Linden Chocolate Lab. Creating Healthier Chocolate!
Recently, we got the chance to chat with Yatir Linden, who along with his wife Nitzan, is the founder of Linden Chocolate Lab. This husband and wife team are both studying their PhDs at Oxford University while growing their brand. They originally set up their chocolate business in Israel before moving it to Oxford, but their elegantly packaged premium chocolate is already finding it's way on to the shelves of some prestigious retailers.
Linden Chocolate Lab is dedicated to creating chocolate with a much lower sugar content than many high street brands. They also create some very exotic flavour combinations including pink peppercorn dark chocolate and earl grey milk chocolate.
Can you describe Linden Chocolate in a single sentence?
Linden Chocolate Lab is a micro-batch chocolate maker which aims to expose people to a new type of chocolate, i.e. flavoured and without the high-sugar content of ordinary chocolate.
What made you decide to start Linden Chocolate Lab?
The background for Linden Chocolate Lab cannot be completed without the story of what made us get into the world of chocolate at the first place.
Do you know the feeling of how your palate captures sweetness differently when you're not a child anymore, i.e. you tend to refrain from eating overly-sweet food products? That exact thing happened to us about seven years ago. We spent three years exploring different dark chocolates, vegan recipes, raw sweets, etc. everything that wasn’t too sweet has been accepted. After these three years, we were first exposed to the ability of producing chocolate from scratch in a small scale that can be made in every home kitchen. Since then, all the rest is history. Following some very good feedback from family and friends, we first launched Linden Artisan Chocolate in Israel in June 2016. This step gave us a huge opportunity to learn the market as well as the art of chocolate making. After moving to the UK about two years ago, we had the dream to relaunch it in Oxford.
We officially reopened the business, and rebranded the name to Linden Chocolate Lab, in December 2018. The drive was to make chocolate that is different both in flavours and sugar content that gives the opportunity for people to indulge themselves without feeling ‘guilty’.
Your products are a long way from traditional chocolate. Have you got any advice for anyone
trying to create innovative new products?
Many people erroneously think that innovation is penetrating the market with a new technology/approach that might consume extensive R&D resources; however, innovation is how one perceives a product/service. Consequently, our first advice is to think small, think about your own world and what could make it better. You might also want to consider the difference between a trend or a fad – ask yourself the question if it’s a short-lived fashion or something which is deeper than that.
Your products are manufactured much differently to mass produced chocolate. Can you tell us about some of the differences?
The principles of the chocolate making process are identical to what has been done for many years in the industry. By taking these principles and applying a different approach we managed to create chocolate that is substantially different. First and foremost, we cut the sugar content by ~60% in white & milk chocolate; whereas in the dark we keep the same approach but it’s rather hard to quantify it due to the wide range of dark chocolates in the market. Secondly, the flavours. We believe that chocolate is an art and not a one-dimensional product; therefore, we find that playing with unusual flavours suits our belief.
Lastly, we insist that everything is natural without artificial colouring/flavouring.
How has the business grown since you started it?
The chocolate business is very seasonal and naturally fluctuates during the year; despite that, on average we exhibit nice and linear growth in sales and penetration since launching. We're gradually increasing our exposure to new audiences via retail shops that stock our products. In terms of product range, we are going to launch a limited edition in time for Christmas time and another new dark chocolate that will add on to our current range at the beginning of 2020.
What do you think has helped you to achieve this growth?
Hard work. Seriously, nothing comes easily in the food & drink industry, let alone in the chocolate market that isn't starving for new products. As a small business, growth doesn’t come naturally, and we have to think how to approach new customers, establish collaborations with retailers, developing new products, maintaining customer relationships etc. A day-to-day work is vital for growth as a small business.
Not only do you wholesale your chocolate to other shops, but you also attend food shows and sell directly via your website. How do you reach new wholesale and retail customers?
That point touches on our biggest challenge. Obviously, networking is the easiest way to establish new collaborations but it’s very limited in terms of the relevant people you may come across. Thus inevitably, we have to approach new businesses via phone, email, or even a face-to-face meetings. At the beginning, we took it personally that we rarely got any reply from buyers or business owners, but we acknowledge that even the smallest retail business might get at least dozen of new producers every month knocking on the door. So how are you going to stand out from the crowd? We are still trying to polish our approach.
What have been some of the largest challenges you've had to overcome in growing your
We think that the first answer every accountant will give you is your cash flow. Limited cash doesn’t allow you to approach larger wholesalers to increase exposure without exceeding your production capacity and leave you only a small margin for your hard work. So definitely, money is THE challenge.
Closely related to money is time, an invaluable resource that every person feels he/she lacks. How do you manage your time is not an easy question. On top of that, another challenge is to penetrate the market with new products, in simple terms it means that if you want to stock your chocolate in a specific shop, another chocolate has to be removed. You may have guessed that this is a double-challenge - it’s why you deserve to be there, and why not them.
Do you manufacture your own chocolate or do you outsource? Why did you choose this route?
We produce our chocolate in-house and proud of it. Outsourcing perhaps suits bigger businesses that want to increase their production capacity without putting in money, that’s not the case for us. At the beginning, you must master your skills on every aspect of the production, otherwise, you might be the ‘brain’ behind the idea but without getting your hands dirty, then you can’t really call yourself a master, which we think is crucial. All in all, outsourcing makes growth easier but only in later stages.
What are your plans for the growth of Linden Chocolate Lab?
We have a few plans for growing the business:
1. Start working with two wholesalers (in addition to the one we already have) after Christmas in order to speed up our penetration into retail shops.
2. We aim to find new business opportunities other than retailers such as boutique hotels and spas.
3. Approaching businesses/companies (not retailers) – because what can be better than a piece of chocolate in the coffee break?
4. We have been developing alcoholic-like chocolate flavours such as Irish Cream, Dark Beer,
Mulled Wine, and Gin to reach a new audience in the ubiquitous bars across the UK.
We know however, that although this all sounds promising, the journey will be challenging.