Islands Chocolate is a story of passion, cricket (from Oxford and elsewhere) and cocoa that sourced from St Vincent and the Grenadine Islands. Wilf, who runs Islands Chocolate, modestly describes himself as a “semi-professional” cricketer before he decided to switch his passions to Craft Chocolate. Despite being the site where the Pirates of the Caribbean films were made, and despite possessing amazing beaches and fertile land (albeit full of mountains and prone to volcanic eruptions and cyclones), St Vincent is the 10th poorest country in the World. To date its main industry has been banana cultivation, with tourism becoming increasingly important. Wilf and his family discovered that Cocoa was also being grown on the Island. And inspired by the success of their Caribbean neighbours, they set up the St Vincent Cocoa Company as a family owed cocoa company in 2014. Since then they’ve grown to employ around 250 people and partner with over 100 farmers. They’ve been successfully selling on the Islands for a number of years under the brand name Vincentian Chocolate and armed with new packaging for the UK and EU, Wilf launched Islands Chocolate in late 2017.
Unlike many of its Caribbean neighbours such as Jamaica, Haiti or Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines are relatively unknown. The Islands were first colonised in 1719 by the French (until then indigenous Caribs had successfully defended the islands with the assistance of formerly enslaved Africans who had been shipwrecked or escaped from nearby islands). The French and British fought over the islands, with the British eventually maintaining control and establishing plantations of sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton and cocoa. St Vincent volcano, La Soufriere, erupted in 1812 and 1902 and caused major economic damage. The beautiful beaches, popularised by movies, have helped a tourist industry grow. But the Islands remain very dependent on banana cultivation. Witnessing the success of its neighbouring Caribbean islands in growing, harvesting and craft Fine Flavour Cacao, Islands Chocolate has a vision to introduce the world to Vincentian Chocolate. The company ethos is ‘Think Beyond the Bar’. And to quote Wilf on his mission and where he sees the opportunity, “I feel that there is too much emphasis on the chocolate bar and not enough attention paid to those who farm the cocoa, the passionate chocolate making team, the culture of the island and the Caribbean as a whole. I want people to feel a connection between our chocolate and the Caribbean”.
We caught up with Wilf, and below are some notes from our discussion
• What’s your background? Why and how did you get into chocolate?
I was a semi-professional cricketer up until the age of 21, but having graduated from University, I realised that cricket wasn’t for me. Bearing in mind that cricket was my life until that point; I wanted to replace it with something that I was incredibly passionate about. A family friend of mine works on the sustainability side of things for Barry Callebaut. He sent me out to Malaysia to work on Barry’s research farm. It was incredibly tough but I definitely caught the chocolate/cocoa bug. I then went to work for Prestat in the kitchen with the aim of experiencing the chocolate making side of things. When I left Prestat, I went to work for Doisy and Dam, a chocolate start up – I was doing door to door sales trying to get their chocolate into independent cafés/deli’s. After these three jobs, I had managed to experience all of the different parts of the supply chain that were all vital to understand if I wanted to work in the industry.
• When did you start your company — and with whom? How many are there of you?
Islands Chocolate is the sister company to St Vincent Cocoa Company. It all started with St Vincent Cocoa Company that launched in 2014. This is a family owed cocoa company that employs around 250 people, looks after 100 farmers and is dedicated to growing fine flavoured cacao in a sustainable way and creating opportunities for locals. We then launched a chocolate company on the Island to make the islanders aware of what we are doing. Bearing in mind St Vincent is the 10th poorest country in the world, the locals where over the moon that their country had a product that was being produced on the island. With the success of the chocolate company in St Vincent, I thought that it would be silly if we didn’t try and sell our chocolate in the UK market.
• What mission have you set yourselves for making chocolate?
Our company ethos is ‘Think Beyond the Bar’. I feel that there is too much emphasis on the chocolate bar and not enough attention paid to those who farm the cocoa, the passionate chocolate making team, the culture of the island and the Caribbean as a whole. I want people to feel a connection between our chocolate and the Caribbean.
• Where do you want to go next? New bars? New beans? New markets?
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about this question. New bars – Yes. I already have a few more flavours in the pipeline for Christmas. They are delicious! All of our beans will come from St Vincent however at the moment we are mixing them all together. In the future we want to be able to single out our varieties so that we can utilise each variety and the flavour profiles.
I also want to educate consumers on cocoa nibs. On average they have 40 times more flavonoids and antioxidants than blueberries. It is about educating our customers and teaming up with influencers to get this message across.
• What is the story behind your company name?
The chocolate is sold in St Vincent under the name of Vincentian Chocolate – This has no meaning in the UK so I suggested that we re-name it to Islands Chocolate. As mentioned previously, we want to be able to make our customers feel like they taste the Caribbean. When you think of islands, you think of blue turquoise seas, sun and being happy (well I do anyway!). I also wanted to get St Vincent & The Grenadines on the map and not have the sole emphasis on St Vincent. I want people from St Vincent all along the grenadines (32 islands) to be proud of a product that was born in St Vincent.
• Who designed your packaging – and what are you most proud of about your packaging?
I designed our packaging alongside an intern. I love the colours and think our logo that is embossed in silver matches the colour scheme perfectly. In addition, the surprise of opening up the packaging and finding more information inside the wrapper will hopefully be a good experience for the customer. Being able to get St Vincent & the Grenadines on the packaging will give the people back in St Vincent a huge amount of pride.
• How did you source your beans?
We grow them ourselves – Tree to Bar
• What inspired your choice of wrapper/mould design?
We wanted to go for a high-end look whilst incorporating island colours. We want to create a wow factor.
• What innovations in tech, crafting, marketing etc. are you pursuing?
Well, I may be wrong but I feel like myself running Islands Chocolate (wilf), opens up Islands Chocolate to a whole new age demographic. With the craft chocolate on the rise, I would of thought that a young face at the front of the company will help educate the young generation and also give a fresh perspective of the industry. I want to make use of my experience growing up with social media & technology to enhance Islands Chocolate by showcasing the cocoa making process & the Caribbean. Showcasing at the LCW really surprised me, pretty much 1 out of 100 people know what a cocoa tree looks like. Some people thought that I had photos of peppers behind the stand. Education is high up on my list, to get people to appreciate that making chocolate is more time consuming than making coffee & wine (arguably harder as well). Chocolate is everywhere so everyone assumes that it is easy to make but in fact it is the polar opposite. In addition, Collaborating with fun innovative brands is high on my list as well.
• What is your favourite food? Wine? Other chocolate makers?
Pump Street – Absolutely love the chocolate. Mast Brothers- Love the branding (not sure about the chocolate). Fever Tree tonic – The way they have revolutionised the gin market is something that inspires me. I love red wine but do not have a specific maker that I prefer; I need to sell a few more chocolate bars to be able to afford a nice bottle!
• What chocolate achievement are you most proud of to date?
When we exhibited at the London chocolate in 2017 show we had only been making chocolate for a year. We had around 20-30 people come back to our stand saying that this is the best chocolate that they had tasted at the show – I know it is only small, but it gives you a great deal of confidence considering how many established brands where at that event.
• Is there anything else you want to tell us, or you think our customers should know?
We are unique. We are single origin, Single Island, tree to bar, sustainable, employing over 250 locals, supporting schools. Every bean that comes off St Vincent comes through St Vincent Cocoa Company and every bar that is sold from St Vincent comes from Islands Chocolate.
• Who farms them? What’s their mission? How long have they been growing cacao (co-op, the farmer, bean supplier)
We farm our cocoa on our own land and also buy cocoa from over 100 Vincentian farmers. Some farmers are managing cocoa that was planted in the 1970’s. On some of our new land there are some fantastic old varieties that are at least 50 years old. But most of the cocoa has been recently planted from 2012 till now.