A Sweet Chocolate Dream
A Sweet Chocolate Dream
Josef Zotter’s organic, fair-trade chocolate creations are extraordinary—and spite market demands. Astoundingly, that is the key to the Austrian’s great success.
This is the story of a man who lives strictly by his whims. A man who was a five-star chef in his early career, yet who found no satisfaction in a life of luxury. Who went bankrupt with a bang, and then went on to celebrate successes, even though he does not care about riches. In short, it is the story of an unusual man: Austrian Josef Zotter. The flamboyantly wrapped, hand-scooped Zotter chocolate bars are made with ingredients that are both organic and fairly traded. Tasting them is an amazing experience. Few people would be excited about the idea of chocolate with fish or vinegar. But when it is made by Josef Zotter, the palate rejoices. Mmm, cinnamon-beet chocolate! Mature cheese-walnut-grape!
His business is located in Riegersburg, Austria, a community of barely 2,500 inhabitants on the Slovenian border. This is where Josef Zotter grew up. As a teenager, he was desperate to get away from small-town dreariness. Within a few hundred yards of the Iron Curtain, his family cultivated 3.5 hectares of land with state-of-the-art pesticides. They also kept a few cows. So Zotter initially trained as a farmer. At the same time, he learned the trade of waiter, then trained as a chef. A few years later, his sheer talent landed him a position at the Hotel Pierre in New York, where the rich dined on caviar and goose liver. Zotter found this decadent. After doing some research into the production conditions of the fancy fare, he was even repulsed by it.
In love and in over their heads
For a short while, he considered founding an apple strudel business in New York—vegetarian, modest, traditional. But the plan did not work out. Then on a visit home he met the love of his life and stayed in Austria. The couple opened a café in Graz, selling donuts, dumplings, strudels, and pancake dishes, envisioning a quiet life. Now and then, the new café owners would hand-scoop their own chocolate, a few bars at a time. But then Josef Zotter got ahead of himself. He accepted an order for 300 chocolate bars for a corporate event. In a panic, he realized that he would never be able to fill the order in time with his two chocolate moulds. Desperate for a solution, he fabricated his own frames out of wooden boards, dumped layers of huge amounts of chocolate mass into them, cut the chocolate into pieces and wrapped them in paper. In time for the event, he delivered the box with the 300 chocolate bars at the venue. He quickly snuck out, without talking to anyone, expecting a hefty complaint. Yet the next business day, the lady who had placed the order came to see him, raving about the enthusiastic reactions of her colleagues and guests.
At roughly the same time, an old acquaintance reappeared in Zotter’s life. Designer Andreas Gratzer had trouble finding jobs, so he started working with the Zotters, washing dishes and bussing tables. For a while, their old friend was carrying tableware back and forth. But as demand for their hand-scooped chocolate grew, Zotter wanted to present them in a more appealing wrapper. Andreas Gratzer took to his drawing table and came up with completely different, individualized designs for each flavour. Advertising experts warned that there would be no brand recognition. But by that time Josef Zotter had fallen in love with the designs. Since then, his chocolate bars have been artwork inside and out.
The unusual chocolate creations sold like hotcakes. The Zotters took out a loan to open a second café, then another, and another. Eventually, they were up to their eyeballs in debt. Josef Zotter was a dad now and did not know how to feed his children while also keeping up with the interest payments. The normally cheerful man was distressed, and he resolved to never again let himself depend on banks. With a heavy heart, the Zotter family parted with their cafés and staff. They were done with gastronomy and their large menu of sweet Austrian dishes.
A cow barn, a cemetery and the Congo
The young family moved back to the countryside. Back home in Riegersburg, the couple revamped the family’s cow barn, which was now empty. There, they started large-scale chocolate production. Soon, more and more visitors with a sweet tooth came from Graz. Mrs Zotter the Elder put up shelves and sold the colourful bars. After three years, the Zotters were out of debt and able to hire some new staff.
Today, Zotter is an operation with 160 employees. Since 2004, the company has been using fair-trade cocoa beans only; two years later the production went completely organic. Every day, chocolate lovers arrive by the busload to take tours of the factory. From the “chocolate museum,” they can look down on the production floors with huge silver tubs and watch the staff as they spread the various layers of ingredients. While touring the factory, visitors sample cocoa beans and liquid raw chocolate from all over the world. When the tour is over, many visit the “Edible Zoo” next door. Zotter designed it himself under the slogan “Look your food in the eye.” Zotter’s Highland cattle, Carinthian sheep, long-haired rabbits, Mangalitsa pigs, and Muscovy ducks live under the best possible conditions here—until they are butchered and served in the restaurant. People—in particular, educators—have complained about this confrontation with the realities of meat consumption. Other people get upset about the “Cemetery of Ideas”, where votive candles are lit in honour of chocolate flavours that never came to be. Josef Zotter enjoys provoking people.
Most visitors, however, are just melting. When the man in the white coat and hippie sandals makes his rounds of the premises, people come up to him, want their picture taken with him, ask for his autograph. Zotter always takes time for a little chat. He never leaves his restaurant without praising the cook for her food. Josef Zotter personally knows all the co-ops from which he buys his cocoa beans; he frequently invites farmers from Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, India, and Congo to Riegersburg so they can get to know the company. He recently travelled to Mae Sot, a camp for Burmese refugees in Thailand. In order to fund a soup kitchen for children there, Zotter recently launched the brand “Chocolate Fills Stomachs,” featuring mango and sesame nougat. For every bar sold, a donation goes to Southeast Asia.
Each summer, Josef Zotter creates a couple of dozen new kinds of chocolate—and retires as many from his current product line. The only criterion for discontinuing a flavour is whether the 52-year-old himself is still interested in the composition. Over the years, therefore, many a bestseller has gotten the axe. But the chocolatier does not mind: he has done many a thing that others declared economically foolish. Precisely this, together with his excellent chocolates, seems to be his best recipe for success.