Roswell equipment makers Andal and Balu Balasubramanian are feeding the foodie revolution now raging from coffee shops to craft breweries: an explosion of bean-to-bar dark chocolates. And their equipment empowers chocolate makers to control the process every step along the way, from the single origin, ethically traded cocoa bean to the final chocolate bar.
After working with a team of experts from the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center, they are pioneering the popularity of this New American Chocolate, also called two ingredient chocolate.
Cocoa Town LLC sells affordable cocoa grinders, roasters and power crackers that make small-batch and medium batch chocolates. They not only design, develop, manufacture and distribute this equipment, but also train chocolate makers in the bean-to-bar process and business.
“People often think of Belgian, German or European chocolates, but those have less than 20 percent cocoa mass,” says Andal. “Our customers use only cocoa and sugar, which makes a more healthful chocolate.”
Their goal is to empower entrepreneurs everywhere to open their own craft chocolate businesses.
“We have the opportunity to change the whole game,” agrees Balu. “People are coming from all over the world to learn about this new chocolate. And with the help of the University of Georgia SBDC, we are now selling our products in more than 70 countries.”
Andal and Balu first approached the UGA SBDC in 2007, when they first set sight on a world market. At the time, their equipment sales were targeted to metro Atlanta’s Indian retailers and restaurants.
“We found our grinder machines could be modified for making chocolate, so we started looking at the specialty chocolate-making process. The customers wanted to make healthier chocolate but lacked the proper equipment to scale up. So we found and developed small and medium-scale machines that can be used to grind cocoa beans into chocolate,” says Andal.
Balu admits that their early focus on R&D (Research & Development) prevented them from using the UGA SBDC consultants effectively, at first. “But in 2011 we went full-speed to the SBDC,” he says.
After working with SBDC consultant Antonio Barrios, who taught them how to draft a business plan, they tapped into a team of SBDC experts: International Trade Center Director Rick Martin; Consultant Robert Andoh, who helped them streamline their QuickBooks; UGA SBDC at Kennesaw State University Area Director Drew Tonsmeire for digital marketing; and Sharon Macaluso for strategic planning. They now also work with University of Georgia food sciences faculty.
“They learned they needed stronger historical financial information to help do their financial projections,” says Barrios. “Their work on the business plan helped them understand their cash flow and how to manage their inventory.”
“Our business model is now more like a car manufacturers,” says Balu. “We do the R&D, get all of our components on special order, put them together and ship.”
Martin taught them how to develop international market opportunities. “They were looking for organizations that would offer business and financial support in markets largely in South America, Asia and Europe,” he says.
They also went through the SBDC’s ExportGA training program, where they were assigned a team that included a UGA international business student intern and trade specialists – one each through the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the U.S. Commercial Service.
“With what we learned in ExportGA and from Rick, we’ve seen big growth in our international markets,” says Balu.
Prior to working with the SBDC, Cocoa Town operated out of a 1,500-square-foot warehouse with three employees. The company now fills 7,000 square feet and employs four full-time employees, two part-time employees and two summer interns from the Technology Association of Georgia.
“As a result of their international business strategy, Andal and Balu have met the key experts in their industry. Now they are known as international experts in the chocolate industry and are invited to make presentations at shows around the world,” says Martin.
In fact, while this story was written, the Balasubramanians were presenting at chocolate conventions in Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.
“Most who start small businesses think small,” says Balu. “The UGA SBDC experts help us think bigger than we are and how to put strategies in place that use the opportunities we’ve found to grow really big.”
And they will return to the UGA SBDC for help. “Our growth will be fast in the near future, and we have to prepare.”