Some of the best chocolate in the country is made just outside Boston, in Somerville, Massachusetts, by a one-man shop that uses only the highest-quality cocoa beans and sugar, spinning the nibs into smooth deliciousness on tiny machines. Every three months, Somerville Chocolate CSA releases three bars as part of its subscription program. This is the main way it sells its chocolate. Sometimes it sells extra bars to specialty shops or on its website, but if you’re looking for a particular origin or that one fermented chili, yuzu and garlic bar, you will probably be out of luck.
Eric Parkes, the founder of Somerville Chocolate, uses words like “harvest” when he talks about the yearlong subscription “season,” but he’s not cutting cacao pods off trees in Costa Rica himself. Instead, he focuses on sourcing interesting beans and making them into interesting chocolate. Each bundle has a “chocolate geekery” element as well, essentially an educational aspect that links all three bars together.
For example, a recent bundle included three bars made from three types of Peruvian beans, sourced from three farmers growing in the same region. Parkes brought out the distinct flavor inherent in each type of bean (its terroir, if you will), so that when you tasted all three next to one another, you could tell a striking difference.
“The beauty... is it's sort of a captive audience, and they have to roll with the punches,” he said, explaining that he’d originally chosen this method because he “didn’t have the confidence to just put myself in stores.”
After about two years of selling to subscribers only, Parkes did in fact put his bars in select stores around the country, and now about 30 percent of his business comes from those venues and about five percent from online sales. (Until about three years ago, you had to email the company to find out which bars were in stock, and if you were looking for a particular bar, again, you’d probably end up empty handed. Same story with the stores. I’ve never found a bar at any of them.) Still, the majority of his sales are through the subscription, which takes up most of his focus too.
By this point, we’re all familiar with subscriptions for Netflix and 'The New York Times,' but increasingly, we’re subscribing for our granola and greens deliveries, too.
Now, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, Somerville’s direct-to-consumer model might be an unexpected bonus. As consumers have more and more trouble getting to stores whose shelves are already barren, perhaps food subscription businesses have an opportunity to shine. Take Blue Apron, whose 2017 IPO tanked and has since been suffering losses quarter after quarter. In March its shares quadrupled, breathing new life into the company.
Consumers already order glasses, mattresses and shave kits online. Within food, traditional brands like Nestle and Campbell’s are struggling, said Mike Wolf, the founder of research firm NextMarket.
Subscriptions have already been blowing up: In 2018, McKinsey found that subscription e-commerce grew by more than 100 percent per year for the preceding five years. And about 15 percent of online shoppers subscribe to at least one program. By this point, we’re all familiar with subscriptions for Netflix and The New York Times, but increasingly, we’re subscribing for our granola and greens deliveries, too.
Amazon has been offering its “subscribe and save” program since 2007, allowing us to get everything from potato chips to dog food delivered monthly without a second thought. Blue Apron ushered in this new era, growing to a $2 billion valuation within three years, all through delivering meal kits to subscribers. Now, the food industry is piling on, from packaged snacks to irregularly shaped vegetables.
These companies are “building on the Amazon effect,” or the e-commerce model, said Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at NYU. “We don't want to go to the store. We want everything to come to us.” Subscriptions offer other added bonuses besides not having to leave the house: We can set it and forget it, guaranteeing delivery of food in an uncertain time. And we can personalize every part of it, down to our dairy-free or gluten-lite diets.
It’s also beneficial for companies. “From a business point of view, it's good because you get a cash flow,” said Parkes, from Somerville. “You know in advance what you're going to [produce], and you don't have to go out there and constantly market yourself after the first go-around.” He uses the original business-to-consumer (B2C) model, one that was pioneered in the 1980s and is now championed by every trendy urbanite I know: community-supported agriculture, or CSA.
In a traditional CSA, a customer “subscribes” to a farm for a certain harvest season by paying for the entire season up front, usually several months in advance. The farmer uses that money to buy seeds, hire labor and so on. Then, when it’s time for the farmer to harvest the produce, the customer picks it up weekly or bi-weekly from an agreed-upon location. It’s how I got my hands on the tiniest green figs a few years ago, and their delicate flavor still lingers in my dreams.
Parkes said he calls it “agricultural appropriation” but that the spirit of his company is the same
Originally, “CSAs were a way to bypass banks or to also share the risk,” explained Bentley, noting that now many artisanal companies outside the farming industry are forming what they call CSAs for the same reasons the model was traditionally used, even if they don’t exactly follow it to a T. Parkes said he calls it “agricultural appropriation” but that the spirit of his company is the same. For example, none of these newfangled CSAs harvest produce themselves.
Parkes doesn’t usually submit to awards, but when he does, he wins at competitions like the Academy of Chocolate Awards and the Intergalactic Chocolate Symposium. In my opinion, the highest accolade is the fact that Chocolopolis, a specialty store in Seattle, has sold his bars. Owner Lauren Adler has a rigorous acceptance process, including several rounds of tastings prior to acceptance. Adler said she carried the dark milk with hops bar because “it had an incredibly unique flavor, and I loved the way they partnered with their neighbor brewery to repurpose the hops.”
Overall, though, Parkes says he intends to keep his business small and subscription based so that he can focus on raising his two kids. “I'd love to be leading tastings every weekend, but that's when the soccer games are,” he said. “That's where the family thing comes in the most.” Parkes, who previously worked full time as an architect, is part of a growing number of people who are leaving traditional career paths, like law or even Wall Street, to start their own specialty food companies and prioritize their families and work-life balance. “I don't really need to conquer the world anymore,” he explained.