Dan Rattigan and his wife Jael are the founders of the Asheville, North Carolina French Broad Chocolates Lounge and Chocolate Factory. You can read more about both businesses on their French Broad Chocolates website. After touring the Chocolate Factory (see related post), which is a bean-to-bar all-natural chocolate maker, I met with Dan and talked innovation.
There is not much new under the sun when it comes to chocolate making, but there is a lot of innovation and business smarts at the Factory. It is a good example of a business that is not the first at anything but excels through the strength of their culture. They take good ideas they see working else where and consider whether they could work for the Chocolate Factory. They do not let lack of experience stand in their way. Dan even phrased how they approach innovation in such terms, saying they are “not held back by the lack of formal training in any particular area.” Further, as I learned, Dan and employees at the Chocolate Factory are quick learners, finding whatever knowledge is needed to solve a problem or make an improvement.
Innovation Taking Shape
An example of not being held back is the solar concentrator Dan designed for roasting beans. He wanted to roast cacao beans using the sun. Others have likely had this idea, but he may be the first to take a design developed for African peanut framers and modify it for his purpose. He shared, “I guess that is innovation – I found some plans, tried to think critically about how this was going to work for me, how it would not, and tweaked it from there.” Indeed, this is how much of innovation occurs – recognizing a want or need and making a connection with a solution in another industry or market.
How to Innovate in a “Been-there, Done-that” Business – the Culture Factor
Major publications frequently address the culture vs. strategy debate, such as Fast Company’s “Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch.” Of course the proper is answer is that both are important, but if forced to choose, I pick culture without hesitation. No one gets strategy right all of the time. We only hear about the strategies that are winners, such as GE’s “to be number 1 or 2 in their markets.” Unless you are a company insider, you rarely know about the many failed strategies. The right culture will more quickly identify failures, learn, and improve, compensating for strategy missteps.
Culture is also supremely important when there are few other factors to create differentiation. The Chocolate Factory is a good example of this. As Dan shared, “In the culinary world there’s very little that’s never been done before so it’s how you’re packaging it and how you’re synthesizing disciplines and philosophical ideas about the integrity of food.” Culture is driven by mission and the mission of the Chocolate Factory is personal, powerful, and persuasive. This is a good model for innovators to follow. At the Chocolate Factory, this takes the following shape…
- Personal: Dan and Jael (later to become his wife) lived in Costa Rica, falling in love with each other and with the local villagers relying on cacao bean farming. Prior to this, because of Jael’s love of making good chocolate, Dan knew chocolate would be in their future. The combination of influences made chocolate something personal.
- Powerful: Any chocolate maker wants to create great tasting chocolates, but this is not a powerful mission. The Chocolate Factory operates on the principles of sourcing locally, operating fairly, using organic ingredients, and producing superbly tasting chocolate. This is more powerful, but still lacking. Of course the Chocolate Factory can’t source cacao beans locally as they only grow in specific climates, including Costa Rica. As a bean-to-bar chocolate factory, they source cacao from the villagers in Costa Rica that they love and are improving the lives of through their commerce. In the Chocolate Factory is an entire wall of beautiful pictures that tell the story of how villagers grow, harvest, and dry the cacao. I only captured a small part of it in the photo to the right. They are making a difference in Costa Rica villages through their chocolate factory. That is a powerful mission.
- Persuasive: While I enjoy good chocolate, my culinary interests are shallow enough to be pleased with a chocolate factory that is hoping to delight customers with tasty treats. However, I was a raving fan of the Chocolate Factory even before taking the first bite of a chocolate bar. They had persuaded me to love their brand because of their story – not only making chocolates with the best ingredients, but making a positive difference locally and in Costa Rica in the process.
The Special Sauce
Having the foundation for a powerful cultural-shaping story is one thing. Being able to communicate it is another. This is something Dan and Jael continue to refine and it is important advice for any innovator and entrepreneur. I have also seen this point asserted by many of the innovators I interview. You must be able to articulate your special sauce – what is different about your product or business compared to the competition. What makes you special and stand out? What matters most? How do you convey this quickly and meaningfully? This is the elevator pitch and you need to have one that is meaningful, compelling, and attention getting.
Where Ideas Come From
Dan shared several sources for ideas, what I often refer to as the catalysts for innovation.
- Necessity: new ideas are often borne out of need. When Dan is confronted with a problem, he puts himself in the middle of it mentally and physically. We all know the saying that necessity is the mother of innovation, and this fits Dan’s experience.
- Stepping Back: activities outside the normal flow help Dan and Jael think about their business in new ways. Dan shared the example of recently attending a chocolate conference in New York City. It was an exhausting few days dialoging with other business owners and industry experts, but the context and being away from normal work provided ideas as well as execution plans. Dan returned with a “painfully long list” of new product ideas.
- Customers: unlike many innovators I have interviewed, customers are not a strong go-to source of ideas for the Chocolate Factory and this has not harmed their success. Of course, customers are very important and Dan strives to exceed their expectations, but most customers are unfamiliar with the impact the cacao bean and the bean-to-bar process has on the end product. Customers may offer new ideas for flavor combinations and indicate trends, but Dan is creating a chocolate experience and learning from many sources in the process.
The Chocolate Factory has no trade secrets. They openly share what they know and expect they will improve in the process and help others learn about the importance of cacao in the making of chocolate. When they architected the Chocolate Factory, almost half of the space was designed for customer education and experience with the dual purpose of offering a meeting place to the community when the Factory is closed. They built-in the concept of providing tours and educating consumers on the finer points of chocolate making, starting with the Costa Rica cacao growers. It was part of the business, not a bolt-on reaction based on some marketing consultant.
The Power of Team
Dan has a secret weapon that is largely responsible for his success with the Chocolate Factory and as an entrepreneur. He is part of a powerful two-person team – him and his wife Jael. Others I have interviewed have shared something very similar. Dan and Jael are life partners and co-innovators. They bounce ideas off each other. When aha moments come, they help each other develop the idea and confirm if it has real potential. They cheer for each other and celebrate successes together.
This also provides Dan and Jael another advantage – they are their own safety net. If everything else went wrong, they have each other. This provides them comfort and strength. They can take reasoned risks, knowing that if all goes wrong, their safety net is strong. They have each other and they treat people fairly. They are sleeping well at night.
Being Cool Doesn’t Hurt as an Innovator
Dan’s experiences are diverse, including bar tending, law school student, living in Costa Rica, converting a school bus to a bio-diesel RV, and much more. He is one of the cool kids we all wanted to play with. He is a charismatic leader with an infectious attitude about the work he and Jael are doing in the form of the Chocolate Lounge and the Factory. He synthesizes ideas from a wide range of sources. Throughout the interview he referred to TED talks, books, an ecology seminary, and experiences that have shaped his thinking as a business owner, innovator, and citizen. The wide array of ideas and experiences give him much to draw upon. He loves the phrase “live as art.” He approaches not only chocolate making as art but also everything he does. The creation of the Chocolate Lounge as a place to meet and exchange ideas was art, the design of the Chocolate Factory to be a school and community meeting space was art, the way he interacts with others is art. In all of this there is a sense of a higher importance – not just making chocolates but changing communities.
Main Innovation Takeaways
- Know what your mission is.
- Apply “personal, powerful, and persuasive.”
- Have a meaningful elevator pitch – see the first and second takeaway.
- Take time to step back – good ideas come when you are not looking for them.