‘With suits, there is off the peg versus bespoke, tailor made. We are the bespoke tailors of the chocolate industry! Another unique selling point is our range of offerings to our customers’

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We interviewed Cocoa Runners’ Founder, Spencer Hyman whose HQ is on Savile Row. Cocoa Runners are purveyors of the finest chocolate in the world, scouting out top-notch producers from around the globe, and bringing their customers an edit of the very best selection.

JSJ: Where is the furthest place you have travelled to source a chocolate bar?

SH: We source our bars from all over the world – from Saigon to San Francisco, Brooklyn to Budapest and Copenhagen to Cleethorpes. And we’ve been to all the places. I’ve just got back from vising one of our best makers, Mikel Friis Holme, in Copenhagen. Our next stops are Iceland (for Omnom) and South America.

JSJ: Do you think your offering fills a gap in the market?

SH: Our customers clearly think we fill a gap in the market of finding and curating the world’s finest chocolate bars.  We ship to customers all over the world – to the US, Australia, Japan and all over the UK. The UK loves chocolate – over 20% of Britons eat chocolate daily and over 75% eat in monthly.

To date, most of this chocolate has been mass-produced, where the aim is to create a uniform taste, all too often of sweetness and other flavours. Until recently there hasn’t been the equivalent of small batch coffee and artisan beer in the chocolate industry, with a focus on revealing the flavours of the amazing cocoa bean.

Over the past decade a number of pioneering cocoa growers such as Bertil Akesson and Frank Homann have been providing amazing, high quality cocoa beans to makers such as Duffy Sheardown (Duffy’s), Chris Brennan (Pump Street Bakery) and Bryan Graham (Fruition).

The results have been spectacular.  But rather like fine wine, most customers need some help in figuring out which bars are for them.  So we’ve developed our monthly delivery services as well as curated boxes by tastemakers in other fields, cook Anna Jones and Jamal Lalani of Lalani Teas for example. We also created our unique taste test (www.cocoarunners.com/tastetest) to help people navigate the world’s finest chocolate bars.

Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness

JSJ: What makes Cocoa Runners so special?

SH: We are lucky to have some amazing customers and amazing suppliers. We’ve seen a huge upsurge in supply of single estate, small batch bars working all the way from “bean (or tree) to bar”.  When we started in October 2013 there were only four such companies in the UK and less than 30 in the US.  Now there are over 20 establishments making, or planning to make, single estate bars in the UK and over 250 in the US.  So part of our “secret sauce” is finding the very best of these new makers – we’ve tasted over 5000 bars, selected less than 400 and now have over 50 makers on the site.

With suits, there is off the peg versus bespoke, tailor made. We are the bespoke tailors of the chocolate industry! Another unique selling point is our range of offerings to our customers.

We have a monthly delivery service of four different bars per month from both old and new makers. We sell curated and themed gift boxes. We’ve pulled together boxes for every occasion – from Thank You and Congratulations to luxury hampers and three month tasting courses. Prices range from £9.95 to £99.95. You can take our taste test and accept recommendations helping you find bars based on your favourite foods, wines and other bars you like, to select from our library of bars.

When choosing a wine you ask the sommelier for advice and you listen to radio DJs to discover new songs. At Cocoa Runners, we are chocolate curators. We help you discover new artisan makers and recommend bars we think will suit your tastes.

JSJ: Do you think overall quality of chocolate has changed over the years?

SH: Over the last 10-15 years there’s been a revolution in the chocolate industry similar to that which happened in coffee, craft beer and fine British Cheeses.  The reasons for this are first and foremost the consistent supply of great beans. With Single Estate chocolate, unlike mass-produced chocolate, the focus is on the flavour of a single estate or region’s beans. By adding and removing as little as possible, makers want to bring out the bean’s unique profiles rather than masking it with lots of vanilla, sugar and vegetable fats. Sourcing the beans in this way and working directly with farmers cuts out the middleman.

Makers pay a premium for these quality beans so farmers get a far better deal. Combine all this with the perseverance and creativity of single estate pioneers such as Bertil Akesson, Brian Flick (Pitch), Bryan Graham (Fruition), Dustin Taylor and Adam Dick (Dick Taylor), Forever Cacao (Pablo Spaull), Willies (Willie Harcourt-Cooze), Duffys (Duffy Sheardown), Chocolate Tree (Ali and Friederike Gower), Pump Street (Chris Brennan) and Jordis (Jiří Stejskal and Lukáš Koudelka). Just try some of the bars and you will taste the difference!

JSJ: Do you have a favourite chocolate which you sell?

SH: All of the bars on our site are our favourites – we’ve tasted over 5000 bars over the past few years and selected 400 of our very favourites from 50 makers including Menakao, Omnon, Jordis, Fruition, Pitch, Bonnat and Claudio Corallo. It’s impossible to choose a favourite! Just like men have different suits for different occasions, we have a favourite bar for each time of day, event and food pairing.

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JSJ: Can you tell us any interesting facts about your business?

SH: We have customers from every corner of the world, with a surprisingly large percentage from India and South Africa. Our makers are also from locations spanning the globe, people are often surprised to hear that bean-to-bar chocolate is produced in the Czech Republic and Iceland!

We’ve also had an interesting selection of feedback on our products. One of our customers who is a prominent city lawyer sent an email informing us that his wife’s new Cocoa Runners subscription had saved their marriage!

JSJ: Is your chocolate Fair Trade?

SH: Our chocolate is better than Fair Trade. Let us take the Madagascan maker Menakao as an example. Producing chocolate at source in Madagascar and buying beans directly means that the team at Menakao can work directly with the farmers to produce the best possible crop and give farmers a much higher price for their beans than they would otherwise get.

Workers at Menakao’s factory & chocolaterie get generous wages, free transport, pensions and security for themselves and their families.To be approved as Fair Trade is very expensive and many smaller scale farmers and cooperative simply cannot afford it. Menakao estimates that by producing the chocolate in this way they give the community about four times the benefit of Fair Trade but without burdening local farmers with the high cost of the Fair Trade certification. Furthermore, the fair trade name is misleading. Fair trade chocolate bars don’t always contain fair trade beans.

JSJ: What inspired you to set up Cocoa Runners? 

SH: Simon and I came up with the idea of Cocoa Runners just over two years ago.  We’ve both always been great fans of chocolate. When we were in the USA in late 2012 we saw a mini-boom of artisanal chocolate and we thought, these bars and makers are fantastic.  We came back to the UK and realized that Duffy, Pablo, Ali and Willie were doing the same over here.  Yet no one was helping people discover and find out about these bars. Hence why we set up Cocoa Runners. We want to bring the world’s finest chocolate bars to your door.

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JSJ: We saw that your head office is based on Savile Row, do you buy your suits from there?

SH: We’re a start up, so the office dress code is pretty casual, we tend to do jeans! However for special occasions, I do have some suits. My father used Anderson & Sheppard so I’ve inherited some of his suits and continue to use Anderson & Sheppard occasionally.

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JSJ: What other local businesses are you fond of in St James’s and Mayfair?

SH: There are some great restaurants in the area, especially Wild Honey and Hibiscus. We recently did a chocolate tasting with Chef Claude Bosi and his team at Hibiscus. I used to live in Japan so Miyama is another of my favourites.

Cocoa Runners
Anderson & Sheppard (32 Old Burlington St, London, W1S 3AT)
Hibiscus (29 Maddox St, London W1S 2PA) part of Relais & Châteaux – a selection of luxury boutique hotels, charming inns and gourmet restaurants.
Wild Honey (12 St. George Street, London W1S 2FB)
Miyama (38 Clarges Street, Mayfair, W1J 7EN)