When a man compares his varieties of chocolate to children, you know that his passion for the confection runs strong and deep. As a father of three, these are not empty words for Josef Zotter, master chocolatier. Just like he appreciates the unique characteristics of each of his offspring, he considers his different chocolates to be individual creations with personalities, so to speak. Living each day with this much passion has turned what was once a hobby into a thriving business for the Zotter family.
Josef Zotter is an Austrian chocolatier that was born in 1961. As a young man, he served time in the military, where he met his lifelong friend, Andreas Gratze. Gratze would later influence the fledgling ideas that grew into Zotter chocolates. Zotter completed most of his professional education as an apprentice. During his studies, he focused on chef training, with an emphasis on confectionery. Once his apprenticeship period was over, he worked in the kitchens of many well-known restaurants around the world, including renowned locations in Paris and New York. By 1987, Josef’s skills had prompted him to open his own cake business, which thrived. His first cake shop in Graz expanded to include four locations and his cakes became famous for their taste and quality. Josef, however, wasn’t content to leave things as they were. By 1996, Zotter knew that he needed to change his focus.
Chocolate was no stranger to Josef Zotter, being well-trained as a confectioner. Beginning in 1992, Josef was spending a significant amount of time playing with the liquid in the back of his cake shop. Without excessive capital or top-of-the-line equipment, the process was very hands-on and basic. However, his attention to detail could not be argued with and soon his “hand-scooped” chocolates gained a reputation. Just two years later, Josef began to collaborate with his friend, Andreas Gratze. When Gratze saw some package designs that had been submitted to Zotter, he insisted that they were boring and unimaginative and that he could do a much better job. He did and became an integral part of Zotter’s chocolate team. Gratze remains an important part of Zotter chocolate, designing the fun and whimsical packages that are the face of Josef’s delicious creations.
By 1999, Josef had experienced such success with his chocolate that dabbling in the back of a cake shop was no longer meeting the demand. He also wanted to have a closer control over the entire production process. Using land that was part of his parents’ farm, Josef purchased equipment and created a functioning factory. While still producing the chocolates that he had become known for, Josef Zotter also began to familiarize himself with the traditional equipment needed to make a bean-to-bar operation. It took time to learn and perfect the process, but by 2008, Zotter tasted success and launched a line of pure chocolates.
As the company progressed, Josef continued to experiment with cutting-edge flavors and ingredients. Like many artisans, he invested in relationships with not only cocoa bean growers, but also suppliers of milk, sugar and other necessary ingredients. By 2009, he had made the decision to focus on organic and fair-trade ingredients, eventually converting his operation to this business model. He still nurtures these relationships, always striving to marry a healthy profit with a win-win scenario for all parties involved.
Today, Josef maintains a close control over the manufacturing process. The company employs around 100 people, making it a very small and personal operation. Zotter formulates all new flavors himself and his wife and children are always the first to give feedback. His innovation and vision have earned the company awards every year since 2004. His confections not only win awards for flavor, but his business model has snagged awards for sustainability, including the coveted Utopia Award in 2010. His partner, Andreas Gratze has also made his mark, receiving a nomination in 2008 for the Design Award of the Federal Republic of Germany. Josef Zotter and his company were also profiled by Harvard Business School in 2010, impressing both students and professors with his innovation, flavors and business model.
Zotter chocolate maintains four of their own shops in both Austria and Germany and also wholesales their chocolates to various partners. Zotter makes pure dark chocolate bars, either plain or with various flavor additions. The company also produces milk chocolates, including flavors that use substitutes for milk, such as coconut, which allows a creamy flavor without as much sugar as traditional recipes. Zotter maintains a strong focus on quality beans from sustainable sources, but also brings in a creativity that few bean-to-bar houses can match. He isn’t afraid to try unusual combinations and ingredients, bringing the very best of his experiments to his shop floors to share with customers. He still sells a line of hand-scooped chocolates and drinking chocolates, both early products from his experimental days.