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Chocolate company sees ‘booming’ community connections, despite pandemic struggles

Sam Tanner is co-founder of Joe Chocolate Company, which opened its cafe at Pike Place Market last year. The cafe has been closed since March due to the coronavirus.
Courtesy of Sam Tanner
Sam Tanner is co-founder of Joe Chocolate Co., which opened its cafe at Pike Place Market last year. The cafe has been closed since March due to the coronavirus.

Joe Chocolate Co. spent early March preparing for a busy cruise season at its Pike Place Market cafe before the coronavirus disrupted life in the Seattle area and across the country.

"This is when we all make most of our money," Joe Chocolate co-founder Sam Tanner said, referring to all the vendors at the popular tourist destination.

But within a couple weeks, the cafe went from bustling, to briefly fulfilling curbside to-go orders, to completely shuttered. The company put 11 of its 14 employees on furlough or standby. On top of it all, the 2020 cruise season has been delayed indefinitely.

"We were sitting there and we were like, ‘What do we do?’ Everything seems a little futile," Tanner said.

Joe Chocolate Co. makes coffee-infused chocolate bark, packaged in pieces in one- and two-and-a-half-ounce bags. Each ounce of chocolate has about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, according to the website.

After the company closed its cafe, Tanner said he decided to take some unsold peppermint stock from the holidays to Swedish Medical Center in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.

"The nurses, their eyes lit up. They go, ‘Oh my gosh, what is this?’" Tanner said. "I was like, 'it’s caffeinated chocolate.' And they were like, 'we would love to take that off your hands.'"

Cases of chocolate slated to go to hospitals around the country come with notes thanking health care workers during the pandemic.
Credit Courtesy of Sam Tanner
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Courtesy of Sam Tanner
Cases of chocolate slated to go to hospitals around the country come with notes thanking health care workers during the pandemic.

That experience sparked Joe Chocolate's latest venture. The company allows customers to buy cases of chocolate at wholesale price that are then shipped to hospitals around the country.

In addition to the cafe, the company has a warehouse where it processes chocolate for wholesale orders, including some grocery contracts. Tanner says they are able to maintain strict social distancing and sanitation standards there.

The project initially only served local hospitals. But requests soon began coming in for health care workers outside Washington state. In the nearly three weeks the company has offered this option, they have received orders for more than 300 cases for 138 hospitals in 11 states. 

Tanner said he was surprised to see such a big response from customers who don't actually get to eat the chocolate they're buying.

"It tells me that I think a lot of what people assume about consumer spending and consumer behavior might be a little different, especially in a time of crisis," Tanner said. "I think that with all the bad that’s happening right now, community on the local level is kind of booming."

The initiative has allowed the company to bring back two of its employees for part-time work.

Tanner thinks their product works especially well in a health care setting. For one, the caffeine might provide a needed boost during long shifts. But as people staying home may well know, chocolate also is comfort food.

"There’s a huge amount of morale, where if you get some chocolate, you get that little escape," Tanner said. "You get to close your eyes. You feel it melt in your mouth. It’s just a really pleasant experience."

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A Seattle native and former knkx intern, Simone Alicea has returned to the Pacific Northwest from covering breaking news at the Chicago Sun-Times. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.