Shawn Askinosie's 19 years as a criminal defense attorney weren't enough. He wanted to keep doing all the things he loved about his work—investigating, interacting with people, working for the public good—but he was ready for less stress.
He'd become an excellent home baker, and his specialty was chocolate cupcakes made with the finest dark chocolate. He toyed with the idea of opening a bakery, but then he got sidetracked by the notion of making chocolate from scratch.
Going to the Source
In 2005, he began making his first batches at home. Within a few months, he was in the Amazon, where he learned that the way cacao beans are harvested and handled influences the flavor of the chocolate. He realized that by working directly with cacao farmers, giving them unique specifications for every step of the process, he could produce unique chocolate products.
"I started with the idea that I wanted to have direct relationships with people. I wanted to go to these places, and I wanted to source the cacao beans," Askinosie says. Researching the chocolate industry, he was struck by economic inequities between U.S. consumers, who can pay $10 for a candy bar, and poor cacao farmers, who would be happy to make $10 a month.
Beyond Fair Trade
In May 2007, he started Askinosie Chocolate in his hometown of Springfield, Mo., sourcing cacao beans for his chocolate directly from farmers and labeling it Authentic Single Origin Chocolate.
He built his business using the management principals outlined in Stake in the Outcome, a book by Jack Stack. The idea is that if workers share in the company's success, they will hold a greater stake in the process along the way. For farmers selling to Askinosie Chocolate, that stake is 10 percent of the net profits from the chocolate made with their beans. Askinosie says this arrangement is an even better deal than that offered through Fair Trade. He also opens his books to the farmers, so they can see how profits are calculated.
To find farmers in each country to partner with, Askinosie's experience in investigating cases by finding people and asking them questions came in handy. He tries to do as much research and investigation as he can before he travels to a country. But it still wasn't easy.
"I lost a lot of money doing direct trade. My wife calls it the stupid tax," Askinosie says.
For example, it took him two years to open trade with farmers in the Philippines, which involved contacting the farmers, getting samples, going there and finding a farmer group he could pay directly. "It's always a moving target," he says. "As soon as I think I have a stable source of beans, things shift. It's the most challenging thing I've ever done."
A Golden Ticket for Springfield
Askinosie is also active in his community; he started Chocolate University to teach Springfield students about business, entrepreneurship and fair trade principles. In a recent project with the high school, 15 students traveled to Tanzania to build and dedicate a water well to the community. The project was funded by giving tours of the factory and by donations. They'll go back again this summer.
Askinosie soon realized that he wanted to do more than hand farmers their profits and fly home. As a lawyer, he'd fought for the little guy, helping acquit innocent people of murder and other crimes. Here was another chance to help the little guy.
"You can't go to these places and not meet people and hear about what they're doing and what their needs are," Askinosie says. "You're exposed to things that make you stop and think, 'How can I be involved and partner with them and work on solutions?'"
For example, in Tenende, Tanzania, they grow the best rice Askinosie ever tasted. So the local school's PTA will bag up 1,000 kilos of rice in one-kilo bags and ship it along with the cacao beans this fall. The company will buy the bags for $1 apiece and sell them for $15. The $14 profit will go to fund a one-year lunch program for the school.
"The magic in the whole thing is that no one donated anything," Askinosie says. "It's all self-sustaining."
Askinosie Chocolate also raised money to sponsor a science teacher for a year. Now, it's working to buy laptops, projectors and speakers so that students can watch science videos. He notes, "You can't learn and concentrate on a video if you don't have food in your stomach."
A similar project in the Philippines provides a nourishing lunch for kids, thanks to tableya, a traditional hot chocolate beverage, made by parents and sold online at Askinosie.com.
Askinosie Chocolate employs nine people full-time, including Shawn Askinosie's wife, Caron, his daughter, Lawren, and son-in-law, Kyle. Products are sold in some 300 stores in the U.S., as well as overseas, and sales are growing at around 25 percent per year.
The founder has a contrarian approach to growth: "I'd like to grow at our current rate for another three years and then I want to stop." While he'd like to add another origin or two, he doesn't want to sacrifice quality for growth. He says, "What we're doing now is fun, and we like the size we are."
Photo credit: Askinosie Chocolate