Askinosie Chocolate: Bringing The World Together One Bean At A Time
Shawn Askinosie, Founder of Askinosie Chocolate (Photo courtesy of Askinosie Chocolate)
I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting Shawn Askinosie, Founder of Askinosie Chocolate, at a chocolate tasting at abcmkt, the recently opened food and tabletop market at ABC Carpet & Home. Shawn he told us incredible stories. He actually inspired me to tears. More than once! Luckily, there was the chocolate too. But let’s start with the stories.
Shawn Askinosie’s particular journey began with a murder in Springfield, Missouri. He was a successful criminal defense attorney with many years of experience. He was at the peak of his career when he won a murder case. He actually believed his client was innocent too, which is always a good thing. However, the trial taxed him to his very core. And he started thinking about a new focus for his life.
He spent several years searching for something to do, looking for another calling or path. He hoped it would be in food. He started grilling as a hobby. Then he started baking. Then he started making chocolate desserts. And then he started making chocolate.
Imagining What Can Happen If You Follow Your Dreams
Chocolate making equipment in the law office kitchen (Photo courtesy of Askinosie Chocolate)
Shawn began bringing equipment to his law office to experiment with chocolate making in the early morning before the workday started. His family and his staff thought he was losing his mind. They couldn’t imagine why he would want to focus on anything but his successful practice, which he did truly love. But he realized that he did not want to spend the next 20 – 30 years working in a field where the stakes were so high for his clients. He knew that it was time for a change. He just needed to figure out what that change would be.
Over time, he brought more and more chocolate equipment into his office. And then his staff started helping out in the mornings. And then he had an idea: Why not try to make chocolate from scratch?
Askinosie Chocolate Factory (Photo courtesy of Askinosie Chocolate)
He followed this vision deliberately and methodically, and also with a sense of adventure and discovery. He would turn an old building on E. Commercial Street in downtown Springfield into a chocolate factory. He needed to buy equipment and find farmers to supply the cacao beans from around the world. Oh—and he needed to learn to make chocolate that tasted amazing at commercial quantities.
He found a partner who would gradually take over his law practice. The factory was not far from the Court House, and he kept a suit in his office for when he had to make an appearance in court. His daughter Lawren began helping out while she was in high school. Today, she is Askinosie’s head of sales and marketing. Shawn’s last jury trial was in 2006. The entire transition process took 7 years.
Building Blocks of a Sustainable Global Business
Actual cacao farmers appear on each bar of Askinosie Chocolate (photo by Ed Lefkowicz)
Today, after years of learning, growing, traveling and refining, Askinosie Chocolate bars sell in grocery stores and shops across the country. They are made in the Springfield factory from direct trade cocoa beans. In this case, direct trade means exactly that – Shawn buys the cacao beans directly from the producers. He visits them, meets with them, eats with them, and does business with them. He has established long-term, trusting relationships with people in remote parts of the world.
Askinosie works with cacao producers in Ecuador, Honduras, the Philippines and Tanzania. He goes to these countries to visit the almost 200 farmers in the cooperatives where he buys his beans. Most of the farmers had never actually tasted a chocolate bar before, even though they have been cultivating cacao their whole lives! When Shawn found that out, he made sure they all got to see and taste the finished products. The images on each of his bars are the actual farmers who grow the cacao.
Meeting with women cacao producers in Tanzania (Photo Courtesy of Askinosie Chocolate)
I have to note that Askinosie supports women’s farming cooperatives wherever they can. Shawn adheres to the learnings of the Grameen Bank, that there is a direct correlation between the ability of women to support their families and the elimination of hunger. His business agreements with women entrepreneurs empower them to seek greater access to health care, housing and food security for their families.
Still, most of the producers are subsistence farmers. Shawn saw the poverty and hunger in their communities first hand. So he also helped the farming families set up school lunch programs using proceeds from the business and sourcing locally grown, healthy foods. Each month, Askinosie Chocolate feeds 2000 people around the world. They are working on developing a local sustainable lunch program right now in Springfield too.
As further evidence of Askinosie’s commitment to its local community, they give all the cacao husks from producing the chocolate to a local farmer, who uses it as fertilizer and then brings fresh farm produce to the factory for the staff in exchange.
Chocolate University: Envisioning a Brighter Future
Liz Ghan is going to Tanzania in July with Chocolate University (Photo courtesy of Askinosie Chocolate)
Down the street from the Askinosie Chocolate factory is a homeless shelter called the Missouri Hotel. It has a waiting list of people who need help, and over 80 children live there at any given time. Shawn wanted to do something to help them do well in school, to give them practical skills, and, most importantly, to give them hope. So he worked with the shelter to open a computer room where kids could comfortably do their homework. The day the factory opened for business, Shawn launched Chocolate University, funded by the proceeds from factory tours.
The concept behind Chocolate University is to teach local children about entrepreneurship and to expose them to a world beyond the shelter walls and outside Springfield, Missouri. The kids come to the factory and learn how to make chocolate. (Actually, the kids know they are welcome to stop by the factory any time for a nibble.) They learn about entrepreneurship and business management. There is also a program for high school students to travel to Tanzania to meet the cacao producers. Liz Ghan is a student who actually lived in the Missouri Hotel and came to the Askinosie Factory to learn about chocolate several years ago. She will be heading to Tanzania with a group of students in July! They are currently raising funds for this year’s trip via Cause Momentum.
So it has become a full circle of communities around the world working to make a better life for children. And the catalyst is chocolate. It really cannot get better than this.
Askinosie Chocolate Tasting at abcmkt
And Now a Word About the Chocolate!
Askinosie’s Dark Milk Chocolate + Ancho Chile & Pistachio CollaBARation™ Bar
At the abcmkt tasting, we tried cacao at multiple stages, including un-conched chocolate, cocoa butter and cocoa powder. It was fascinating to try these elements in the process of what will become a dark, shiny Askinosie Chocolate Bar. I absolutely loved the diversity and complexity of flavors in all the different bars we tasted. Just one little square will blow you away.
Askinosie Chocolate collaborates with several other food companies, or, as they say, collaBARate. The Dark Milk Chocolate + Ancho Chile & Pistachio Bar was created with Cafe Pascual’s in Santa Fe. The organic pistachios come from a farm in Washington State. It’s an amazing combination with just a touch of heat.
Askinosie Dark Chocolate + Malted Milk CollaBARation™ Bar with Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream
The Dark Chocolate + Malted Milk CollaBARation Bar was developed with Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, and I loved it. I haven’t tried Jeni’s ice cream yet, but people keep telling me all about it. If it’s anything like this bar of chocolate, I’m sure I will fast become addicted. Plus, my dad loved malted milk balls, and that flavor always brings back nice memories for me.
When I was a kid, my mom and I really loved white chocolate. So I was excited to see what kind of twist Shawn would do with the Askinosie White Chocolate Bar. To my delight, it is made with goat milk powder! I thought that was a bold choice, as goat milk has a very distinct, almost nutty flavor. But it adds a richly satisfying dimension to traditional white chocolate, which can be a bit bland. The milk comes from goats in nearby Arkansas.
Farmers in the Philippines with harvested cacao beans
The bars made from single source cacao beans are remarkable too. The flavors range from rich fruitiness to dark oak, and even a tanginess at the finish. They are all smooth and melt in your mouth. The only way you will truly understand, however, is to try them all for yourself. And pay attention to the packaging. In addition to the images of Askinosie’s farm partners, there is a string tied to the top of each bar. Askinosie works with Victory House, a transitional center and training program for homeless women, hiring residents to tie each string by hand.
I asked Shawn how he supports his price point, as the bars go for $8.50 – $9.00 each. We are used to paying those prices here in New York for locally made chocolate. But I wondered how that played in Springfield, MO, where Askinosie Chocolate has earned an amazing amount of local support, and elsewhere across the country. As it turns out, quality is quality, no matter where you are.
Chocolate University Trip 2013: Capturing a moment in Tanzania (Photo courtesy of Askinosie Chocolate)
“You get the best of the best for less than $10,” Shawn told me. “People are becoming more aware of the quality in our products, and they find it worth their while.”
Shawn’s global pursuit of chocolate is a serious, long-term development initiative. It has been so successful and inspiring because it is based on shining vision, amazing relationships, strong business practices, and chocolate. He can’t help but succeed. And he’s taking us all along with him.
Artisanal Chocolate at abcmkt (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz)
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