Plenty of founders multitask, but not many need to take a chocolate-tasting exam. When Wilf Marriott decided to branch out of his family’s cocoa farm business, St Vincent Cocoa Company, to launch Islands Chocolate in 2018, it was just one of the many roles he’d take on. Having previously worked on cocoa farms, in chocolate factories and as a cocoa salesman, Marriott wanted to offer a sustainable, ethical alternative to the large conglomerates who he felt lacked passion towards the provenance or flavour of cocoa.
That means being at the source. Working in tandem with St Vincent Cocoa Company, Islands grow the highest-yielding cocoa varieties using natural agroforestry systems. They pay higher wages than those advocated by Fair Trade and have employed over 200 people. Being on the ground is, according to Marriott, ‘the only way to guarantee there are sustainable practices’. Islands plays a prominent role in the community: between 70-80 independent farmers have been taught how to grow cocoa, and among other local projects they’ve refurbished a school library.
With a 75g bar retailing at £4.50 and a saturated market dominated by the likes of Lindt, and Green & Black’s, Marriott soon realised that to scale up he would need other routes to market. Enter the premium hotel and restaurant sectors, which accounted for 95% of sales prior to Covid-19, and where customers are more discerning about traceability. ‘With retail there are so many people to go through,’ says Marriott. ‘But if you walk into a restaurant, you’ll know a head chef is in there. All I need is half an hour.’
Making chocolate in bulk combined with a growth in demand has meant tweaking the supply chain. Most of the chocolate is now made through a chocolatier in Belgium (‘It’s 35 degrees in St Vincent!’), but Marriott retains control, visiting several times a month. ‘We work on the recipes and I make the first batches. Then it churns over and we have our own line,’ he explains.
Marriott admits that controlling the entire supply chain means everything takes twice as long. ‘We’re doing something completely different. We’re a blank canvas wanting to revolutionise the way chocolate is made,’ he says. At time of writing, Marriott is seeing the positives of taking an enforced, momentary step back and refocusing priorities: product, community and planet – including their operations in the UK. ‘We’re going the extra mile in St Vincent but we need to be going the extra mile over here too.’
This article was first published in Courier Issue 35, June/July 2020. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.