Investigative Food Journalism - fascinating expose!
- Snackish Dec 28, 2006 03:26 PM
This expose of the ultra-high-priced Noka Chocolates (up to $9.75 a piece) by a the blogger at DallasFood is really interesting. Quite a fun read.
This is an AWESOME story.
This is one of the great effects of the internet -> web ->
blogosphere ... how a guy with domain-specific knowledge
can get an instant forum.
Thanks for the pointer. It'll be interesting to see if
the story becomes a story and if this evolves in a
high profile way.
That's a great piece. I love it when people go out and prove that the emperor has no clothes.
Personally, I hope that article drives these hucksters right out of business.
Very interesting piece. I read it all the way through.
I think "journalism" is a bit of a stretch. I would call it "research." Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those journalists who hate all bloggers (though it does bother me quite a bit that this person only goes by his first name).
But American journalism (and I'm speaking specifically of American journalism since this blogger is in Dallas) is committed to both sides of the story. (As opposed to journalists in other countries, most notably the UK, who are very clear about their opinions and biases.) Even taking off my editor's hat, purely as a reader, I'm wondering why he left so much out of the story -- why didn't he call Noka and confront them about Bonnat? Forget even being confrontational -- why not call Bonnat and ask them point-blank if they are Noka's distributors? Is Bonnat publicly held? Is it possible to find a list of their clients? It doesn't seem (unless I missed it) like he tried to contact Bonnat in any way.
To me, this is a very interesting essay written by someone with a passion for chocolate who might possibly have a bias against Noka -- or not. But it's very clear he came to his conclusion BEFORE writing or researching his piece, and did his level best (besides one phone call and some emails) to closet himself with his own subjective research and not directly involve the parties he writes about.
I say "subjective research" because I have to trust this man, whose last name I don't even know, that Bonnat chocolate tastes exactly like Noka chocolate. Is there some scientific way to measure the chocolates, using microscopes or some other technique I'm not familiar with, to tell empirically if they are the same product? If not, then nothing can be done, but "tastes the same," frankly, isn't good enough for me.
I've never been to Dallas, had Noka chocolates, or eaten any chocolate more expensive than Godiva, for that matter. And if everything this man has written is true, then I am truly outraged that Noka charges that much -- well, as outraged as I can be over an overpriced product sold far from my home that I'd never consume myself.
But as a journalist, and specifically an editor, it's my job to poke holes in a story and work with the reporter to make it as solid as it can be, because readers are bound to have the same questions I do. Which is why blogging can be so troubling: We all want information to flow freely, but everyone -- from Pulitzer winners on down -- needs a good editor.
re: Covert Ops
Dear CO: Blogging often gets a story like this out, even if it is uncomfortable or incomplete. It wouldn't be printed in a "respectable" newspaper and would be spiked by the editor because Neiman Marcus is an advertiser. It sounded as if there was no cooperation on the part of the owners upfront, so I'd say that was why no further attempts were made. There are always more than two sides to a story, if you study semantics it explains there are always shades of gray inbetween, not black-and-white. Two sides of the story can be translated into, often, "the official" version and the "actual" version. This fiction from jourtnalism school that a story must include opposing quotes is antiquated at this point in time, when so many sources are available. For example, NoKo has a beautiful website telling it's story and sales people out there at Neiman Marcus. The probablem with so much of what passes for Main Stream Media Journalism MSM today is it is opposing quotes from two sides, without any real research behind it. Most reporters today don't know how to do research. That's what made IF Stone so great was his ability to do research and to expose what the "official" story tried to tell the public. The PR field works overtime, and very successfully, to surpress certain information. Go back and look at the implications of the WMD quotes, that were never challenged by research, and see why the MSM has lost much of its credibility - it functions too often as a conduit for the quotes and information each side (and there more than "both" as you imply) rather than imparting real information. Please re-read Language in Thought and Action and re-think two-valued black/white orientations, and you will be a better editor for it. I am not against editors; I am for them; but I have seen journalism become more of a megaphone than a truth teller and it saddens me.
EE: I am more than aware of the brainwashing power of Establishment J-School. And I didn't mean for my small rant to come off like I had drunk the Kool-Aid. Not all voices need to be heard, and not every story requires an opposing viewpoint.
So often journalists fail to think like their readers, ask themselves the questions readers ask. As a READER, I'm wondering what Noka founders would have said had Scott called back and said, "OK, so I figured you out, it's Bonnat, what do you have to say?" I want to know this, not in the interest of fairness and giving them a chance to comment -- he already gave them that chance -- but for the pure drama it would have lended to the piece, whether they went on a rant, hung up or ignored him.
Also, as a reader, I think he was lapse in not contacting Bonnant at all, not even to TRY to ask them if they were Noka's supplier. Maybe they would have told them, maybe they would have said that's privileged information -- and under the country Bonnant's incorporated in (France?) they may or may not have legal protection in that regard.
But the fact that he didn't even bother to ask -- after calling literally dozens of other chocolatiers and seemingly having such insider knowledge and contacts -- tells me he was either lazy -- which I doubt, since he put so much effort into this -- or cowardly, afraid his own research would be disproven.
Despite that, I'm not trying to disparage someone else's work -- I'm just saying there are serious unanswered questions that I, as an informed reader, would like answered.
re: Covert Ops
I completely agree with this -- I was waiting for the return call to Noka to ask them about Bonnant, and don't understand at all why he didn't do that. And seriously, the "tasting" is him tasting the chocolates? That's not a tasting, that's just a guy eating chocolates -- I was looking for a panel of people to try the chocolates to confirm his conclusion, and didn't get that. I think it's a great read, but definitely not journalism.
re: Covert Ops
dood, i think part of the "bigger point" of this story is
the failure of "regular journalists" without the DOMAIN-
SPECIFIC KNOWLEDGE to see through the bullshit ... e.g.
when they went on TV etc.
i think your disparaging comments about subjectivity
miss the point. again somebody with specific knowledge
about a field might be able to tell a lot about something
from information that might not mean much to a non-specialist.
for example the physical size of a new microprocessor might
not sound like especially sensitive information to a
non-specialist ... but to somebody who knows the field,
it might reveal information about yeilds, hence costs,
i think in this case, this guy noticed the pricing of
the chocolate from these guys were waaaaaay out of sync
with even other super-high end mfgrs and he was in a good
position to analyze the public statements justifying
the cost difference.
re: Covert Ops
As an editor (but not a journalist), the problem I have with the "both sides of the story" idea is that stories that try to be balanced often by that very act are distortions. Any journalist writing a piece can make a couple of phone calls and get two "sides of the story" but unfortunately what then happens is that both sides appear to be equally valid, which is often not true. You can write a story about the earth being round and make it balanced by calling someone from the Flat Earth Society, but that doesn't mean that the "side" of the Flat Earth Society has any validity.
This is actually my pet peeve with American journalism today: journalists are so convinced that they should give both sides of the story that they often given way too much creedence -- or at least, print space -- to people who at best have fringe views and at worst are out-and-out crackpots, thus giving their positions a validity they don't warrant.
Hello, when the going gets tough, the tough hire a
crisis management firm ... the hamhandedness is
So this Dan dood, appears to be the fellow at:)
(based on an email addr which of course may not be authoritative
Notice from their domain reg:
Keeney, Dan firstname.lastname@example.org
DPK Public Relations
1209 Kings Brook Drive
Southlake, TX 76092
So far the response seems to mostly be "it's the packaging
I wonder if he's being paid in chocolate!
Late breaking news ... it turns out the Dan/Danno
commenting on the web sites *is* the Keeney PR dood,
BUT he was motivated by MORAL OUTRAGE, *not* a
pecuniary relationship with Noka Chocolate ... AT
THE TIME of his comments. He's also interested
in having lunch:
On a completely unrelated note, what was it
LE DUC THO said said FRANKLY and OPEN-HEARTEDLY to
Henry KISSINGER? If *only* there were some way to
find out via the World Wide Web ...
re: MC Slim JB
Oh dont tell me none of you dont feel some slight
sympathy for Dan. After all, he is the underdog
in this Danno vs Golaith contest [by which I mean
Google + the Blogosphere + Logic and the Facts].
Not to mention how commendable it was for him to
become involved "only to defend a principle".
Again, look at what you get when you
re: Covert Ops
A few responses to your comments....
I'm sorry that you're bothered by the fact that I only go by my first name. I've gone by my first name on Chowhound for the five or six years I've regularly participated on the board. I've gone by my first name for the two years I've run the DallasFood.org site. This is the first time anyone has complained about that. [I will say that it's a little surreal that the complaint is being voiced by someone named "Covert Ops." ; ) ] In the case of the Noka reports, I believe I set out enough hard facts that people could reach their own conclusions about Noka's product and business practices, regardless of whether those facts were posted under my first name, first and last, a pseudonym, or anonymously.
You asked why I didn't stage a direct "Geraldo Rivera" confrontation with the folks at Noka. I gave them an opportunity to answer the interview questions and they blew me off. When I called them with similar questions, they gave me false or misleading answers and dodged the couverture question outright. I didn't think any information would be gained by another call. While I realize there might be some dramatic value in a showy confrontation, I wasn't after drama. (That much should be clear from the length, level of detail, and generally dry tone of the reports.)
You asked why I didn't mention any effort to contact Bonnat. A fair question. It's one that I may answer down the road. For now (and I know this won't be satisfactory), let me just say that this series of reports does not reflect the full results of my research.
I'm not sure which conclusions you feel I reached before researching this piece. Could you be specific? All I knew before beginning the research was that Noka was ridiculously expensive and that it seemed improbable that they were actually making chocolate.
You accuse me of "closeting myself with my subjective research." There's very little of the "subjective" in the reports. The analysis of pricing and ingredient lists are based on objective, publicly available information. While the tasting certainly contained an element of subjectivity, it was a redundancy--a secondary check on what the process of elimination had already revealed. I would be more persuaded that my research and analysis were flawed if you (or anyone else) could point me to non-Bonnat single-origin chocolates from Venezuela, Trinidad, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka, and Madagascar that have 75% cacao solids, added cocoa butter, and no vanilla or soy lecithin. That strikes me as a very "objective" question.
You attack the subjectivity of the tasting portion because it involves trust in someone "whose last name [you] don't even know." Understandable (though I'm sure knowing my last name wouldn't assuage your concerns). If you don't trust my palate, that's fine. Try the chocolates yourself. (You'll enjoy it!) But, in the meantime, remember what I said above, as well as in the reports--the blind taste testing was a redundant check on the process of elimination. Belt and suspenders. Even if you throw out the tasting portion, you still have to offer a suitable alternative to Bonnat for each of the countries of origin.
I'm not a journalist. I don't claim to have the same standards of judgment, thoroughness, and professionalism that were exhibited by the pros who've covered Noka for the Dallas Morning News, Baltimore Sun, and Food & Wine (last names: Harris, McCausland, and Halpern). I'm just a guy who really likes chocolate (and barbecue, Mexican food, chicken-fried steak, et al.) and talks about it online. Take it for what it's worth.
I should change by chowname to "Scott's bulldog" :-)
but seriously, excellent work, both in terms of the
research and presenation ... perhaps hardest ... or
most impressive ... is your measured feedback.
I dunno how what resource you have available to you,
but I hope you are in a position to investigate the
Scott: Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Again, I want to stress that I admire your work and was impressed by both your exhaustive knowledge of chocolate and your dedication to this topic.
The reason I do not post my last name, while mentioning the fact that you did not, has nothing to do with Chowhound: I was refuting the claims of some other posters that your work constituted journalism. Now this may only be my opinion, but in my opinion journalism goes hand in hand with accountability and credibility, which can NOT be accomplished anonymously. To most people this does not diminish the validity of your work: not really to me, either. Obviously you know your stuff, and though you do occasionally take a "snarky" tone, I don't really think you've left out important facts that would have altered the outcome of your tests. (Remember, as I posted below, I'm playing devil's advocate here.)
I do not post my name on Chowhound because I am posting here for fun, not as a journalist. I don't often write for my publication, but when I do, even if it's opinion (I occasionally do reviews and columns) my full name, e-mail address and sometimes my picture accompany it.
Again, I'm not trying to attack you or your work personally. I guess I'm just on a personal crusade, on behalf of my industry, to remind everyone that not everything posted on blogs, especially anonymous blogs, can be trusted absolutely. (Nor everything in the newspaper or on TV, but that's a discussion for another day and another board.) Add to that the fact that no blog has someone else editing it -- and I include reporters' blogs on news Web sites as well -- and that is very troubling to us all in the industry. Not because I worry I won't have a job -- as I mentioned before, everyone needs an editor, and I can code HTML so I guess I'll be ok either way. :-P But because the sheer fact that someone else is reading your copy with a critical eye always makes it better. At the very least, they will point out things that are missing that the reader needs to know. (And I must have been on track, because you yourself seem to admit that contact with Bonnat is in the future.) At the most, they will uncover serious error or legal matters that could save you from a lawsuit. (It doesn't appear you have that problem at all.)
You claim that you are not a journalist (and you never have said you were: others on this post have), though I beg to differ with your other claim and I say that you DO have the standards of judgment, thoroughness and professionalism as MSM reporters, and sometimes more -- if only all my writers had your dedication and attention to detail. (And excellent spelling! LOL)
In the end, the point of my posts is the same point your expose on Noka makes: Don't take ANYTHING at face value. Always question. Ask why? Where did it come from? What's hidden that I might not know about? This makes us better consumers, of media, of chocolate, of life.
Congrats on the great effort -- please post here (as I'm not a regular reader of Dallas blogs) and let us know when you've updated it. :-)
re: Covert Ops
I just read all your comments and think you make a very weak case. I think Scott's work is squarely within the great American journalistic spirit of muckraking. Sure, he's not uncovering police corruption, rancid meats being sold as fresh, or unsafe vehicles, but in essence his work is the same.
Is he doing straight news reporting? No, but that doesn't mean he's not doing journalism. I think only the most naive think that news can be unbiased. What it should be is fair. His reports are overly fair and measured, imo. I think that if I was faced with a company that basically defrauded me, I wouldn't be so generous as to only pepper my reports occasionally with a snarky comment. Should an investigative report on pedophiles avoid making any judgmental comments?
These reports are far beyond the average blogging -- what some guy ate for dinner and why it gave his dog gas. This is journalism. And if the average reporter put as much time, effort, and research into their stories, maybe they wouldn't be losing their markets. And if all bloggers put this much effort into their work, there wouldn't be much need for newsPAPERS. I wish even 25% of what gets investigated on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, and CNBC had this level of thoroughness and research. This was the Frontline of chocolate exposes.
One of the great things about his report, too, is that anyone can repeat what he's done. You don't have to take his word for it. It seems that after all the scandals from within prestigious news organizations like the New York Times, that your industry has more to defend than Scott.
Very interesting article, though the tone is occasionally off-putting. Quotes like, "Compared with true professionals, Noka's work looks like that of school children" sound more like someone with an ax to grind than an unbiased investigative reporter. I think a cooler tone would have suited his purposes better.
My general reaction is that Noka, while possibly ethically dubious in their purposeful obfuscation of their sources, has plenty of company. Bilking rich idiots by selling modest goods in gorgeous wrappers is a very, very old game. I'm not condoning the behavior; it may even be considered criminal under Texas law.
But I will point out that there are plenty of folks for whom an item's extreme costliness and the perceived value of being able to consume it conspicuously are in fact its main attraction. Actual connoisseurship, a refined appreciation of true underlying value, is often entirely beside the point. For many Noka buyers, the knowledge that it's outrageously expensive may actually make it taste better to them than a cheaper chocolate that a connoisseur might rate as being of higher quality.
You can draw your own conclusions about such consumers, but we all know they are in plentiful supply, as are vendors catering to their tastes. It's an old trick in many fields: you can often improve the attractiveness of a product not by cutting its price, but by raising it.
Noka seems to have taken this to an extreme, but most of us not-filthy-rich folks have BS detectors that kick in to help protect us from these kind of scams. Fleecing anyone stupid enough to fall for that kind of marketing almost seems a kind of Darwinian rough justice to me.
re: MC Slim JB
re: "ax to grind" ...
that's a bit perjorative, no?
not all axes are the same. it would be one thing if he
had some personal relationship with these folks, or
worked for a rival etc, but if he is swinging
axe in defense of a principle, i think this is
re: the cooler tone, sure there are some snarky bits
here and there [evoking the line about their chocolate
craftmanship being "school children" level efforts]
but i thought it was tremendously levelheaded ... to
the points of including all he "boring" [to me] details
about the taste-test elimination process which he ... and
the educational detours about the industry. those details
and the fact that he didnt continue to call them up for
"entrapping" phone calls and conversations suggest to me
he kept his eye on the ball, rather than just trying to
maximize the entertainment value.
>item's extreme costliness and the perceived value of being able
>to consume it conspicuously are in fact its main attraction.
see "veblen good"
>Fleecing anyone stupid enough to fall for that kind of
>marketing almost seems a kind of Darwinian rough justice to me.
yeah fair enough. they had their run tho, and now it's their
turn for This Rough Justice // Noka abjures.
"it would be one thing if he had some personal relationship with these folks, or worked for a rival etc"
PSB, that's the problem with anonymous bloggers. We have NO IDEA what, if any, relationship he has with these people. For all we know, he used to work for them.
And just because a story contains a lot of information, doesn't mean that it's unbiased.
PLEASE NOTE: I am playing DEVIL'S ADVOCATE in this thread. I have no reason to believe this writer has any ax to grind or was lax in his reporting -- it's just the impression I got. All I'm trying to say is, don't swallow every hook that comes along.
Psb: the point of my "ax to grind" comment is not that I think the author is biased. I've never heard of this guy: I have no reason to trust or to distrust his objectivity one way or another. But his occasional belittling tone gets my "agenda antennae" up. If he really is an altruistic investigative type, his case would be more convincing if he avoided this kind of language.
And yes, I learned about Veblen goods in Ecky 1, but I don't think it's a widely understood term.
All this is quite interesting, but do not lose sight of the fact that Noka is selling a legal product for what the market will bear. That they did not care to open their kimono about their sources, etc. is not surprizing. There are other luxury goods on the market that are all about marketing sizzle, with mark-ups of 500 to 1000% or more. That Gucci or Prada item that sells for $800 only costs $14 to make. Let the buyer decide where he wishes to throw his money. Perhaps, to spin Robin William's comment (about cocaine in the 80s): "perhaps Noka chocolate is God's way of telling you you have too much money."
>Let the buyer decide where he wishes to throw his money.
i believe the author's point is "you are throwing
your money at reshaped bonnat chocolate".
i dont think the author is claiming "there ought to be a law"
or even past customers would have some kind of standing to sue.
dont you think it is a service to let people know a $800 gucci
bag costs $14 to make? "i did not know that".
you all know about the bausch && long contact lens affair,
right? [differently labeled and priced contact lenses
were the same product ...
psb: It's not exactly a newsflash to most consumers that luxury goods have huge markups over their production costs.
The brand and its associations ("I can afford to buy the costliest chocolate on earth") are apparently enough for Noka's customers. They clearly have some rationale that justifies the expense: a need to consume conspicuously, a correlation of price with quality, an urgent need to identify with a luxury brand, etc.
I may think they're suckers, but who am I to say they shouldn't buy something I consider a bad value if it makes them happy? If Noka is fulfilling a need and the market bears its price, who are we to criticize? Who are we to say that there is no huge added value in melting down Bonnat, putting it in a slick package, and slapping a ridiculous price tag on it, if someone is willing to pay that price for it?
There's a good example of this kind of hucksterism that's been around for a long time, and I don't see many Chowhounds kicking about it: grappa. Some marketing genius figured out that by putting moonshine made from winemaking waste into beautiful bottles, he could get suckers to shell out big bucks for it. Where's the big exposé there? People are paying $100 and up for what is essentially Everclear flavored with a little 3-in-1 oil! Where's the outrage?!
And don't get me started on super-premium vodkas! (Or you can if you like. I enjoy handing my $50-a-bottle-vodka-drinking friends a copy of the NY Times article in which a panel of experts rated vodkas in a blind taste test. As a joke, the test tech added Smirnoff to the lineup, and surprise! it won by a country mile over dozens of more-expensively-packaged and -marketed brands. Most of my pals still don't care. I suspect that the statement they make in ordering super-premium vodka means more to them than the opinions of connoisseurs. But who knows? In their minds, maybe their brand does taste better than the cheaper stuff, never mind what the so-called experts say.)
re: MC Slim JB
I dont understand why the "Free to Choose" crowd seem
to imply "these guys should be free to sell their wares
but The Man with Only One Name, Scott, shouldnt be free
to post his research."
Obviously it is "a priori" clear the markup on luxury goods
is huge (not to mention, avocado-free "guacamole"
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/347063) and there is no
"bright line" profit margin level beyond which the price
We also know "a priori" working at the bottom of the
totem pole on any coffee, cocoa, sugar cane etc plantation
anywhere in the world is not a pleasant job. And there is
no bright line beyond which working conditions become
It seems to me if somebody wants to do an investigative
story, they ought to be free to do so ... and certainly
held to a certain standard of honesty [i.e. if you include
a picture of something, the caption should fairly reflect
the circumstances underwhich the photograph was taken],
but "we alrady knew this", doesnt undermine an investigation
in either of these areas
Isn't Scott *on your side*?... he seems to be in the
information business, not the in the edict business.
I think Scott stands in relation to the continuing
customers of Nokaware exactly where you stand in relation
to your Grappa and Vodka swilling naifs:
you gave them some information, beyond that, suum cuicque.
[except he did the research himself rather than fwding
an NYT article].
We all knew fast food or cigarettes arent good for us.
Nevertheless the details of how those industries lobby,
sponsor research, market to various sectors such as
children, all of these "details" add to the debate, rather
than tediously drawning out "what we already knew" ...
obviously the standards are different there, because people
are advocating for preemptive legal changes as well as
basing suits on the findings here, rather than "merely"
deflating their marketing hype ... this fellow Scott
was in a position to take them on based on his knowledge
of chocolate and the chocolate industry. He obviously
didnt have to forum to "evaluate" their claims by say
sponsoring a televised "Judgement of Dallas".
Wow, your erudition is impressive! Showy, even! But you seem to be responding to someone else's post entirely. I can't figure out where you got the idea that I'm challenging Scott's right to post his article. I commented on his odd tone, which seems a little too colored by emotion for an investigative piece, and poked fun at the overblown sense of outrage among some posters here that someone could get away with overcharging rich fools for meretricious luxury goods.
re: MC Slim JB
i'm more used to the old days of usenet posts
where it was easy to quote and reply to specific
pieces of text.
here unfortunately that's a little difficult
and you sort of have to reply to the cloud.
on that note, i did think some of my points
directly addressed things you brought up, although
some of my thoughts in response to that Covert fellow
may have been "cached" in my brain when i wrote
my response to you ...
you're obviously thoughtful and somebody with whom one
can have a reasoned discussion about price maintainance
and product differentiation and substitution of goods...
the people i was sort of disparaging with the "free to
choose" label were the people [many on other forums]
sort of making the "dont be a playah hatah" arguments
"meretricious" is one of my favorite words :-)
Don't be hatin', yo! :-P (Just kidding, I just felt like saying that. Rolls off the tongue in a more fun way than meretricious. . .)
I'm a lady, btw. ;-) Thanks for joining the discussion -- when journalists and lawyers square off in the same thread, much erudition (and hilarity!) ensues! :-D
re: Covert Ops
--my favorite "squaring off" between a (Gonzo) Journalist
and a Lawyer is without a doubt HST's not exactly
nil-nisi-bonum-compliant Obit for RMN:
The recent news of Ford's passing, the discussion about
objectivity and subjectivity makes me think of this
paragraph ... mutatis mutandis ...
>Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for
>Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was
>the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed
>(Noka/Nixon) to slither into the (marketplace/White House) in the first
>place. (It/He) looked so good on paper that you could almost (buy it/
>vote for him) sight unseen. (The backstory/He) seemed so all-American,
>so much like Horatio Alger, that (they were/he was) able to slip through
>the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see
>(Noka/Nixon) clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.
--of "hating and (google) rankings" ...
so maybe the ancient and medieval annalists were the bloggers
of their day? among the finest, p. cornelius tacitus, would write:
>According to some accounts he was harsh in repremand; and certainly)
>he could make himself unpleasant to the wrong kind of man as he was
>agreeable to the right kind. But his anger left no hidden malice in
>his heart, and you had no reason to fear his silence. He thought it
>more honourable to hurt than to hate. (The Agricola, \P22
so it's going to be interesting to watch the dynamics of
the google results for simply "noka chocolate" [without any
editorial words like scandal, expose etc].
That "cache" theory explains a lot, thanks! For someone who really disliked having to spend any time studying micro and macroeconomics as an undergrad (my passions were English and math), it's ironic that I ended up doing vertical and product marketing. The language of my workaday world rarely gets dragged into Chowhound discussions (mercifully).
Fascinating article which sheds light on the equally fascinating topic of "food as prestige." One can almost imagine the buyer of this product setting some chocolate out for his/her friends: "Yes, it's from NoKa--it's the most expensive chocolate in the world." Who at such a gathering would dare say "Feh, I've had better"?
I have to commend everybody who has taken the time, and thought, about this topic. It's actually quite beautiful to watch so many people voice intelligent opinions about the work of an individual who took the time to research a topic and write about it, and to feel the passion in response after response. I never thought I'd be party to such articulate analysis and viewpoints at ChowHound. This means that this message board, or website, has truly come of age in terms of being more than just discussions about food, recipes, cookware.
Nary a peep from Noka yet? I'd love to hear their side! I'm also curious what people think IS an acceptable profit. As far as I know, only loan company profits are limited by law. (to avoid loan-sharking).
Will we see those metal candy boxes going for crazy prices on eBay soon?
This question also occured to me: If Noka misrepresented their product, thereby cheating a man out of $500, say,
is that the same/as bad as cheating 500 people out of $1.00 each?
re: blue room
I think they should be able to charge what they want for the product, and people can choose whether to pay for it or not. Free market and all that.
What I don't think they should be able to do is lie (or at the very least, misrepresent) their product in order to justify the high price. It's sort of like taking a Toyota (a perfectly respectable car, but not one that commands ultra-premium prices), altering the body to look like a Ferrari, putting a Ferrari insignia on it and charging Ferrari prices for it.
re: Ruth Lafler
Holy crap. I plagiarized your work without knowing it over on DallasFood.org, except I said Honda Civic and Ferrari rather than Toyota and Ferrari. I swear, I didn't read this first, but I feel proud to have thought alike with the likes of you. ;-)
And this is the most important point. It's not just about an overpriced good. It's about a company that misleads its customers about what's in its product.
There's a scene in National Lampoon's European Vacation, I think, where they're eating at some allegedly high end fancy French restaurant and back in the kitchen, they're heating up TV dinners and sending it out on nice china pretending it's theirs. That's Noka in essence.
The likely difference between cheating 1 person out of $500
and cheating 500 people out of $1 is they are likely to have
different explanations ... it's probably much easier to
argue the person overpaying by $500 was the victim of some
significant material misrepresntation than the people
"overpaying" by a dollar [which is probably just a case of
people having a different willingness-to-pay and time
sensitivity] ... i will note that situations like this is
partly why we there exist class action law suits ... somebody
only harmed to the extent of $1 isnt going to have enough incentive to sue.
the case of the "very foolish" decision requires "more
explanation" than the "slightly foolish" one. if somebody
get's caught in the rain in SF wearing shorts and no
umbrella, you can imagine how he got there. if somebody
is found frozen to death only wearing shorts at the south
pole, that requires a different type of explanation.
rather than focusing on "what is the maximum profit margin
tat is fair" and looking for a number, i think you need to
see this in terms of structure and process ... just like
there is no answer to "what is the most money a ceo should
be paid". in the case of pricing, there are structural
factors that contribute to the final price ... such as
a local monopoly [price of soda and popcorn in a movie
theater], in other cases the price can be from branding/
marketing/product differentiaation ... which is the route
noka tried to go, i.e. claimin there were no "close substitutes
for noka chocolate". but this is what was completely undermined
by the dallasfood analysis.
Scott - the work and time and care you put into your investigation of Noka Chocolate is awe-inspiring. Once again, I am absolutely delighted to be a member of the Chowhound community - otherwise, I would have never had access to your work.
And, once again, I am delighted by human nature as revealed through Chowhound. Naturally, I was rather shocked by your findings, but I also found myself smiling at the audacious accomplishments of the Noka Chocolate folks. We humans are so whacko and wonderfully predictable! How many eons ago was the saying "A fool and his money are soon parted?" coined? Yet, your writing was so good, and your story telling timing so "on", I could also smell Katrina Merram's fear of being exposed by your queries. You made me feel compassion towards her smack dab in the middle of the expose. The photographs illustrating your story were also first-rate, especially the one of the storefront in Plano. I did some consulting work in Plano, once, and that little strip mall is pure Plano.
Great work, great writing, great photos, great story. Congratulations. And thank you to Snackish for the link to the DallasFood site - it was my pleasure to read Scott's story, and all the posts it has inspired thus far.
The quote in the linked article that stood out for me is "In the coming days, we'll search for the answer to one simple question: Are Noka's chocolates worth the money?" I don't believe that the blogger can answer that.
Just as with collector cars, luxury homes, fine jewelry, etc., something is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Rebadge a Toyota as a Lexus and jack up the price. Put a different tag in an article of clothing and double what you charge. If they sell, keep going with it. That's what it's worth. If a Pez dispenser that only cost a few cents years ago sells for thousands on eBay, then that's what it is worth. If someone repackaged Mr. Goodbars and sold them for $5000 each, then that is what they are worth. When the number of people willing to pay for an item gets below a certain point, the price comes down to increase sales or the seller, wheteher they are the manufacturer or distributor, go out of business.
This situation seems to parallel many others in the food world. Some people will pay huge dollars for a meal that would cost a small fraction of the price at a less glamorous venue. Some folks will shell out hundreds for food items that cost pennies to produce, simply based on what's trendy and who's selling it.
For any 'it', regardless of what it is, it is worth what a buyer says it is worth.
I agree with what you said *if* the buyer is given enough information to make an informed decision as to whether it's worth it to him. What disturbs me about Noka is not so much the price, but the fact that they're justifying the price by making claims that appear to be untrue and are actively stonewalling people who try ask questions in order to make that informed decision. If Scott's reports are accurate, their business practices are verging on fraud.
I mostly agree with your "what the market will bear" take on NoKa. However, the Lexus/Toyota analogy does not work because Lexus and Toyota make no secret of their relationship.
Toyota owns Lexus and openly promotes it as a luxury brand. Even the most uninformed consumer knows that there is a roughly equivalent Toyota for each and every Lexus on the market - and they can choose the prestige/service/bells&whistles that come with the Lexus brand, or not.
NoKa, on the other hand, seems a straight re-packaging and re-pricing of another company's ( Bonnant ) product. The subtrefuge that the food blogger encountered from the NoKa folks is at odds with reputable business practice in most any industry be it automotive or chocolate.
Just read this series front to back, and looooved it. Very impressive, and so much fun. Needless Markup indeed.
Just a quick response to the various comments about "worth" being a function of the price agreed upon by a willing buyer and a willing seller. I agree.
However, I also agree wholeheartedly with the comments of those who have replied that lies, misrepresentations, or omissions of material fact may induce a buyer into a transaction that he wouldn't have entered into had he known the truth. (In other words, the "willingness" of some buyers is illusory.) There are laws against that sort of thing. It's not just "clever" marketing.
If someone wants to buy Noka's products with the knowledge that he's paying a markup of between 10 and 60 times what he would've paid had he bought Bonnat (at retail), more power to him. I suspect not *all* customers are in that boat. Perhaps the reports will be of some use to those who are willing to pay for quality, but who also value substance over smoke and mirrors.
Thanks, all, for the comments and criticism.
Hey, as a consumer, I thought the piece was terrific. I'm also a former journalist and a graduate of a nameless school that claims to be the most prestigious journalism school in the country, but I'm not a journalist any longer and am not really interested in academic discussions about "good" journalism. The piece was useful to me as a consumer and that's good enough.
I'm one of those suckers who sometimes falls prey to the fantasy that if it's expensive, it must be better. The piece really made me think about my spending habits in general (I'm one of those odd souls who doesn't really love chocolate, so I doubt I would have been taken in by the Noka scam in particular unless I was looking for a gift for a chocolate lover) and reminded me that if you are not frugal by nature (and I am not) it can be very easy to be taken in by marketing and hype. Memo to self - be more cautious about buying expensive products. Yes, quality is worth a premium, but are you getting quality or are you getting hype (and in the case of Noka, it looks like outright lies).
As a consumer, I say bravo to the piece. Great expose.
School = Mizzou?
This TV program is an incredible look at what marketers do in order to persuade the American public into buying. In particular, watch part 4 which talks about "cracking the luxury code"... in other words, what makes people want to buy expensive items.
re: Mr Taster
And of course the mission on chowhound is to cut through the buzz and hype and base decisions solely on whether something is actually delicious.
I find it interesting that NoKa, while claiming they don't use Bonnant, still won't say who makes their courveture. Why not? Other chocolatiers do. And if it really is being made to their specifications and isn't available to the consumer, then there wouldn't be any reason not to disclose the source, especially since *not* disclosing the source is causing them no end of bad publicity.
re: Ruth Lafler
Over at "General Chowhounding Topics" Mr. Taster posts that an email to Mr. Bonnat himself brought an odd reply--he was unaware of the whole controversy until yesterday (Jan. 9) His answer was about the chocolate business, but did not mention Noka. It sounds like maybe he thinks it is HIS chocolate that is being criticized!
re: Ruth Lafler
Yes, I agree, unless he is extraordinarily polite and accomodating!
I hope someone who is bilingual and familiar with the situation can clue him in. Meanwhile, maybe Scott (the author of the 10 parter) will chime in. I know this is supposed to be about the chocolate, but I got involved in the drama too.
It's worth noting that Scott also did a comparison of the chocolate bars themselves and puts Bonnat below other chocolate makers, like Domori, and has specific things to say about them, not just whatever Noka is doing with Bonnat's chocolate. So it could be that they're just responding to that part of it.
It's kind of interesting that Noka's founders are two Canadians. While Noka's days may be numbered, another Canadian family founded a chocolate company in the States that has set a high standard for many decades. The family name: See.
Too bad these latest imports didn't learn from their fellow countrymen.
FYI, the Noka PR agent's "Noka Spin Zone" now points
back to here:
I think it's an interesting choice on his part to
point to this particular thread.
Also, some new reviews of Noka from various
"chocolate professionals" at:
This was under another Noka thread yesterday--
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.
>Apparently they are now claiming they do not use Bonnat.
I think the collective word parsing of many people
following this story is that reply is NOT a denial
that Bonnat is indeed the source of the coverture.
The conjecture is it is a way to "FUDge" on the question
"is noka (merely) melted, reshaped, repackaged Bonnat?",
i.e. they are chemically identical substitutes.
Maybe these guys should start a side business called say
KaNo Ultraluxury Super Pure Single Source Vitamins ...
"Mommy, if you loved me, you'ld give me the
$100 KaNo vitamins instead of the $20 Flintstones!"
If you can mark up a product that percentage and people still buy it, well, we learned in business school that you can charge what people are willing to spend.
However, if you are LYING in your disclosures and marketing of the product resulting in those prices - that's a serious allegation and is, I believe, illegal in America.
Now more than ever in this age of advertising, there are no outright lies-- merely degrees of the truth and an infinite number of ways of interpreting the same piece of information.
Similarly, there is the old debate team adage that you never lose an argument, no matter how false your precept, as long as you know the mechanics of how to argue in a persuasive way. Never give up and you will never lose.
What a riveting story, thanks to Chris thanks for the contribution!
My takeaways from this were different from what I'm reading above, however.
I have never heard of NOKA. I wouldn't pay that price for chcocolate so even if I had run across it, would not likely have tried it. And frankly, I find it kind of funny that they manage to get people to pay ridiculous prices for a product very similar to others at lower pricepoints, by appealing to their vanity as "discriminating connoisseurs".
What I found more interesting was the general education about how the chocolate couverture market works, and the distinction between chocolate producers and chocolatiers. I _thought_ I understood this: I understood that places that make "chocolates" buy chocolate as a raw material for their craft. What I didn't realize is that when buying bar chocolate, the producers and the chocolatiers share shelf space as peers, even though the raw materials may well be the same.
Take our local (SF) renowned Recchiutti, for example. While shopping today I saw their bars side-by-side with those of Guitard and Scharrfen Berger. Turns out, Recchiutti uses both of their couvertures to produce Recchiutti product. I'm not criticizing them in any way - as Chris points out their FAQ clearly states these sources, and in addition the price difference between Guitard and Rechhiutti is not terribly different. Still, before reading the article I hadn't understood this relationship, and saw these products as peers and 'different chocolate'. I'm glad to now understand this better.
One key difference, I think, though it still isn't crystal clear to me: Recchiutti bars describe themselves as a "blend" of chocolates... and I presume that the value add beyond just repackaging the couverture is this blending to create a balanced eating chocolate. The E. Guitard bars are labeled by country and tout themselves as "single source" and are likely then essentially analogous to their own couverture. So there is a legitimate difference in the products, and a reason for both to exist even if Recchiutti uses E. Guitard couverture. With NOKA, on the other hand, sounds like they are simply passing the couverture unblended into new packaging (though with the secrecy who knows...) with no real value add and a hefty new price tag!
Bottom line, I feel like a better informed chocolate consumer. Thank you!
There is another set of chocolate makers, too. I hadn't realized before I read this report and then started talking to chocolate people about it that, eg, Dagoba isn't a true bean to bar producer. They take chocolate liquor and turn it into bars. Someone else has already done much of the work. So Dagoba has much less control over the final product that a true bean to bar company like Guittard. The article really pushed me to understand chocolate better and immerse myself in chocolate (oh wouldn't that be nice).