When North Berkeley resident Denis Ring was consulting with Whole Foods to launch and oversee the retailer’s 365 label, he spent a lot of time in its stores. Astute businessman that he is, he noticed a gap when hanging out in the candy department.
“I could see all the organic confections and saw that while there was a cup or a molded bar like a chocolate bar, no one was making anything like traditional candy bars,” he said.
So he set out to create one.
If you love a Snickers bar, Mounds or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but try to avoid high-fructose corn syrup and mystery ingredients, you’ll be happy to meet OCHO (O for organic, CHO for chocolate). Based in Oakland, OCHO entered the marketplace four years ago with organic, minimally processed versions of America’s most popular candy bars. Think Annie’s organic mac n’ cheese, except with chocolate.
Locally, OCHO bars can be found in Whole Foods, Safeway, and a few other small chains like Mollie Stones and New Leaf Community Market. Eventually the hope is for OCHO to be found wherever a Snickers is, in gas stations, in drug stores — everywhere.
At first, Ring thought of starting OCHO as a hobby, but soon realized that launching a company that hopes to take on Mars Inc. was not exactly a side job. Enter Scott Kucirek, of Piedmont, whose background was in real estate. Both men’s children attended Berkeley’s School of the Madeleine, and their wives were in a book club together. Ring convinced Kucirek to come on board as CEO by doing what both men have come to realize is the best way to sell their product: he cut open a few of his bars alongside the competition, and let Kucirek taste for himself.
The duo began manufacturing in Folsom in 2011 and moved to West Oakland in 2013. Four employees hired in Folsom were graduates of UC Davis’ Food Science and Technology program and relocated to work here. (All of them are now managers, and they call themselves the Oompaloompas.)
Otherwise, most of their employees live within a few blocks of the factory.
“We have the privilege of being in a situation where we can create jobs where we’re located,” said Kucirek. “Given that we’re in an enterprise zone, which offers tax breaks for the city and state, we have the opportunity to hire people who previously didn’t have jobs.”
“We have people who ride their bikes or walk to work,” Ring added. “There is a halfway house nearby for ex-convicts going through transition. They’re some of our best workers.”
OCHO also has a charitable bent; it donated candy to Mayor Libby Schaaf’s inaugural party and gave 500 bars to the Oakland Police Department after the recent protests.
“We want to be good corporate citizens and part of the community,” said Ring. “I really felt sympathetic for the police officers and wanted them to know we appreciate what they’re doing. We want to be identified as an Oakland product, as we love Oakland.”
The company has 50 employees now, and it runs for three shifts a day, six days a week out of two locations. By the end of 2015, OCHO plans to operate out of a much larger factory with new equipment that will allow it to expand its production 10 to 20 times.
Unlike the competition, all OCHO bars are handmade. A tour of the facility shows not only workers in chocolate-smeared white coats as one would expect, but also employees standing around tables piled high with coconut or nougat filling, stuffing mixtures into chocolate-coated molds before going back to the chocolate temperer to close up the bar.
Both Ring and Kucirek say they hear all the time that they’re ‘the best chocolate bar people have never heard of,’ but they hope that’s about to change.
“We deliberately kept sales to only Northern California at first, as we wanted to see if people not related to us would buy the bars. I would go to stores and drop off a demo kit,” said Kucirek. “Giving people candy is a tough job,” he added, jokingly.
As for why they have been keeping such a low profile, Kucirek said it was clear that customers who bought their products became repeat customers, and word began to spread naturally. Plus, said Kucirek and Ring, their greatest fear was that an order would come in from one of their regular outlets, and they wouldn’t have the capacity to fill it. The fact that they built relationships through performing demos at Whole Foods and getting to know their local buyers didn’t hurt either.
Despite this low profile, OCHO has been growing quickly. It got national attention when it began selling through a store at SFO, and Delta Airlines started offering an OCHO bar in its healthier option snack box. Last year OCHO manufactured 4 million pieces of candy.
OCHO’s product line now includes small bars and minis, which are one-bite squares sold in pouches. A pouch of minis holds either peanut butter, caramel coconut or peppermint. The bars come in seven varieties: caramel and peanut (similar to a Snickers), coconut, peanut butter, mocha and dark coffee.
Kucirek and Ring locally source as many of their ingredients as they can, but acknowledge that it’s impossible to find a large, local source of chocolate and coconut. Their chocolate is fair-trade and all products are certified organic. Despite these serious ingredients, OCHO takes a light-hearted approach to packaging: each bar comes wrapped in brightly colored plastic.
“Our candy just tastes better, and has better texture,” said Ring. “We have no artificial preservatives or flavors or high fructose corn syrup or stabilizers. You read our ingredient deck, and you know what you’re eating.”
When we compared OCHO to their direct competitors, we too found the most noticeable differences were in the texture of the fillings and the quality of the chocolate. The peanut butter bar’s center was almost as soft as a soft caramel, unlike the chalky peanut butter of a cup. We also found OCHO’s caramel to be much softer and creamier, a much more enjoyable mouth-feel than what you find in the competitors. Overall, the coconut, the peppermint, and the caramel and peanut bars were the most successful imitators.
“We had four principles behind the establishment of the brand that are really important guiding lights for us,” said Ring. “First, whatever we made had to be delicious. Second, it had to be affordable. [An OCHO bar is usually sold for around $1.99, compared to a $1.19 Snickers.] Third, it had to be lighthearted and whimsical. All of the other chocolate brands, in their somber and dark tones, take themselves so seriously. We wanted to be the opposite.
“And, fourth, by the way, the bars are organic,” Ring said, but because there are “so many bad organic candies, we don’t want to compete with the organic ones. We want to compete with the Mounds and Snickers at the cash register.”
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