Many of us have created class projects — but most of those projects didn’t turn into a cafe and storefront in Pike Place Market, the iconic home of Seattle’s food culture. Then again, most people aren’t Sam Tanner and Peter Keckemet, who founded Joe Chocolate Co. during their undergraduate tenure at the University of Washington (UW).
The chocolate company moved into its permanent home just a few months ago, where I’m sitting with Lola Behrens, brand manager at Joe Chocolate. Behrens goes back to the U-Dub days with Tanner and Keckemet, and has been helping them promote their product since the early days. As a gentle breeze blows into the open-air storefront and throngs of tourists clamor outside, Behrens shares the story of how their little operation quickly grew from class project to bustling Marketfront shop.
Creating a (Chocolate) Company
It all started during the “Creating a Company” class Tanner took at the UW Foster School of Business as part of his entrepreneurship program. Over the 20-week course, Tanner’s four-person team was tasked with making a company and marketing a product with their classmates as the target customers.
If there are two things college students need, Behrens says, it’s caffeine and snacks — so Tanner’s team chose coffee-infused chocolate. Dubbed “Joe Chocolate” for the two-cups-worth of Joe in every bag, their creation was an instant hit. As Keckemet, a long-time friend of Tanner’s who was studying marketing at UW, watched the project from afar, his wheels began to turn.
“By the time the project ended, the rest of the teammates decided to go off and do their own thing,” Tanner recalls. “But Peter was looking at what we were doing, and his wheels were turning, and he said, ‘I think this thing might have legs.’”
Trail Hike Fuels New Target Market
After graduation, Tanner and Keckemet found themselves with a lot of product they didn’t know what to do with; they couldn’t exactly sell confections made in their fraternity-house kitchen.
Around the same time, their friend Lucas was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: the massive trail system that runs the length of the West Coast, from the Mexican to the Canadian border.
Lucas called one day and shared that while he was having fun, he was tired and desperate for coffee (not exactly a backpacking-friendly beverage). He recalled Tanner and Keckemet’s class project, and asked if they had any more of that coffee-infused chocolate lying around. They eagerly sent him some in the mail.
The snack proved to be the perfect trail fuel for the thru-hiker, and as his hike progressed, he kept calling to ask for more. The pair happily unloaded their stash — but one man can only take so much caffeine, and they eventually asked how he was consuming such a massive amount of chocolate on his own. The friend replied that he had help: He’d been sharing with other hikers he encountered on the trail, and everyone loved it. Suddenly, Tanner and Keckemet had a new customer base: the outdoors crowd, which in the Pacific Northwest is always a booming one.
This was the fuel they needed to make the chocolate company a bonafide business. Their friends at Spud’s Fish and Chips in Kirkland granted them use of their commercial kitchen for production — on the stipulation that they work after hours and leave it “spic and span” for their employees. So Tanner and Keckemet began the new-business grind familiar to so many new entrepreneurs: pulling double-duty, heading from the office to the kitchen and making chocolate on the graveyard shift.
“We had some long nights, but that was where we found our foundation: we were producing in a food-safe kitchen that was certified for us, we were able to make a good product and we had a lot of fun nights together,” Tanner says.
From the Farmer’s Market to Pike Place Market Storefront
Once Tanner and Keckemet had enough product, they found a home for it in Seattle’s thriving farmers-market scene, like many local food and beverage businesses. When the pick-me-up proved a hit among produce-browsing patrons, the pair began looking to stock local shelves. In 2017, they secured accounts with regional grocery chains such as QFC, Bartell Drugs and Cone & Steiner.
This growth was enough to spur new additions to their little team: Kelly, their first head of sales; and Greg, leading production management. Behrens had been helping out since the college days, doing sampling after class and work hours. As the need grew, she also took on social media and public relations duties, ultimately becoming brand manager: a role that involves everything from public relations, social media and marketing to community outreach and charitable giving.
Armed with its new team, Joe began cranking out more chocolate, winning customers and landing new accounts. In 2018, they became a fixture of such prestigious national names as REI, Nordstrom and Whole Foods. The brand was off and running, and not just with the active crowd. Up to this point, the plan had been to focus on wholesale; a retail storefront had never been in the cards.
“But when Pike Place Market comes calling, you say yes,” Behrens chuckles.
The proprietors of Local Color — a beloved coffee shop that occupied the coveted corner of Pike and Stewart in the Market for 13 years — were friends of Tanner’s and Keckemet’s, and one day, the word came down that they were ready to retire. When they suggested Joe Chocolate Co. take over their prime real estate, it suddenly seemed wise to change plans.
It doesn’t hurt that storefront is shoulder-to-shoulder with such iconic local food and beverage names as Tom Douglas, Beecher’s Handmade Cheese and the original Starbucks. In fact, the building Joe Chocolate now occupies is owned by Kurt Dammeier, the owner of Beecher’s and an early mentor for Joe. With his involvement, the new plan quickly became a reality.
In spring 2018, the team at Joe took the helm, operating as Local Color with the same staff through the summer, thus providing a transition for both the patrons and proprietors. In fact, Joe hired many former Local Color staffers in a conscious effort to help their friends, preserve the legacy and show deference for the institution of the Market.
“We wanted to make sure we weren’t stepping on anyone’s toes,” Behrens says. “We met the regulars and the other vendors here and made sure we were respectful.”
Construction on the new space began in the spring of 2019, and the doors opened a few short months later, on June 1. The new design incorporates cafe seating and an open-concept kitchen and prep area, echoing the style of their cheese-mongering kin down the block.
The Future, Fueled by Joe
“The experience of renovating this space and turning into our own occupied all of our brains for such a long period of time,” Behrens recalls. “Now that we have some more breathing room, it’s an exciting time, where we're thinking about the next steps.”
In addition to expanding into new territories, such as the Rocky Mountain area and Northern California, Behrens says Joe is eyeing its target audience — and in doing so, is getting back to its roots. It had already evolved from fuel for finals-cramming college students to a through-hiking trail. Expanding the customer base even further seems a natural progression.
“It's a really great product for anyone who just needs a pick-me-up, whether you're using it on a bike ride or a hike, to study for a final or at 2:00 p.m. in your office,” Behrens says. “We're excited to broaden that narrative and that scope and see who else we can capture.”
As Behrens affirms, the Market is the perfect testing ground. Foodies, coffee enthusiasts, those with a sweet tooth, jet-lagged travelers, food tourists, sleepy office workers, athletes, hikers and hardworking vendors are just a few of the many who regularly wander the streets of Seattle’s oldest farmer’s market and past Joe’s open doors.
In this regard, Behrens notes, there has been a bit of a learning curve for those who still expect to see a coffee shop, but things are changing as they build their presence. Joe is also gaining familiarity among Market-goers as a stop on this blog’s own chef-guided food tours. This allows them to take the pulse of current and potential customers as well as vendors along the way.
And Joe is adjusting on the fly, Behrens notes, making “the menu more chocolate-forward. Instead of having a cappuccino, we developed a chocolate cappuccino — things like that. It has been a really great learning experience, and it's really cool to see the before and the after.”
And there’s a lot of “after” to come. In addition to the wholesale expansion and partnering with Eat Seattle food tours, Joe Chocolate will be teaming up with Gilbert’s Cheese Experience (where this author serves as Creative Lead) for the Taste of Seattle Made food festival.
While these changes are exciting, the founders say that the most valuable experience has been creating a workplace and a culture people truly love.
“When we started the business, we thought the main driver for us was going to be seeing big revenues or making big partnerships. In reality, ... the biggest driver has been creating [an] environment where we get to work with a peer group that is incredibly motivated, engaged and involved,” Tanner says. “More than a big sales month or a new product, … going to work, seeing your friends, doing a good job and learning was incredibly motivating to us.”
And this is only the beginning. I can’t wait to see where Joe buzzes off to next.
Post By Holly Regan
I am a writer, editor, foodie, amateur chef, traveler, reader, beverage geek, word nerd, animal lover, truth-seeker, tree-hugger, spiritual voyager, kundalini yogi, armchair anthropologist, activist, feminist, political junkie, daughter, sister and aunt. I hope you enjoy my work!