Joe Chocolates: Sam Tanner and Peter Keckemet bring “bits of buzz” to market

Peter Keckemet, “chocolate operations officer,” and Sam Tanner, “chocolate executive officer,” of Joe Chocolates.

One day last year, Sam Tanner (BA 2016) phoned his friend, fraternity brother and business partner, Peter Keckemet (BA 2016), with news. “Pete,” said Tanner, “I just got laid off.”

“Did you get severance pay?” asked Keckemet.

Tanner did. “That’s great!” replied his partner. “We can afford to buy some chocolate.”

Along with draining their respective savings accounts, selling some stock, and borrowing commercial kitchen space, Tanner’s severance was a key piece of the financial puzzle that would help the two launch Joe Chocolates.

Before there was chocolate, oatmeal

The idea for the venture came to Tanner while taking the Foster School’s Creating a Company class (through the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship).

Tanner noticed many of his classmates creating wearables or tchotchkes. “If you sell those, you’re going to have to find a new customer every single time,” he reasoned. “But if you make a good consumable, you can depend on repeat customers.”

His team began experimenting with products aimed at college students. Caffeinated oatmeal came first. It was horrendous. But chocolate and coffee made all kinds of sense.

A road less traveled

While the venture showed some promise, Tanner’s classmates all left to take steady jobs in Seattle’s booming economy. Keckemet was waiting in the wings.

The pair had collaborated on a startup during their sophomore year, a failed gift card trading app, and knew they didn’t want to pursue another tech venture. They did know they wanted to work together, and that they shared a passion for food.

So, instead of taking jobs at Amazon or Deloitte or Starbucks in the summer of 2016, Keckemet and Tanner were perfecting their “Bits of Buzz.”

Brother, can you spare some chocolate?

One of the biggest challenges for the fledgling company was getting their hands on the right chocolate. After tasting countless batches paired with coffee beans, the duo landed on a creamy dark chocolate blend from Guittard. The problem? They could only afford 25 pounds at a time, which wasn’t enough to order wholesale.

They hustled and found a local chocolatier who was willing to resell 25 pounds of his monthly order. “We could barely afford it,” says Keckemet. “But by December of 2016, we were using enough chocolate to place our own order. Now, we go through a ton each month.”

What hasn’t changed is the way they make the product. Chocolate, coffee and inclusions are mixed together to create 3.5 lb. slabs, which are broken into bits and packaged by hand. Flavors include Holy Cacao, Salted Caramel, Honey Almond and Midnight Coconut.

A place to call home

Regardless of flavor, a ton of chocolate a month equates to a fair number of Joe Chocolate fans getting their buzz on. Some customers are finding them online. Most discover the product on the shelves of Pacific Northwest retailers such as New Seasons and Bartell Drugs, one of their first customers.

Sam Tanner, Peter Keckemet and Gunnar Lone prepare another shipment of Joe Chocolates’ “Bits of Buzz.”

“Bartell was willing to take a risk on us, two college kids making chocolate at night in a restaurant,” says Keckemet. “They let us go in store, do demos, meet their customers. Thankfully, we’ve seen a steady growth in every location, which is a wonderful feeling.”

As of January, Keckemet and Tanner have their own retail location. They purchased Local Color, a coffee shop in Pike Place Market, and plan to renovate in the fall. Their enthusiasm is palpable.

“Our goal is to do the majority, if not all, of our chocolate production in the space, and also have one of the best espresso bars in the city,” says Tanner. “We’ll be blazing the trail of how to combine coffee and chocolate.”

“We want to nail the middle of the Venn diagram between them,” adds Keckemet.

So, who’s Joe?

There is no “Joe” currently associated with Joe Chocolates, but the founders are looking for one. The name is a reference to coffee. There’s the equivalent of 2 cups in every 2.5 oz. bag.

-Andrew Krueger