As the world began adapting to extreme new norms of social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Chocolate Co. owners Sam Tanner (BA 2016) and Peter Keckemet (BA 2016) were faced with some difficult decisions.
The recent graduates of the UW Foster School of Business decided to temporarily close their retail space, a café that serves the company’s caffeinated chocolate and coffee to visitors of Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market. Their warehouse staff of 14 dwindled to three in one week. And they engaged in difficult conversations about how their small business could survive.
“It really just felt like everything we were doing was side-stepping the hard truth,” says Keckemet.
“The pandemic has hurt our operation,” Tanner adds, “but we had to close down for the safety of the public and the safety of our employees.”
At the Joe Chocolate warehouse, Tanner was trying to figure out what to do with some extra inventory of their holiday product, peppermint caffeinated chocolate. He thought of a friend who is a healthcare worker in Ballard and was working continual night shifts in response to the pandemic.
“I took the case (to the hospital), and the nurse that took it in was so happy,” said Tanner.
Seeing the delight that this case of chocolate brought to the hospital staff sparked an idea—a way to support overtaxed healthcare workers while keeping some of Joe Chocolates employees on the payroll.
Tanner asked some of his friends if they’d buy cases of their products at wholesale prices to send directly to healthcare workers working on the frontlines of the COVID crisis. They all said yes.
Small business rising
The idea for Joe Chocolate started with Tanner and three other students in the Foster School’s Creating a Company class, offered by Foster’s Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship. When the class was over, members of the group took consulting and accounting jobs. Tanner felt consulting wasn’t a good fit. So he took his company idea to his roommate, Peter.
“[Peter] eventually sat me down in his mom’s car,” Tanner recalled. “And we made a pact that we’d start this business.”
The duo both took jobs to fund their caffeinated chocolate venture, which operated at night. Over several years they moved locations multiple times, launched the venture full-time and started selling packets of their caffeinated chocolate via companies like Nordstrom, REI, Bartell drugs and Whole Foods. In 2018, they found a location in Pike Place Market, renovated an old coffeehouse, and opened the first Joe Chocolate café in 2019.
Conduits of caffeinated chocolate
That dream is shuttered for now. But Tanner and Keckemet have found a new market where their “bits of buzz” can do the most good. And they’ve provided their customers a way to show their appreciation for the heroes of this tragic tale accelerating around the country.
On the first day the Joe Chocolate website offered wholesale delivery to hospitals and healthcare clinics flooded with COVID-19 patients, 50 orders came in. Within a week and a half, the team had shipped more than 300 cases to healthcare workers across Washington state and as far away as Nevada and New York.
“I hope [healthcare workers] see that their work is incredibly appreciated. Our customers are going out of their way to help them because they are the most important people in the country right now,” Tanner says. “I hope they feel that special right now, because they are.”
Gratitude from the frontlines
As the Joe Chocolate team cranks out orders, the thank-you notes have come pouring in, some by phone, others by social media. “(Doctors and nurses) are working 18 hour shifts—it’s incredible how hard these folks are working,” Tanner says. “For them to say thanks makes it so worth it.”
The founders have no set goal of how many cases of chocolate they hope to send out, but one thing is clear: they want to make the biggest impact.
“As long as we aren’t in the way, and actually receiving feedback that we’re helping, we will send as much chocolate as possible and save as many jobs as we can,” says Keckemet. “Our survival isn’t the most important thing—it’s society’s survival.”
“I would love every healthcare worker to have a bag of Joe in their pocket that they can rip into whenever their 18 hour shift is getting to them,” adds Tanner.
Pitch in, do your best
The knowledge that they are making an impact as they keep sending out cases provides hope for two small business owners with uncertain times ahead.
“Whether or not this works, we know that we did the right thing and used our resources to make the biggest impact for our employees and our community that is honestly struggling,” says Tanner. “I will walk with my head held high that this could be what saves our business.”
“I think this crisis will be a reckoning for the business world,” adds Keckemet. “Seeing so much good come out of individuals, small and medium businesses, people will empathize more, they will feel more connected than before. It’s a chance for everyone to pitch in and do their best. We hope Joe Chocolate is around to see that, but if not, we’ll still be here.”