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!
It's unfortunate I come into this so late. I suppose it at least answers BangorDin's question of whether Nōka has legs... and the answer is a little distressing. Several years later, clearly they're still around.
How did I find out about Nōka? Well. I eat a lot of "snobby chocolate". The chocolate makers in the article Scott wrote are all familiar to me—with the exception of Bonnat. I had never heard of Nōka before until today. My wife got me some as a gift. I was agog at the packaging attending the minute quantity of chocolate. Still, she had to have got something amazing for that $50 or so she must have put down for twelve microscopic squares of chocolate.
Well. Of the four varietals, I tried the Venezuelan, since I tend to prefer Venezuelan chocolate varieties. It was fine. "How fine?" she asked, refusing to have any herself at that price. I said it didn't taste any better than any other chocolate I always buy—at 5% the price. She pressed me on this. "Are you SURE? Maybe you're just not the chocolate gourmet you think you are. It's very popular in Japan." With much more in a similar vein. I laughed. "I'm sure. I mean, it's good chocolate. It's just not BETTER chocolate. It's easy to tell the difference between poser chocolate like Godiva and any serious maker like Pralus or Michel Cluizel. It's not easy to tell the difference between this stuff and any other serious maker—because there isn't any difference. Nice package, though. Obviously that's their real business."
Well. After dinner I got online and typed "Noka chocolate", which Google search-completion was happy to offer a lot of choices for, the first one being "Noka chocolate scam". Huh. And... here I am.
Several lessons. (A) Nōka is much more of a gift maker than a chocolate maker. (B) Clearly there are enough people with more money than taste to sustain a gift business even at the ludicrous extreme this one is at. (C) Sadly, reading many of the comments here and elsewhere, it's clear a large collection of people (resentful of those with, or willing to spend, money?) do not distinguish between paying higher prices for better quality, and paying ludicrous prices for the same quality. The two are not the same. You may not agree that you're getting eight times the value if you pay eight times the price for Pralus versus Hershey, but regardless of your tastes in the matter, there are sound economic reasons why Pralus costs what it costs, and it's no surprise that any comparable quality of chocolate costs something similar. A discerning consumer, with the money to indulge the discernment, will pay a higher price for better quality, and, crucially, actually KNOWS when (s)he's not getting something better. Just because it's "incredibly" expensive does not mean it's the same kind of business as Nōka.
Nōka is a scam, more or less: The reasons for their prices have nothing to do with economics of production and everything to do with fooling their buyers. Apparently it works. Once per customer, at least.
"...a large collection of people...do not distinguish between paying higher prices for better quality, and paying ludicrous prices for the same quality. The two are not the same."
"The reasons for their prices have nothing to do with economics of production and everything to do with fooling their buyers."
Strebe, I have to applaud you for this analysis. You've really hit at the heart of the matter.
I do believe the same argument can be made, at least in part, to "non-luxury" products which saturate the market. For example, paying $2.00 for a 1 litre branded, sealed bottle of purified tap water certainly steps into this realm of relying not on economics to justify the price, but rather by persuading the customer that a 10,000% markup is an acceptable value.
re: Mr Taster
Thanks for the kind words, Mr Taster. I agree entirely. I watched agog through the 90s and 2000s as the American consumer devolved into the insanity of buying a plastic bottle filled with tap water, hauled hundreds of miles by truck, stocked in precious shelf space through human labor, merely to sate a few swallows of thirst. And then throwing the bottle away. Meanwhile they could have got exactly the same thing for free out of their tap, wasting vastly less energy, time, money, and landfill space or recycling energy. The practice had nothing going for it. Nothing.
Consider also the whole premise of the soft drink market is that the flavoring agent in the soda is essentially the "value added incentive" to get people to buy bottled water for an absurd markup. Now even that pretense has been stripped away! No need to even add the flavoring agent... people will pay the exact same thing (or even more) for *unflavored* water!
re: Mr Taster
re: Ruth Lafler
I was strongly reminded of the Noka chocolate controversy when I read that Penzeys will no longer sell fancy salts, some of which they think are misrepresented. It's so easy to get caught up in the hype! There is so much junk out there.
OTOH, if you see something GOOD, buy it. Even if it's pricey, at least you won't regret it.
The article is not really about Noka. It's about the psychology and economics of gift giving. I thought the article picked a perfect example to demonstrate what we practice in small degrees, all the time. We may not think so, but truffles and caviar are no different, just more established. Granted their supply is limited, but they are just as dumb.
A couple points:
First, it's worth noting that Scott's taste test wasn't the only evidence for Noka using Bonnat. There was an uncanny coincidence of products. All same percentages, all same ingredients. It was only after narrowing down the options that Scott then did a taste test. Once you only have a couple things to taste, it's going to be a lot easier to tell that one is it or not it. I might not be able to make a strong distinction between this and that kind of orange. But give me an orange and a tangerine.... And the tastings were blind, I believe.
Second, the issue of them using someone else's product and then marking it up is secondary, to my mind. If that was the only issue, then it would be a case of vanity chocolate and while there would be a question of value, it wouldn't make the Noka people seem like such swindlers. It's their deceptions that's the heart of the piece.
btw, it looks like Scott has responded to the Bonnat letter.
What he said about the "post nino" harvests was interesting. Something I hadn't really considered, but the quality and taste of chocolate is going to vary from year to year and harvest to harvest, as with any other natural product.
Looking forward to hearing whatever else Mr. Bonnat has to say. It's a great contrast to read him talking about the varying quality of the harvests and NoKA talking about how uniformly marvelous and wonderful their chocolates are.
I'm definitely going to have to get some Bonnat.
In order to fill in the hole in the DF story about not contacting Bonnat directly, I decided to send an email to Stephane Bonnat directly. He wrote back to me promptly:
Bonjour [Misseur Tasteur].
First of all I wish you and your family a Happy New Year.
Thanks for the link, I’ve discovered the article thanks to you.
I’ve read the article but was unable to understand it all.
I think some ideas are not so bad but some affirmations are false.
About the chocolate itself, I’m very afraid the tests have been made with a similar post Niño harvest which gives a special toasty taste to the beans (and the chocolate) because of the way the beans are dried.
As we work with small plantations we can’t have large stocks of beans and this is why our bars really never have the same perfumes or taste all year long (we use the 2 annual harvest independently). I’m not sure of this but it seems we are nearly the only making real single origins....a good test is to buy bars every 2 month and to taste them. If they have the exact same taste and perfume it must be a mix of different cocoas. We’ll also don’t ever work with Ivory Coast , not because of child slavery (I’m very attentive about this problem) but because of the beans quality. We have to finish our actual contract and we’ll replace it by Gabon ’s cocoa.
I also have understood (but maybe is it because of my poor English) that our chocolate was systematically poor in it texture..... All our chocolates have an 18 or 20 microns granulometrie. I guess it’s more a feeling than a reality.
We make single origins bars since...1902. We don’t have 6 single origins but 11, Hacienda el Rosaria is not the first but the last introduced. Significant information: we work with 18 plantations or regions. It’s not meaning that we mix beans; it’s showing we have different range of products needing different raw materials.
The more I write and the more I have to say... If you want to reach me by phone, my business number is: +33 4 76 05 28 09. I think it will be easier for me than hesitating in my writing.
Here's the reply I got from Dan Keeney the PR Man when I questioned the statement they released. Apparently they are now claiming they do not use Bonnat.
[my comment]...I still don't think you address the main criticism, which is that you don't do anything with the couverture other than re-shape it or make it into simple truffles. I don't think you can get away from the question - are your chocolates simply re-shaped Bonnat? You don't say whether the Bonnat, if that is what it is, is made according to your specs or whether it is simply couverture that is available to anyone.
As we stated, NOKAs couverture is made to our strict specifications. We specify the source ingredients, the region from which the ingredients are sourced and the process by which the couverture is made.
I don't know if others can purchase the couverture that is made for NOKA. What I CAN say is that this is not the same as any mass produced product that consumers can purchase. It is NOT simply reshaped. The Dallas Food analysis was incorrect in this assertion.
I appreciate your continued interest and you feedback and will pass it along to Noah.
>A carrot grows from a seed that costs so little I wouldn't know
>how to measure it. You say, yes, the carrot's expensive relative
>to its source ...
a carrot and a carrot seed are not substitutes.
it is clear to everybody they are different things and have
are you paid the same now as you were when you had a paper
route at age 12?
>By the time that carrot gets pureed or glazed in some high
>falutin' restaurant, however, it's pretty darned expensive.
what many people are asking is "what is the difference
beween Noka chocolate and Bonnat chocolate to explain the
large price difference?" i.e. is Noka doing anything
analogous to puree/glaze/seasoning/blending. so far the
answer seems to be Noka Experience = Packaging.
if you were served a "darned expensive" carrot "dish" that
consisted of a carrot chopped into 4 pieces [and not even
peeled], wouldnt you be a little annoyed ... especially
if on the menu it was $20 and called a "partial
deconstructed crudo mirepoix"?
at the moment it seems like it's more work to make a
"reeces piece" from the hershey "coverture" than to make
a noka tab from a bonnat bar. at least that's the working
theory which noka/dan have done nothing to dispell in their
I loved the article. You're a terrific writer and investigator. Don't get me wrong here, but...
...but I'd be lax if I didn't point out that all food has an impossible mark-up if you dig deep enough. A carrot grows from a seed that costs so little I wouldn't know how to measure it. You say, yes, the carrot's expensive relative to its source cost because of the water and the label and the shipping and the packaging and the land. By the time that carrot gets pureed or glazed in some high falutin' restaurant, however, it's pretty darned expensive. Same with most products. Including chocolates. Indeed, most products in general, food or not, have a price that reflects a series of value added steps of varying relevance and expense.That's what commerce is. And there is no governing body that says what value each step has. It'd be pretty terrible if that were the case and I suppose that none of us would have the privilege of tasting so many varieties of chocolate if its price and profit margin were determined by someone other than the people who sell it. Who would want to sell it under those conditions?
Carrots and water and the land things grow on were all here long before we were, and yet we assign value to them and trade in them as if we "own" them. Pretty presumptuous, yes?
But that presumption is the foundation of progress and development in all its mixed up glory. The world is full of people rich and poor who've made their money by getting hold of something and then selling it for more than it cost them and perhaps, for a while, more than it is worth. Just look at the proliferation of water stores these days and tell me that is a more honorable mark up than Noka Chocolates, for goodness's sake; people can't live without water and yet these merchants would presume to charge for it and, gasp, make money. The fact that water stores are popping up everywhere is evidence that there is a market for it, no matter how little sense it makes. People like them for some reaason. All Noka is doing is saying, here, rich folks, we're gonna give you chocolate that makes you feel rich when you eat it. That's got value too. Some people like that!
Look, I think the chocolate sellers' equivocation and misrepresentation isn't pretty, but it isn't unique. Just go to a fancy restaurant and eat a pile of stew meat on ground corn and pay $39 for it, wash it down with some $6 water "still or sparkling" and think about it. I paid that much recently for some insipid stew on watery polenta and I won't be going back to that restaurant. But I sure as heck won't be calling the owners out on the scam because I would have to call half the entrepeneurs in Los Angeles with them. And for every seller of bad stew I expose and ruin, I might be rolling over a good one. That's a burden I couldn't bear.
At the same time, the pressure you're exerting on this company to reduce its egregious mark up is one of the many forces that determine prices in a dynamic market. You're the voting public, so bravo for you! I just wish that you wouldn't suggest that these people are especially bad. They're just good marketers, which has its place, and some would argue, real value, too.
Thanks for listening. And Happy New Year.
I think the markup on bottled water is so obvious, though, whereas the markup on chocolate is not. And some mineral waters are actually really good and distinct-tasting. Those particular waters, representing a more or less scarce or at least distant substance, may deserve substantial markups, though they are in my opinion very few and far between.
Regardless of Noka's quality (or lack thereof) what person in their right mind would pay thousands of dollars a pound for chocolate? I consider that I'm pretty indulgent when it comes to superb food, but $10 for one bite of chocolate? I start thinking of the starving children in China (and the rip-off artists here at home). It seems that we have no shame.
Good job, Scott. I started another thread
about this that sort of branched out into an argument about journalism and blogging because I called your piece "investigative journalism."
It was a super-enjoyable read and a public service. Congrats on the BoingBoing mention, too.
oh my gosh, Scott, if you are indeed the author of the dallasfood piece on Noka, what a standout job you did. I wish I could write, photograph, present, and investigate half as well as you did. There were several notable "60 Minutes" moments (i.e., lies and the lying liars who tell them) in your piece. Fantastic.
I read the entire series of articles at Dallasfood.org, and I found it appalling. My boyfriend says "if they can get stupid, shallow people to pay that kinda money, then more power to them. We should try it." Part of me agrees with him, but a larger part is just disgusted with how Noka is misleading the public.
I would love to hear a response from them. Try to double-talk your way around THAT one! :)
I just read this article from a link on MakingLight, and came here to post about it, and lo, here you are! Great article. You have to wonder how people are going to feel when they find out that the excruciatingly expensive chocolate they bought is really just poorly repackaged Bonnat. I know I'd be tempted to throw a 10-lbs block of Hershy Baking Chocolate through their storefront window.
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!
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.