On February 14, 2006, Seattle-based Theo Chocolate makes its first batch of chocolate bars, becoming the nation's first producer of organic and free-trade chocolates. The company, founded by Joe Whinney and Debra Music, distinguishes itself from other chocolate brands by buying directly from third-world cocoa farmers at a fair price and controlling the entire bean-to-bar process.
Whinney had wanted to help cocoa farmers since he was a young man working in Mayan communities as a conservation-group volunteer in Belize, and later, in the mid-1990s, meeting impoverished and malnourished cocoa farmers in Ghana. "Ultimately, I saw firsthand the horrible impact that the chocolate industry has had on cocoa growers and the landscape that they steward," he wrote (Music and Whinney, xxiv). He helped create a U.S. market for organic cocoa beans, but soon became frustrated by the intermediate steps involved in getting the product from farm to factory. "There were so many margin slices taken out in the supply chain that I was losing money paying farmers what I thought was a good price" (Allison).
Launching the Business
What he needed, Whinney realized, was a chocolate factory of his own. In 2004, he saw a potential setting in Seattle -- a historic brick building in the Fremont neighborhood -- and convinced Music, his ex-wife, to move with him from Boston to raise their son together and help create the ethically-sourced company Whinney imagined. While she described the decision as "a massive leap of faith," she firmly believed in the cause, writing:
"There's a profound irony in the fact that, while chocolate is one of our most beloved indulgences, an expression of love in our culture, and a food that we use to comfort and celebrate ourselves, the conventional cocoa industry has been responsible for devastating environmental degradation and human exploitation for many decades" (Music and Whinney, xx-xxi).
Whinney and Music founded Theo Chocolate in 2005. The name comes from Theobroma cacao, the Latin genus and species of the cocoa tree, and the company logo spells Theo with the "o" drawn as a cocoa pod. The Fremont building that Whinney found for the new company's location had served as a trolley barn in the early 1900s and later housed the original Redhook Brewery. It needed a lot of work to become a chocolate factory, starting from the bottom up. Flooring had to be reinforced so it could support heavy chocolate-making equipment and many bags of organic beans.
As part of its mission and from its earliest days, Theo Chocolate offered factory tours to educate potential customers, showing them how and where cocoa beans are grown, how the farmers and land are affected, and how chocolate is made. It sweetened the deal with free samples.
"An Amazing Day"
Shortly after producing their first chocolate bars on February 14, 2006, Whinney and Music made their first delivery -- personally and on foot. That March they carried boxes of Vanilla Milk Chocolate bars to the Fremont neighborhood PCC Natural Markets store a few blocks away. "I'll never forget walking our very first batch of chocolate up to the PCC market in Fremont, where they took it from our hands and put it directly on their shelf," Music wrote. "That was an amazing day" (Music and Whinney, xxi).
While educating consumers, buying beans from farmers in Central America, Peru, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and developing a line of creatively flavored products such as Coconut Curry, Congo Coffee and Cream, and Fig, Fennel & Almond bars, and Ghost Chili caramels, Theo grew to 97 fulltime employees and revenue of more than $25 million in 2018.
Whinney and Music left the company in late 2017, after what he described as a disagreement with the board of directors over Theo's mission. He was replaced as CEO in April 2018 by Etienne Patout, formerly chief marketing officer at Pharmavite, a major vitamins and supplements producer. Whinney retained his minority share in the company.