Founder Happy Hour - Zoe Tsoukatos

Hey guys!

Welcome back to Products Worth Talking About — the show about disruptive physical products and the people who built them. In today’s episode, we dip into the sweet world of chocolate. We’re chatting with the founder of Zoe’s Chocolate, Zoe Tsoukatos who runs it with her two brothers — Pantelis and Petros.

We talked to Zoe about a ton of things that many entrepreneurs think about — from the dynamics of being in a family business to the lessons learned on being on a hit TV show. The pandemic has hit everyone hard, and we were stoked to hear her insights into some lessons they’ve learned from it.

Let’s dive in.

Zoe’s Chocolate Company Background

Zoe’s Chocolate is based out of Maryland and Pennsylvania. They’re an artisan chocolate company specializing in Mediterranean-inspired flavors (their family is originally from Greece) mixed with American collections.

While Zoe’s Chocolate officially opened in 2007, the tradition of making chocolate and candies dates back to the early 1900s, when their great aunt and uncle arrived from Greece. They started a confectionery business selling from a small pushcart in Baltimore, MD. Thus setting the stage for what would become a family business. Zoe had the type of childhood we all dream about — helping their parents make chocolate!  Their dad George was the master chocolatier for our uncle’s business. The smell of melting chocolate, the creation of bonbons, the rush from holiday excitement, and most of all, making everyone in their town happy. 

“In 2005 our dad was working with somebody else and lost his job. My older brother and I were working in D.C. at the time, and we couldn’t let this legacy die. We moved back to Pennsylvania and we wanted to kind of marry the two traditions. We decided to do something a bit different, more unique. Instead of following trends, we wanted to create them. Being Greek, that’s important to us.” – Zoe Tsoukatos

Owning a business is one thing, but running it with family is a whole other dynamic. We were curious to hear how they manage that and what challenges they encountered.

“It was pretty challenging because the three of us were trying to figure out where our best efforts would be, where we would shine the most, and our strengths. Over time this became evident — as an example my younger brother, Petros, meshed really well with my dad. They started making the chocolate, and since he was little, he hand-dipped strawberries, and he would cry if we wouldn’t let him do it. And this is when he was 10! I love design and creativity. My older brother’s amazing with numbers — it took a couple of years before we all fell into our roles.” – Zoe Tsoukatos

The Challenges of Growing a Third Generation Chocolatissery 

Expanding a product business means competing against established players in the market. We were keen to hear how they approached building their chocolate brand and distributions.

Coming from a small town in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania brings additional challenges to contend with.

“I feel people have a much different appreciation for food and for what goes into their bodies. We grew up like that. Our first job was to educate people. Why are we making these products that they haven’t seen in this small town? And why are we very conscientious of what we’re putting into our items? Why do we care this much? Starting in a small town was a challenge. It made the beginning extra difficult. Anybody that says, ‘Oh, it’s just so much fun in the beginning,’ is lying!” – Zoe Tsoukatos

This is one of the reasons we started Products Worth Talking About. Besides understanding what makes a business successful, listening to business owners like Zoe shows us all that sometimes there is no grand plan in the beginning — that starting small doesn’t mean you won’t expand. The truth is, it’s all about learning and not being afraid to try new things. 

It’s refreshing to hear a business owner be honest about the struggles it takes early on. Interestingly, there was no set strategy to build the brand initially — it forced them to think bigger because of starting in a small town. That’s excellent advice: Build a solid foundation, and scale from there.

The Journey from Store to Whole Foods 

We were interested in expanding on Zoe’s previous point regarding wholesale and what the journey was like to get there.

“We realized really quickly that we can’t just rely on one or two stores and the only way we’ll grow our businesses is for more people to know about us, and it was really just us going out there and good old knocking on doors and showing people our product because how do you sell food online? Can’t touch it. You can’t smell it, taste it. My older brother and I just hit the road and did as much as we could because who better to speak about the product than the owners?” – Zoe Tsoukatos

Instead of dropping off pamphlets on car windshields and doorsteps, Zoe and her brother took the initiative to market the product themselves. It was definitely hard work at first — they spent hours talking to people and sampling their products, but it was a strategy that played out well for them in the long term. 

In 2010, their wholesale began to grow, and they launched a partnership with Whole Foods, which listed their chocolates in grocery stores around the U.S.  

Zoe’s Chocolate Core Products 

We couldn’t resist the temptation to ask what her favorite product is (almost as cruel as asking a parent that!), but with such an array of delicious chocolates, we needed some help deciding what to try.

“Our best sellers are caramels with sea salt. It’s weird because it goes up and down. Our line is solid because it’s not that one sells more than the other. It’s pretty even-stevens, but caramels usually just kill it. I personally love our Mediterranean flavors because ever since we were a little, it was pastries, and all those flavors are very nostalgic to me. I love the baklava and sesame seeds. We just finished the lemon crunch, which is my runner up to the baklava.” – Zoe Tsoukatos

It’s great to hear they have consistent sales across the various flavors. Chocolate is a big gift market, so we wondered if there were any big fluctuations seasonally for them or if there are any gift occasions that stand out, like graduation and anniversaries.

“Thanksgiving and Christmas are per date the best. Valentine’s day typically lasts for a week of craziness and Easter of course. There are seasonal fluctuations, but nothing serious and we have gifts for every occasion — or at least every occasion that maybe warrants chocolate!” – Zoe Tsoukatos

Offering seasonal products is a great strategy if it works with your brand. For example, if you specialize in food and beverage, you can offer a specialty flavor that aligns with the particular season! This builds interest in your brand, and it gives consumers the choice to indulge in products that match their culture.

Being On the Hit Reality T.V. Show “The Profit” 

You can’t build a successful business on your own — you need the help of those around you as well as the help from those who are already successful. Zoe knew that the business could grow even more with the right leadership and training. 

She struck gold when they decided to reach out to Marcus Lemonis, (an idol of Tyler’s) who hosts a show called “The Profit” on CNBC where he goes in and helps businesses grow. They applied and became one of the thousands that got picked. We were curious to know what that experience taught them.

“We didn’t expect it! The filming part was challenging. Somebody is in your space and telling you to change things you’ve worked on your whole life, your soul is in everything you do, and there are reasons for the way we do things. We pride ourselves on being open to constructive criticism, as long as it’s for the benefit of our business. My biggest takeaway from the show was, we weren’t telling our story. People weren’t connecting. That definitely made me think about why or what we can do better. Ultimately, the goal is to grow. We want to see it succeed. It was good to take a step back and look at the things that we needed to really work on and how we can push forward and grow the company.” – Zoe Tsoukatos

We love to know the behind-the-scenes story for these types of shows — our most significant follow-up question was, “Is there continued support once the show ends?”

“[Marcus] is very involved, and he’s got many businesses that he works with. I don’t know how he can possibly keep up, but he does! I think he appreciates knowing that we’re working hard, which I think he only works with people that he knows are invested in their company and not just his money. We always reach out to him and give him a little update on where we are [and] how we’re doing. He’s always visible [and accessible]. We appreciate having him in our corner for new ideas to bounce them off and get his thoughts on it.” – Zoe Tsoukatos

Six months is a long time to have an expert involved directly in your business. Not everything can go according to plan, and in their case, they had some disagreements. We were curious about what her biggest takeaway was from the experience.

“I respectfully disagreed on the logo. There’s a specific reason that I liked the circle logo and I fought for it, but I’m happy with the way it turned out and having the three rings and the colors. It’s meaningful to me. As far as the takeaway, I think the biggest thing is connecting with people and the importance of telling our story to people. We’ve always prided ourselves in creating an extended family beyond our immediate family. [It’s why we have ‘Join the family’ on our website.] We want people to reach out to us. I respond to all the emails that come through on our website because I appreciate our customers.” – Zoe Tsoukatos

As a company continues to grow, sometimes the level of customer connection decreases. Zoe has made it a point to keep this from happening with Zoe’s Chocolate. In addition, she’s learned that instead of waiting and waiting on brand decisions and business endeavors, that she should be proactive and make decisions promptly. The Profit was an amazing opportunity for their business, and it gave them the tools they needed to make Zoe’s Chocolates even more successful and disruptive. 

Dealing with a Strange Year (2020)

With 2020 being such a chaotic year, RT made a valuable point that many people are focused on simplifying as many things as possible and focusing on the stuff that’s working to simply survive. While a challenging time in history, Zoe’s Chocolate has still been able to identify some silver linings.

“We were thinking about opening another location — but that’s on the back burner. We’re focusing on our PR and getting our name out there [to drive traffic to] our website and pushing sales online. It’s a totally different world. [In] March, April, and May, [it was] just the three of us working, and it was really crappy doing everything ourselves, but it was beneficial for the company.  We could see things that need to be fixed. … There’s always the little silver lining to things — even in a very strange year.” – Zoe Tsoukatos

COVID-19 has challenged every business owner in ways no one could’ve predicted. A theme that consistently comes up, though, is that business owners have used the space to pause and evaluate their business at a deeper level. We often find ourselves head-down busy in the day-to-day running that we fail to think about opportunities for future growth. 

What’s been your biggest lightbulb moment born out of the disruption of 2020? 

Zoe’s Most Memorable Words of Advice 

This interview was an incredibly informative session with Zoe. We know it’s impossible to distill 13 years of business learnings into one sound bite, but we wanted to find out what the one thing that Zoe has learned that she would advise someone beginning their entrepreneur journey. Especially if they’re creating a food product.

“You can get deflated when things don’t work out the way you want them to, and it’s hard to be self-motivated. One thing a mentor told me a long time ago was ‘Do your best, and that’s all you can ask of yourself.’ If you’re going to half do something, you’re not going to get the results you want. But if I actually put in the effort and work hard, at least I know it wasn’t from a lack of action, and I think that’s all I can ask. That always stuck with me.” – Zoe Tsoukatos

What a great point — especially being in a family business. Creating clear guidelines for everyone (including yourself) to know what is expected goes a long way to reducing disagreements. The same applies to companies with employees in their business.

To conclude the episode, we left it to Zoe to give us the final thought about owning your own business:

“I think having your own business is an incredible thing because the sky’s the limit. You get to see things from inception to the end. When I used to work in D.C., I would work hard on this project, and I’d pass it off. I never knew what happened to that project. There were never any answers. I learned a lot from that, but in [my] own hands [I’m] able to see how our site’s going to flourish and everything that we do.” – Zoe Tsoukatos

What great advice to wrap up this episode of Products Worth Talking About — the only problem is now we’re hungry for some more chocolate!

We truly appreciated Zoe joining us for this “Founder Happy Hour” edition — we hope you enjoyed reading this post. If you learned something today, we would love to hear from you. Take a screenshot of the episode and share your most significant takeaways with us on Instagram, @productsworthtalkingabout. You can watch the full show on YouTube, and remember to subscribe so that you can get new content delivered to you directly! Let us know what products and brands you want us to review or what founders you’d like us to interview!

Lastly, if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur who wants to build a product-based business, check out our business plan that literally writes itself! Within no time, you’ll be ready to pitch to investors and start the company of your dreams. 

Thanks for reading! Until next time—

RT and Tyler 

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