When I started this blog in 2016, my goal was to introduce you to my favorite chocolate-makers through a series of interviews. Looking back at the blog archives, it’s bittersweet to see that most people I interviewed have closed shop. Acalli Chocolate? Gone. Dulcinea Chocolate? A memory. Batch Craft? An ephemeral beauty.
A few weeks ago, Will Marx officially announced the closure of Wm Chocolate in Madison, Wisconsin. As a chocolate-lover, I’ll miss Will’s bars — his Belize is one of my top 10 dark chocolate of all times — as well as his thoughtful approach to crafting.
I was curious about the motivations behind his decisions, so I invited him to answer a few questions here. I really appreciate Will’s vulnerability in his responses and hope it will help appreciate the work it takes to run a chocolate company.
When we last spoke in 2021, you were a chocolate-maker based in Madison, Wisconsin. Who and where are you today?
I’m still in Madison, working full-time as a web developer.
Your company Wm Chocolate went through several iterations. In the early days, you offered a whole range of single origin dark chocolate. During the pandemic, you narrowed your focus to a few bars, all made with Dominican cacao. What prompted that change?
The decision was based on years of observing chocolate consumers combined with my evolving views of what progress in the chocolate industry should look like. On the consumer side, there aren’t enough people who are willing to regularly pay a premium for the origin factor. At this point, origin-driven differences remain a curiosity, best delivered through occasional experiences, rather than something consumers spend money on regularly. Despite my personal interests, from a business standpoint, it did not make sense to continue spending significant extra resources producing a diverse lineup of origin bars that few people valued. I simply distilled the bars that people liked best into fewer products that cost me less to make, and then sold the results at a lower price, hoping to increase scale.
Having been liberated of any commercial reasons to source raw cacao globally, I was free to focus on doing what seemed best for origin economies and the environment. Sourcing cacao mass from as close to home as possible (hence, the DR) grew out of this newfound freedom.
Wm stood out by its decision in 2021 to import cacao mass vs. cacao beans imported from origin. Can you elaborate on that?
There are about a dozen reasons why it’s a better approach. It is more equitable because more of the product’s value is added at origin. Costs are lower because there is no waste to ship–mass is extremely dense and fully usable, unlike raw cacao. Emissions are lower for the same reason. Quality is better because mass is much easier to protect during transit compared to raw cacao. My needs for labor and equipment were greatly reduced, allowing me to focus on time and money on growing the business through sales and marketing efforts. The list goes on.
Even though I did not continue the business, the switch was absolutely the right move and made it better by every measure.
From the outside, it seems your company was thriving and doing well. What drove your decision to close Wm?
On the inside, it was always a difficult business. It only continued for so long because I was extremely stubborn and passionate. I wanted to make relatively unadorned dark chocolate bars from extremely thoughtfully sourced ingredients. It turned out that despite my different approaches, and despite what the casual observer may think, the market for dark chocolate bars is quite limited. Without going into too much market detail, there was just nowhere to grow with the bars. Growth would have required adding many products I was not interested in making: perishable chocolates, coffee shop offerings, and the like. Rather than take new risks on products I didn’t want to offer, I stepped away.
How do you personally feel about the end of the Wm. journey?
I’m proud of having made it as far as I did without compromising, enriched by the many lessons I learned, and appreciative of the producers and customers I worked with over the years. At the same time, it was such a struggle that it’s an easy goodbye.
Looking back at your entrepreneurship journey, what do you wish you’d knew when you started? What advice would you have for a new maker?
As many have said before me, if I knew then what I know now, I would never have started. In my case the specific reason for that is simply that you can’t have a successful business making bars alone, which is all I ever wanted to do. Hence, my advice for other makers is to figure out if they are willing and able to diversify their offerings beyond bars. I would even go so far as to say “forget about bars” when it comes to revenue, because the potential there is just so small relative to what you need to have a stable business.
I’m curious, will you still make chocolate as a hobby or will you buy chocolate for your own consumption?
I have a couple years worth of extra chocolate to eat first, and won’t be making any acquisitions until it’s all gone!
You always stood out as a maker who asked the right questions vs. seeking answers. What’s a question you have for the craft chocolate industry?
How are we going to transfer a bigger piece of the pie to cacao-growing countries? Buying raw materials is never going to make much of a difference, no matter how much extra we pay for quality. We need to help origin economies capture more of the value added to raw cacao so that they grow stronger at large and can help their farmers weather changes in climate, farming technology, and beyond.
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