Opinion: Ottawa’s sweetest business

I get to meet the most interesting women writing this column.

I had never met a chocolatier until I met Jen Winter from Koko Chocolates. Meeting her combined two of my favourite things: my Ottawa Women of Wonder column and my love of chocolate.

Free of preservatives, no added sugar, gluten-free and many dairy free options, sampling her wares made me feel like I was eating the purest and most honest form of chocolate. And since she was sitting right across from me while I ate it, I had the sense I was eating something she herself had created, which is exactly what Koko Chocolates is.

So how does one become a chocolatier? Surely this must have been a lifelong dream to someday not only create chocolate, but to own one's own chocolate company? Not exactly. Ms. Winter was a vice-president at a market research firm in Vancouver before she bought Koko Chocolates. She had also previously owned a stained glass business. She’s an entrepreneur at heart and wanted to get back to building a business that let her combine her creative talents with business ownership. And she loved chocolate.

So when a friend informed Ms. Winter that she was moving to Australia and was actively looking for a buyer for her two-year-old company Koko Chocolates, Ms. Winter bought it. Now she had to train to become a chocolatier, which she did through an intensive program at the prestigious Callebaut Academy in Montreal.

It's hard to think of any hardships when you think of working with chocolate every day, but finding qualified employees is difficult.

"To work at Koko Chocolates, you must be a trained chocolatier and those are hard to find," explains Ms. Winter. "Many people I find are pastry chefs, who have worked with chocolate as a means of creating pastries, but this job requires a full concentration on chocolate.”

Ms. Winter has a hand in everything at Koko Chocolates. She creates the flavours, products, seasonal product ideas and she does the production along with all the other aspects of business ownership: developing retail partnerships, sales, packaging, HR, marketing and more.

Ms. Winter has a small team of employees but she is involved in every aspect of the business.

"The idea for Koko Chocolates is to be the best; and that means using the best ingredients, making the best products and creating the chocolate in the best way," explains Ms. Winter.

Koko Chocolates is as much about the art as it is about the chocolate. In fact, last November Ms. Winter created a Movember inspired chocolate product to raise money for prostate cancer research and education: chocolate truffles with very male infused flavours such as bacon and scotch.

"My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011," she says. "This is a cause I am passionate about. And our Movember inspired chocolates are very popular."

Ms. Winter says her business must reflect her lifestyle, and that she makes decisions based on work-life balance, which includes her husband and six-year-old son, who thinks his mom's job is pretty cool.

"He does have a very refined palette for excellent chocolate," Ms. Winter says with a laugh. "And he likes to experiment with making chocolate. He is learning what it takes to run a business, particularly one owned by a woman."

Does she give away a lot of chocolate? Yes, she chuckles. "It's hard not to when you own a chocolate company.” But it’s also an opportunity for the company to show off its sweet side - Koko Chocolates donates to approximately 50 local charities annually.

Ms. Winter has built retail partnerships with many local companies who sell her chocolates in their stores, and sources local ingredients whenever possible. She partners with Ottawa-based companies such as Michaelsdolce  (for the jam that is found in her Plum Star Anise kokoEgg), Upper Canada Cranberries and a local tea supplier.

Although she didn't reveal what's next for Koko Chocolates, for the time being she is putting a lot of love into her chocolates. And that tastes good.