An Obsession with Scale – 25 Magazine: Issue 5

An Obsession with Scale – 25 Magazine: Issue 5

IIf we zoom in on the world of specialty chocolate, we learn that there is a category of companies that fetishizes the small, the handmade, and the laboriously produced.

CARLA D. MARTIN, PhD explores the concepts of commodity, craft, and taste in specialty chocolate. All images courtesy Dandelion Chocolate.

These chocolate producers describe themselves as makers rather than manufacturers, their products as small batch or “bean to bar,” and their production as craft, time-consuming, and more, linking their value to consumers with their smallness. There are approximately 500 companies globally in this category, using annually less than 200 metric tons of cacao each. Estimating cautiously, these companies process less than 0.05 percent of the world’s 4.5 million metric tons of cacao each year. They are strikingly small when compared with other chocolate companies, yet due to the nature of the industry, everyone in chocolate is obsessed with scale.

Zooming out, to understand the cacao-chocolate supply chain, one has to master concepts in the logistics of massive scale: transportation, manufacturing, and retail. The movement of cacao around the world is intimately linked with the size and availability of shipping containers and the ports to which they travel, the cost and capacity of the machines that roast, winnow, grind, mill, conche, temper, and mold chocolate, and the retail pricing and distribution networks that bring chocolate face-to-face with consumers. Nearly every chocolate company operating today, no matter how small or alternative in its design, benefits from this system.

History helps explain how we got here. The dynamics of scale – mass production and mass consumption – played into the emergence of mass markets for chocolate in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the broad democratization of a product previously reserved for the wealthy or elite of Europe and North America. The Western world came to consume billions of dollars of chocolate confectionery every year. To meet demand, companies have gone to great lengths over the past century to manage competition, standardize their products, and market “quality to distinguish their brands. The so-called Big Five branded retail manufacturers (Cadbury (Mondelez), Ferrero, Hersheys, Mars, and Nestlé) now dominate more than 50 percent of the confectionery market, having gobbled up smaller companies and their brands for decades.

Scale and quality are fundamentally linked. The democratization of chocolate necessitated massive factories and machinery, and the enormous, expensive equipment required to produce quality chocolate is often inaccessible to small-scale chocolate producers today. This democratization has also deeply impacted what cacao can be accessed: the move to vertically integrate and increasingly consolidate mass trade has led to the evolution of quality standards in agricultural commodities. Basic quality standardization of commodities contributed to the development of the economies of scale that supported corporate profits, while also neglecting the finer elements of flavor and differentiation that the specialty market segment prizes. Nevertheless, today, both chocolate and coffee are highly processed in ways that completely change their appearance and flavor, largely supported by such quality standardization.

When we scale (as a verb), we orient, contrast, associate, and position ourselves so that we can understand and order our world. In the world of specialty or craft food, we tend to think about scale in binaries, e.g. local versus global, micro versus macro, craft versus industrial, direct versus distant, and personal versus impersonal. When it comes to market segmentation around ethics and quality, we also tend to fetishize scale: direct trade is linked with quality control of raw materials, small batch production is linked with quality control of the finished product, and the idea of scaling-up sourcing and production is often imagined to be at the expense of quality.

Because even though almost every chocolate company, no matter how small, is inextricably linked to the commodity market through the transportation, manufacturing, and retail logistics of this supply chain, the amount of respect that a company commands is often linked with its perceived smallness. Scharffen Berger, America’s first contemporary artisan chocolate manufacturer, was founded in 1997 and inspired a small generation of chocolate makers, only to be bought by Hersheys in 2005 and suffer the loss of Whole Foods accounts in 2012 due to perceived loss of quality and ethics.

The vast majority of so-called craft chocolate companies today remain so small that they have not yet dealt with questions of acquisition or changes in business approaches related to scale. But industry members still discuss with fervor the news about larger companies in the specialty chocolate sector. What might happen to TCHO Chocolate after its acquisition by Japanese sweets company Ezaki Glico in 2018, or to Theo Chocolate now that it has taken on a new CEO to replace its long-time founder Joe Whinney, or to Dandelion Chocolate once it completes construction on its exponentially larger new factory space? This plays out among cacao producers as well, with simultaneous celebration and lament when a quality cacao origin scores a lucrative multi-year sourcing contract with a big buyer.

Dandelion Chocolate’s premises.

This binary of small is good and big is not good is not entirely fair or accurate. Current thinking on so-called best practices in quality in cacao and chocolate also often dictates a certain level of scale: it is thought that centralized post-harvest processing, often impossible on small farms, best manages quality of cacao. Even the smallest small-batch chocolate makers are constantly on quests for bigger equipment that will allow them to better control quality and increase production. As mass markets in coffee and chocolate have become more saturated (with per capita consumption leveling off), an increased focus on quality has played a role in driving up consumption through market diversification and, more importantly, differentiation. Chocolate retailers and self-described educators are eagerly working to promote consumption, to grow the number of buyers of chocolate in the specialty segment as the bulk segment is perceived to plateau. Thus, there is also the growth of evaluative quality of scale-making – that of linking value to the idea of the rise and spread” of specialty or craft food culture and the elevation of taste.

In the specialty chocolate industry we are in the process of building a complex social scaffold around cacao and chocolate, where we are scaling taste. Distinction is linked with perceived flavor and production quality, cultivated sensibilities of good taste, and fluency in appreciation. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu famously argues: Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.” Most often, we are scaling along socioeconomic and racial-ethnic lines in the Global North.

Culturally speaking, we are anxious about commodities, having fetishized them, linked them so closely with notions of politics and class, and placed their marketing into every facet of our lives. We’ve done this with specialty products like wine, beer, tobacco, coffee, and chocolate to varying degrees. It is only natural that, as drug foods, these products demand an ever-growing neuropsychology/ anthropology of wanting, where the more people have, the more they would like to continue to have. But when it comes to commodities, we remain confused about the socially constructed distinctions between craft and art, and we distinguish ourselves through our aesthetic connoisseurship and through a commodity’s scarcity, historical uniqueness, and challenge of production. Our ability to distinguish among the scale of qualities flavor, story, value is key to fashioning our self-identities in relation to the power structures that define our lives. Yet is it possible that we are failing to recognize how our obsession with scale colors our understanding of these power structures, and our ability yet failure to transform them?

Anthropologist Anna Tsing has expressed her concern that “scale has become a verb that requires precision; to scale well is to develop the quality called scalability, that is, the ability to expand—and expand, and expand— without rethinking basic elements.” What if we were less interested in fretting over binary categories of scale and more interested in how people talk about themselves, their communities, their connections, and their classes in relation to specialty or craft? How might this help us to better understand current issues in cacao-chocolate and coffee, such as access to markets, conditions of production, and control over worker rights; tradition and innovation; and social, environmental, and economic responsibility and justice? We can push ourselves to further ask: when we do business in these supply chains are we pursuing success (growth) or significance (change)? Are we pushing the boundaries of what has been done before, reshaping the way that things can be? Are we transforming the structural inequalities and failures of policy and social imagination that drove many of us to this work in the first place?

CARLA D. MARTIN, PhD is the Founder and Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, a newly formed nonprofit organization devoted to identifying, developing, and promoting fine cacao and chocolate. She is also a Lecturer in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

Processing chocolate.

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