Zotter Chocolate (Austria)

Zotter Chocolate | Vegan Chocolate
"But behind this playful, almost whimsical, presentation lies a strong commitment to sustainable production and equitable trading relations with the company’s suppliers."
- New York Times


In 1996, Josef Zotter's bakery business in Graz, Austria, faced dire financial challenges. On the brink of bankruptcy, he made a pivotal decision to shutter his bakery and return to his roots in Bergl, a village nestled in the Feldbach district of Styria. In collaboration with two of his 40 former employees, Zotter embarked on a humble venture, establishing a miniature chocolate factory within a converted cowshed on the farm of his upbringing.

His vision was to cultivate a microbusiness centered on sourcing "fair trade" cocoa beans from smallholder producer cooperatives in Nicaragua and Brazil. This venture aimed to produce artisanal chocolate confectionery, utilizing locally-sourced ingredients for the enjoyment of the local community.

Crafting unique chocolate bars, featuring flavors such as apricot and sheep's milk, Zotter gradually amassed a devoted following of customers who appreciated the concept of Austrian specialty chocolate crafted with a strong commitment to environmental sustainability.

Fast forward to today, and the once-modest factory has expanded to encompass over 5,500 square meters, or 60,000 square feet, from its initial 200 square meters. Operating under the name "Zotter Schokoladen Manufaktur," the company employs 112 individuals, churning out as many as 50,000 to 80,000 bars each day, boasting a diverse range of over 200 classical and exotic flavors. Notable among their unconventional ingredients are fish, soy, green tea, açaí berry, and even ketchup and peanut butter—a playful nod to American taste preferences, inspired by President Barack Obama's election victory.

Remarkably, Zotter's success has been largely propelled by word-of-mouth recommendations, with virtually no advertising. The company, however, offers engaging factory tours that draw approximately 150,000 visitors annually. Here, guests have the opportunity to taste and inhale the chocolate-making process, and they can relax on cocoa bean bags in the "Cocoa Cinema," where they can watch presentations about the brand's history and eco-friendly principles.

Additional attractions include a "Drink Chocolate Online" room featuring a small cable conveyor system, akin to a miniature ski-lift, which transports chocolate bars around the room, allowing visitors to select and transform them into cocoa beverages at an adjacent hot chocolate bar.

A recent visitor described witnessing throngs of children sipping from cocoa fountains at the factory's entrance while their parents indulged in cutting chocolate chunks from overflowing samplers. Yet beneath this whimsical presentation lies a deep commitment to sustainable production and fair trading relationships with the company's suppliers.

Since 2004, the company's cocoa beans have carried "fair trade" certification, signifying direct purchases from producers at higher prices, thereby eliminating intermediaries. Mr. Zotter personally visits Nicaragua and Brazil regularly to meet with these producers, providing financial support for machinery and storage facility construction.

The company's dedication to sustainability extends to repurposing bean grinding residues into a biomass converter that generates heat, power, and fertilizer. With both a biomass plant and solar panels on-site, the factory generates 60 percent of its energy requirements, aiming for full energy self-sufficiency within the next decade.

Since 2006, Zotter's output has been certified organic, with dairy sourced from organic farmers in the Tyrol mountains and specialty organic ingredients like seeds, fruits, and nuts obtained from local farms. This conscious choice reflects Zotter's commitment to supporting local products and job creation in Styria.

To foster a culture of quality and well-being among his employees, Zotter has established an organic canteen on the factory premises. He emphasizes that he wants his employees to find satisfaction in their workplace beyond monetary compensation.

The company further contributes to environmental preservation by using water sourced from local springs, which is subsequently recycled for cleaning purposes. Their packaging materials are environmentally friendly, lacking glossy coatings.

In his personal life, Josef Zotter demonstrates a consistent commitment to sustainability, driving an electric car for 15 years and powering his home with a domestic solar/biomass generator, producing surplus energy that he sells back to the grid.

Beyond business, Zotter engages in various social projects, including one in Colombia aimed at transitioning coca growers to cocoa cultivation as a substitute crop. His product line includes fundraising chocolates, such as the Zuki bar, a delightful blend of açaí, mango, and Brazil nuts, with 30 percent of its sales proceeds allocated to an aid project for Calcutta street children.

Josef Zotter maintains a unique perspective on growth and global presence. He has no interest in pursuing extensive expansion or distribution through major chains. Franchising isn't part of his strategy, and rapid growth isn't a priority.

"I've reached my ideal size," he reflects. "Plus, I don't think we need yet another global brand. The world needs a completely new approach to making the economy work. I find it so frustrating to see the same products in every corner of the globe."

He concludes with a powerful statement: "The world is changing. There is a return to simplicity. Greed is over."

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