Shawn Askinosie Chocolate shares his story and his chocolate
Last week, we were very pleased to welcome our friend, chocolate maker Shawn Askinosie, to Zingerman’s. Shawn spoke first to an early morning audience at ZingTrain on the subject of vocation, then led an evening Chocolate 101 tasting for the public at Zingerman’s Events on 4th. The following day, he even stuck around to give a talk and lead a chocolate tasting for Zingerman’s staff.
Shawn Askinosie readies the projector.
In the hours before the public tasting event at Zingerman’s Events on 4th, I sat in Zingerman’s Delicatessen with Shawn Askinosie. In a soft-spoken voice, he told me about his realization that he no longer wanted to practice law. “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “If I kept it up, I knew if was going to kill me.”
Hearing these words, I realized I wasn’t merely hearing a story about looking for a new job, but of a life shift of tectonic proportions. Shawn Askinosie had worked as a criminal defense lawyer for over 20 years in Springfield, Missouri, and by all accounts he was very good at his job. But two decades in a profession often filled with sadness and tragedy were wearing him down. As he put it, “It was time for me to do something else.” But what, he didn’t know. So he said a short prayer each day asking for guidance. “It was really simple, and went something like, ‘Dear God, please give me something else to do.’”
Meanwhile, he’d begun taking the steps needed to transition out of the business. He brought in a law partner to take the new cases coming to the firm, and started to wrap up his own declining caseload. He turned to grilling as his first new venture/hobby, and even shelled out for a Big Green Egg grill. Soon after, he moved into baking. “I made a lot of cupcakes,” he said. “I really like cupcakes.” With baking, naturally, comes chocolate, and Shawn was soon making a lot of chocolate desserts. As he got better, he noticed that some types chocolate delivered better results than others. He also realized that he really didn’t know where chocolate actually came from. So, he resolved to find out, and took his first of many trips to the Amazon basin. After that trip, he “went in full-force,” and traveled extensively to learn all he could about cocoa cultivation.
Sampling board for the tasting.
Askinosie spent the next few years building a network of cocoa farmers. From the very beginning, he dealt directly with the farmers and involved them in every aspect of the business. He calls this Direct Trade Sourcing. The farmers have to agree meet certain criteria, such as cocoa bean quality standards, cultivation and fermentation methods, etc. In turn, Shawn pays the farmers directly. No middleman. He visits each farmer once per year with financial statements, which he and the farmers scrutinize.
“The cocoa farming business is a cash business,” he says, “so they were always happy when I brought them cash. But when I showed up with the books, and started going through them line by line, it blew their minds.” Shawn is a believer in Open Book Management (something he practiced as a lawyer), a concept popularized by author and consultant Jack Stack, who also happens to be a friend and mentor to Shawn.
“I had this idea to take OBM one step further upstream and really give these guys a true share in the business.” Shawn went to Jack Stack with the idea and, “He loved it. We named the program ‘A Stake in the Outcome,’ which is named after one of the Jack’s books.”
Shawn talks chocolate with attentive guests.
Shawn is emphatic about not taking a “paternalistic” approach with the business. “The farmers receive their money to distribute, spend, or save as they see fit.” A great byproduct of this direct relationship with the cocoa farmers that Shawn deals with worldwide is that all of his chocolate is 100% traceable back to its origin farm. “I believe this way of doing business results in higher-quality chocolate,” he says.
Shawn makes a point about chocolate.
But chocolate is not Shawn’s only vocation. There is also Chocolate University.
“Our factory is locate in a part of the community that’s being revitalized,” he says. “Theres a homeless shelter a block away, called the Missouri Hotel. There are 80 kids a night there. From the day we started, we wanted to engage the kids in the community, including the kids in this shelter.” And so they developed Chocolate University to do just that.
“The kids in the elementary school come and tour our factory and we visit their schools, and we teach them about our business. It’s a sort of back and forth relationship.” he says. The middle school program is similar, but some of the kids get involved in our community work and learn a bit more about chocolate making and the business. But it’s the high school program that takes quite a bit of time because Shawn takes those students to Tanzania.
Shawn at the Zingerman’s staff tasting.
“It’s an every other year thing.” says Shawn of the program. “Juniors and Seniors in any Springfield high school – public, private, homeschool – are eligible to apply. They write essays and go through an interview process. And I partner with a local university near the factory to help me evaluate the applicants. We narrow it down to 13 kids out of about 70 applicants.” The students who make the cut then take part in summer intensive program, ‘Bean to Bar Chocolate,’ at the local college. “They spend a week on campus, and get to know each other. They learn about our business model, about profit sharing, about Open Book, the history of Tanzania, its language, culture, and sociology. And they learn about chocolate making, and evaluating cocoa beans. At the end of this week, they go for a day and pack. And then we take them to Tanzania.”
“Flavor begins with knowing the farmers.”
Shawn, the students, a teacher, and a college professor all travel to Tanzania where they get a first-hand look at how cocoa beans are cultivated and fermented, then prepared for shipment back to the U.S. They live with the farmers in a local village, and everyone pitches in.
“Over half the kids are funded by us, and the rest is made up by donors. It really ends up being a life-changing experience for these kids. When you help drill a water well for people who don’t have clean water, and you then drink from that well…you don’t forget that.” He then tells a story of overhearing a student texting his mother back in the U.S. that “this is the best day of my life!”
Shawn speaks with a Zingerman’s staffer.
Shawn is smiling as he’s telling this story, and there’s a bit of a hitch in his voice. This is the real work. The vocation, as Shawn calls it.
“As I was telling the folks at ZingTrain this morning, meaningful work is not necessarily derived from the status of the work, or the kind of work. It’s derived the thought and attitude we give it. So we derive the dignity of the work from what we put into it, not what it gives us.” He pauses.
“If you have meaningful work, its a calling. Truly a vocation.”
Later, as I think about Shawn’s words, I take a small bite of his Tanzania Dark Chocolate and let it slowly melt on my tongue. I swear it tastes even better than I remember…