The man behind the most famous chocolate empire of Austria, the Willy Wonka of reality and the only one who tries the most unusual ingredients for the most individual, quality and exotic chocolates.
We are talking about the founder of the award-winning Austrian company Zotter Chocolate.
Josef Zotter not only makes extraordinary chocolate, but founded a company in which fairness and sustainability are inseparable with great success.
A true green business.
So, get your Zotter chocolate out and we wish you a lot of fun with this interview!
How and when did you come to the idea to start your own business?
In my youth I did an apprenticeship as a cook / waiter and later another apprenticeship as a pastry chef. After several stops in the international hotel and catering industry and even a stay in the USA, I opened a coffeehouse in Graz with my wife Ulrike – followed by others. But we grew too fast and the crash came with us declaring bankruptcy in 1999. Not a fun time, as you can imagine. Already in the confectionery I experimented with chocolate. When the decision had to be made between a new coffee house and the chocolate, I decided the take on the new path and focused entirely on chocolate.
Due to a lack of money, the choice of location fell on the parental farm and here in the former cowshed of my parents, we opened the chocolate factory. The company grew slowly and we only invested as much as we earned – without outside capital. We have learned from our mistakes and are proud to employ 200 people at the site today with an annual turnover of around 24 million euros.
What was your motivation and vision at that time?
Chocolate fascinated me but at that time the chocolate market was very unspectacular. There was milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and white chocolate, then maybe something with nuts – and that’s it. There are actually over 1000 flavours of chocolate – and many of them have not been explored yet, we are still somehow at the beginning.
In 2004, I started visiting cocoa farmers and exploring how cocoa grows, under what conditions – we became partners in fair trade, and a complete change to organic was the logical consequence. At the same time, we built a chocolate factory in 2005 – 2006 – and have been able to process it ourselves (bean-to-bar). This means that we have all the processing steps in-house and can exert the greatest possible influence on taste and quality. We are in close contact with the suppliers in the south and are already trying to improve quality on the plantations and to develop new fermentation methods with the cocoa farmers and to cultivate and grow more old rarities.
We called it quality instead of poverty, or cocoa instead of cocaine.
In the meantime, the chocolate factory here in Styria has become a competence centre for chocolate.
Has the vision changed since then?
Of course, because the environment has changed as well, the market has become much more diverse – and I would have never dreamed of running a company of this size. I always knew that one day I wanted to be able to live from the production of chocolate. I’ve succeeded – and even more – we currently have over 500 different products in our assortment – and each one is unique!
Were there initial challenges?
Yeah sure, at the beginning it was very hard. No one was waiting for me or ran to me because he wanted my chocolates. We really started visiting small shops in person and built a customer base. Many of the “first hour” customers are still running our in-store products – which is why we prefer to rely on small-scale organic trade – and are not very widely represented in the food markets – our products are already very special and of course, quality costs more – that’s why we feel in the specialty shops simply more comfortable.
What does a typical day in your life look like today?
We have not only the production of chocolate, but have also opened a world of experience here at the location – we like to show how we work and inspire customers for chocolate varieties – there are 33 tasting stations and you can taste over 200 varieties, with many technical gimmicks and a high entertainment value. Every year 270,000 visitors come – and we are one of the most visited destinations in Styria.
Since I am always torn between chocolate production, especially when new varieties and new recipes are produced, and of course our customers, who are happy if they meet me personally.
A company always has surprises, positive and, of course, less funny ones, so I cannot really say what a typical day is like – at any rate, it is never boring and I am happy that I have listened to my tummy and devoted myself entirely to chocolate.
What are the key skills and qualities to succeed in your industry?
I’ve learned to think taste through my training as a chef, and today I also create chocolate in my head – I know how flavour components work and how to combine them in an exciting way. Most recipes are made at the desk. Many believe we stir in pots and experiment with it, but this is not the case. I ask no one if he/she likes a new recipe. On the contrary, if it is exciting and unusual, then it is good. We then immediately produce 5,000 pieces – and are happy if customers like the product too.
If I asked several people in advance, or even did a market survey if someone wanted to have a chocolate, the result would certainly be negative. Sure, because no one can imagine how it will taste. That’s why we have very exotic varieties, and our customers love the taste experiments. That’s what makes variety.
Nobody needs more of the same thing.
Do you have a secret of success?
My motto is: never ask the market! But always do what you think is right for you …
If I asked 10 people if they liked a new strain, they would start nagging and would prefer a little more sugar, less milk … something like that and maybe won’t like cheese but prefer milk cream, etc. In the end, the result would be an average product as a compromise of all objections ….
And then the product would certainly be boring, without peaks and edges – I do not want that.
How do you / does your business earn money?
By just making honest and good chocolates. We do not make the products more beautiful than they are, but also not less – and we have always remained honest. We show that and many customers like it. The rest is daily routine work to constantly evolve and not lose momentum.
Is there anything that you think could be improved in your industry?
Yes, I hope that at some point chocolate gets calculated differently – from the bean away, from the bottom up. This means that all cocoa farmers would get fair prices for their crops. You have to imagine, over 95% of the world’s cocoa harvest does not come from fair trade – only 5% is paid reasonably well. In other words, 100g chocolate under 1 euro is not possible at the discount shop under fair conditions. The price gets paid by the people in the south, who are exploited and are forced to toil under very bad conditions. I do not want to know where the milk comes from.
The quality would rise – and maybe we would eat less chocolate, but it would be are much better one. This could really be improved.
I travel a lot – and chocolate can taste quite bitter if it’s not fair trade!
If you could start again, would you do something different?
No. I’m very happy with how the puzzle pieces of my life have come together. Maybe I did not always know where the journey will lead, but you just have to stay tuned and pursue your values, do not bend and listen to your gut, which are a better brain.
What do you advise others for their lives and careers?
Exactly the same: stay true to your values, do not bend or ask. Listen to your stomach, the rest will come up. The most important thing is that you do something with passion and not just because of money.
Is there something that you wish someone would have said to you, or something someone actually said to you that helped?
Yes, I would have wished that someone had warned me against too much risk through borrowed capital that makes us unfree and dependent – and with that one quickly rushes offside. But I also learned a lot from that – and today I am very happy about it!
And if someone says the Zotter is crazy … then that makes me especially happy … It means they got the message.