The Northwest Chocolate Makers UnConference took place on November 10-11.
Different paths brought more than 100 chocolate professionals under the same roof: a Buddhist temple in the cool neighborhood of Fremont, Seattle. The spiritual location was the perfect place to bless the chocolate conversations.
However, this was NOT a traditional conference.
No guest speakers were talking from a high stage. All the attendants were equally encouraged to give their opinion. Everybody was the guest speaker and the audience at the same time.
There wasn’t a set program for the discussions of the day either. The participants together decided at the beginning of the first day the topics they cared to talk about. Different rooms meant different conversations, and everybody had the freedom to walk around and join the discussion they preferred.
Professional facilitators helped the conversations flow in the most productive and respectful way. Morning practices of relaxation and focus were put into place to make participants feel at ease. By 10 am, any kind of embarrassment had left space to the anticipation of interacting with each other.
The use of Social Media was forbidden during the morning and afternoon Sessions. Such a radical choice forced the participants to be entirely focused on the purpose of their attendance: to learn and to share.
No wonder the tickets to attend the UnConference were limited and sold out weeks before the event. Such peculiar gathering doesn’t take place often.
Thanks to Brian Cisneros, creator and organizer of both the Northwest Chocolate Festival and the Chocolate Makers UnConference, craft chocolate professionals could enjoy the 3rd edition of this special occasion.
Did I mention that everybody was in their socks?
Professionals at different levels of the cacao supply chain found themselves face to face. Chocolate makers, machine companies, food scientists, cocoa farmers, service providers, distributors and retailers were reunited in the same space.
Some participated to find answers to their questions. Some others to connect with like-minded people. Some more wanted to expand their point of view. But all of them had the burning desire to make the craft chocolate movement thrive.
The topics discussed during the daily Sessions were HOT.
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From sourcing cacao beans at origin to the difficulties in scaling up a business. From technical challenges in roasting and conching to making deals with distributors. From creating an outstanding packaging to ensuring a fair treatment to farmers.
All these discussions had one thing in common: the goodwill of its participants.
Professionals that would be considered “competitors” outside of that Buddhist temple were helping each other resolving their most tedious challenges. Practical pieces of advice were given by well-established companies to brave beginners. Suggestions were exchanged between one side of the supply chain and the other. Encouragement and optimism were at the base of every discussion.
A strong sense of community could be felt in the air.
Different cultures, far away countries and unique stories came together without prejudice. Unlike it happens in many other industries, craft chocolate people are open to share info and show support to each other.
The success of a company is a victory for the entire industry.
Participants were eager to learn how to improve their business, but money-driven individuals were nowhere to be found. The satisfaction of making something from scratch, the joy of connecting with farmers in far away countries and the pride of delivering a high-quality product prevailed in every conversation.
Opinions were exchanged also outside the official Sessions.
Small groups were naturally reuniting along the corridors, on the stairs or outside the entrance. Here participants had the chance to privately interact with old and new faces. They could be lucky enough to have a conversation with experienced professionals like Steve DeVries and Dan Pearson. Or enthusiastic young players like Dan Rattigan from French Broad Chocolates and Greg D’Alesandre from Dandelion Chocolate.
There was something to learn from everybody. Either it be technical knowledge or just an inspiring story.
Even though the challenges in making craft chocolate are many, the presence of new chocolate makers at the UnConference gave hope to the industry. Chocolate bars were secretly passed around to receive their very first feedback. New energy and fresh ideas were brought to the table.
In the end, some participants went back home with the answers they were looking for. Some didn’t find the answers, but very good friends instead. Some understood more about the industry. Everybody’s determination was definitely strengthened.
The Northwest Chocolate Makers UnConference was the perfect occasion for cacao and chocolate professionals to get together and understand that they are not alone in their daily challenges and difficulties. An entire community of generous and passionate people have their back.
As stated on the UnConference program:
” We gather to share our experience and knowledge.
We are building a resilient and thriving artisan chocolate, cocoa and cacao industry. We work together to solve our most pressing challenges, and we build a future for all.
We are a community.”
Have YOU attended the UnConference or plan to attend next year?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.