I recently posted a ten-part series of reports on Noka Chocolate at the DallasFood.org web site, beginning with this link:
Here's the abridged version, for those who may be interested (but not interested enough to read all the gory detail):
Noka Chocolate emerged in late 2004 and immediately began grabbing headlines because of their exhorbitant prices. They offered two products: simple dark chocolate ganache truffles and small molded chocolates. Both the truffles and molded chocolates were available in four single-origin versions: Trinidad, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Ivory Coast.
When I say "exhorbitant prices," I do mean exhorbitant. Their simple molded chocolates range from $309 to $2,080 per pound. (For the Europeans, that's 517 euros to 3,482 euros per kilo.)
Noka does not make chocolate from the bean. But due to vague and misleading statements from the owners (Katrina Merrem and Noah Houghton), and a measure of ignorance and laziness from the journalists who've covered Noka, the general belief is that they are making chocolate from the bean.
Noka's work as a chocolatier is fairly primitive. Their molded chocolates are as simple as they come, yet still occasionally leave the shop with dull finishes or bloom. The truffles are no better--thimble-shaped lumps of dense, fudgy ganache that are either dipped or mechanically enrobed (definitely not hand rolled).
Perhaps in part because they want people to believe they make their chocolate, Noka's owners talk more about the quality, purity, and distinctiveness of the chocolate itself, rather than their skill as chocolatiers. The properties of the chocolate that they commonly tout are that: (a) it's 75% cacao solids; (b) it contains no vanilla or vanillin; (c) it contains no soy lecithin; and (d) it contains no additives, artificial flavors or ingredients. These attributes are hardly unique, though, as many participants on this board know.
On December 2, 2006, I called Noka. When pressed, Noka owner Katrina Merrem admitted that they do not make chocolate from the bean. When asked who supplied their couverture, she refused to answer. I called or e-mailed more than twenty other prominent chocolatiers in the US, many with well-established reputations, television programs, popular cookbooks, etc., asking them whose couverture they used. All of them--every last one--told me who they used. Noka was the only holdout.
I prepared a spreadsheet of single origin chocolates, breaking them down by country of origin, percentage cacao solids, and whether they contained vanilla, soy lecithin, and added cocoa butter. The only match for each of Noka's selected origins (Venezuela, Ivory Coast, Ecuador, and Trinidad) was Bonnat, a French chocolate maker in Voiron.
In the process of preparing the reports, it came to my attention that Noka's owners were planning an additional line of single-origin chocolates from Venezuela, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka. Bonnat is the only maker I was able to find whose chocolates matched those origins as well. (Bonnat has three Venezuelan chocolates: Puerto Cabello, Hacienda El Rosario, and Chuao.) Bonnat makes dark chocolates from exactly six countries. Those six countries are the exact six that Noka uses and has planned to use. It's clear that Noka is using Bonnat chocolate.
To check the results of the process of elimination in the spreadsheet, I did blind taste testing of Noka's chocolates against other chocolates from the same origins. I did two from Ivory Coast, four from Trinidad, eight from Ecuador, and thirteen from Venezuela. Bonnat was a clear match with Noka for each country of origin. (In the case of the Venezuelan chocolate, the match was with Bonnat's Puerto Cabello.)
I bought the Bonnat chocolates I used for the tasting from Chocosphere for about $33 a pound. The wholesale price for the 100-gram bars in the US is a little over half that. Buying blocks of couverture directly from Bonnat would be cheaper still. Noka's prices are often 1,300% or more over the retail prices for Bonnat's 100-gram bars.
Noka's prices can't be justified. They're not chocolate makers. As chocolatiers, their work is shoddy and unimaginative. The couverture they buy is of good quality, but can't justify a markup of 13 times the retail price for consumers in the US.
Noka depends on ignorance and gullibility to get away with charging the prices they charge. Though they don't appear to have been wildly successful, they are still around, still on shelves at Neiman Marcus and Dean & DeLuca (which should be a source of embarrassment for those stores), still getting press periodically for being the cream of the crop in "luxury" chocolates, etc.
As I said at the top, more details (for those who are interested) can be found at the DallasFood.org site.
Happy Holidays and caveat emptor!
I just finished reading the whole original article from DallasFood. It is astonishing, but not really--these people have taken the hype just a little farther than most companies. Now that they have shown the way there will be more of these nearly Enron-type entrepeneurs soon. Naked emperors.
Then again, I suppose *prestige* is truly valuable to a LOT of people. I've been known to buy some..
It will be interesting to see if this company survives.
Scott, I was riveted by your piece. The cynicism of Noka's founders (who both look under 30) is just dispiriting. I'm happy to hear their cynicism has not to date been richly rewarded in the market place.
I also just learned a huge amount about the chocolate business from your piece. Thanks!
BRILLIANT reporting. Keep it up. These guys have done a remarkable job of building a story with a flimsy foundation, sounds like the whole thing might fall apart if enough people here your story.
Scott, I read this the other day and was amazed by it! I cannot believe how people will just buy anything with a fancy price tag on it. I also bet Bonnat will be getting a ton more business because of this piece.
Excellent work, thank you.
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