires a larger facility and the major investment that requires. How big can you go without losing the most vital commodity – quality? Teaching the art of making Hummingbird chocolate takes upwards of a year so staffing presents a problem.

Then there is the question of balance.

Judging by the rapid growth in makers around the world, the Gilmores are convinced the artisan chocolate business has the potential to grow in the same way the coffee industry has grown. Doug and Erica worry about the effect of racing from local farmers markets and small stores to a major retailer in another country who gobbles up most of their Hummingbird bars.

“We are mindful of the need to not put all our eggs in one basket,” says Drew. “Russian consumption has dropped by 50 per cent in a year because of that country’s financial difficulties. This is a prime example of why you must have a balanced portfolio.”

No matter which route the Gilmore’s take, be certain they will do so with care, never abandoning their prime principal: Quality before quantity.

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