Mike Arcuri is a fascinating combination of entrepreneur, fitness buff and chocolate lover who also happens to have relatives with a 60 year history as distinguished chocolatiers in New York. After a high-tech professional career spanning leadership positions at Microsoft and executive roles at mobile software and gaming startups in the Seattle area, it was time for a new kind of challenge. The winning combination of innovative thinking and the right background led Mike to create chocolates that could be both delicious and truly healthy.
Vibrant Chocolate is an award-winning Seattle-based chocolates company that specializes in beautiful, hand-crafted, European-style truffles enriched with essential everyday nutrients. By helping people replace an unpleasant chore with a daily indulgence to be savored and celebrated, Vibrant Chocolate helps people stick to a routine, more consistently get the nutrients they need, and treat themselves well every day.
MO: How much did you draw on your family’s chocolate experience during the development of your company?
Mike: My cousin’s business, Watson’s Chocolates, was a big part of my inspiration. I really love some of their confections like the dark chocolate covered pretzels, minikins, and turtlettes. When I thought “there has to be a way for me to get my daily calcium and omega-3 in a delicious food I’ll look forward to having each day,” these chocolates came to mind as examples of the joyful chocolate experiences I wanted to recreate. Beyond that, Watson’s has 60 years of operating experience that helps keep me sane in the chocolate business: they’ve answered questions about operating margins, business seasonality, pricing and costs that help me plan and make good decisions.
MO: When was your moment of inspiration that you realized you truly wanted to actualize the concept of healthy chocolate?
Mike: My story may sound familiar to other entrepreneurs – I had a spreadsheet of over 100 business ideas ranked by market potential, personal interest, existing competition, sustainable advantage, etc. But my primary motivator at the time was fast market validation. I didn’t want to work on something for a year just to discover that the market didn’t really care – I wanted to find out in a few weeks if my chosen business idea was sound and worth all that additional time and energy. Based on this filter, I narrowed the list from 100 ideas to 3. One was in online dating, one was a service on top of social networks, and the third idea was Vibrant Chocolate. I chose to start Vibrant Chocolate for a pretty basic reason: I really wanted to be the first customer. I wanted amazing new foods like these to exist in the world. When people talk about passion for a business to sustain you through the ups and downs, this is one of the main places it can come from. So I hammered hard on testing the business idea. This testing phase was fun and left me with the confidence that customers would buy the chocolates and nutrient fortified chocolates of the quality I had imagined could probably be made. For anyone who wants to read the longer version of the tale, I’ve blogged about the lean startup process I’ve followed since founding Vibrant Chocolate.
MO: How rich in nutrients are your chocolates? Could you replace a vitamin supplement with a truffle instead?
Mike: For certain people and certain nutrients, that’s exactly the idea. Give up your chalky calcium chewables or fish oil pills you choke down at breakfast and replace these with a new daily ritual of intensely pleasurable artisan chocolates that also give you some of the key nutrients you need each day. Most of the doctors I’ve had have told me that people don’t need to take vitamins or other supplements because you can get all the nutrition you need from your diet. But there’s a large body of research related to nutrition and there’s consensus among experts that most people in the Western World don’t get enough calcium, enough vitamin D, enough healthy omega-3 fats in their diets. People find it hard to make significant dietary changes, so there’s a multi-billion dollar nutritional supplement industry and people endure the unpleasant experiences of pills, capsules, or chalky, mass produced chewables because it’s good for them. Except people secretly hate the routine. They skip days. They make excuses. Why do you think gummi bear vitamins have been such a massive hit? They were initially targeted at kids, but adults are buying them like mad too. Vibrant Chocolate isn’t a supplement company, it’s a chocolate company. We’re the only company putting the taste and the experience of the food first, using a premium artisan production process, and offering only fortified chocolates that are amazing to eat as well as helpful for your diet. There’s a long history of nutrient-fortified foods: vitamin D in Milk, calcium in Orange Juice, probiotics in yogurt, “12 essential vitamins and minerals” in breakfast cereals… We’re bringing that to high end chocolates, so people who like to treat themselves to something sweet each day can now do something good for their body at the same time.
MO: How did you go about deciding on the flavors on your menu? Are there any plans to add any new products to you line?
Mike: That’s a great question. The initial ideas for new confections come from me, from our chocolatier, from our product development chef, and from customers. Generally, we try to stick high end renditions of well loved flavors so people who look over the menu will have some familiar points of comparison for our chocolates. As an example, we have an incredible peanut butter and milk chocolate confection called Peanut Butter Sunshine (100% RDI vitamin D and more calcium than an 8 ounce glass of milk), and a solid dark chocolate bar studded with chewy and crunchy bits of cranberry and flax called the Long Life Cocktail bar (1000mg Omega-3). I’m sure you can think of mass-produced chocolates that have similar descriptions, but there’s no comparison in terms of the execution or the joyful experience in eating it. Vibrant Chocolate was just at the Northwest Chocolate Festival with 20 bean-to-bar chocolate makers, and another 20 high-end confectioners, and many customers came up to buy our chocolates after sampling everything there was on site saying “this was my absolute favorite thing here.” Two 10 year old sisters literally had only $10 from their mom to spend at the show and spent it on Peanut Butter Sunshines.
We do plan to keep introducing new flavors and confections. On the short list of flavors we’re looking into: coconut and marshmallow based confections, a single-origin dark chocolate bar, and a raspberry center truffle.
MO: Nutritious chocolate is a pretty great concept that I can see people getting excited about. What kind of feedback are you getting so far?
Mike: It’s been pretty amazing, and all I can say to sum it up is “there’s something special about this business.” The feedback from everyone who tries a sample and makes a “bliss face” is pure gold. Going on the top shelf at our first retail chocolate store next to other well-established artisan brands was a big thrill. Then, winning the grand prize for North America in Verisign’s .COM for Small Business contest was unbelievable. There were over 1500 businesses in that contest and the Verisign team was thorough enough to order a box of Vibrant Chocolate to taste test before they announced the winner. Getting outside funding from Lighter Capital was another huge point of validation. Of course I can’t divulge contract details, but suffice it to say a subscription to Vibrant Chocolate for the Lighter Capital team was not negotiable. :-) Chocolate shows are inviting us to attend every month or two, and we’ve had some media interest before we’ve sent out sampler boxes or filed our first press release. There’s still so much work to do in terms of marketing, ramping up production, and partnering with retailers and online businesses – but people love Vibrant Chocolate and they talk about it, which is all I can hope for.
MO: I see that you won a gold medal and 4 silvers at medals in the 2011 Seattle Luxury Chocolate Salon. How you plan to top those impressive results next year?
Mike: Well, my driving force is to keep giving customers what they want and let the awards and things take care of themselves. So expect us to keep doing what we’ve been doing: introducing terrific new chocolates and tuning the ones people already love to perfection. We also won’t be afraid to drop something off the menu if people aren’t buying and enjoying it: there’s an experimental nature to every restaurant’s menu and every early stage company. When you’re really listening to your customers, you have to be willing to retire the offerings that don’t sell and redouble your investment in the clear favorites.
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