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Why One of America’s Best Chocolate Makers Is Giving It All Away

Rogue Chocolatier always did things a little bit differently. Its closing plan is no different

Colin Gasko photo by Jamin Haddox
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

Colin Gasko is getting out of the chocolate business. After 12 years of making some of America’s best craft chocolate at Rogue Chocolatier, Gasko has decided to give it all up. On June 6, Gasko started a $75,000 crowdfunding campaign to divest himself from the business, including its equipment and institutional knowledge, and hand it off to a new owner in a cocoa-producing country. While many artisan companies from chocolate to coffee performatively tout fair trade sourcing, better wages for producers, and sustainability, Gasko is perhaps the first chocolate maker to actively critique the power dynamics of the international chocolate supply chain — by transferring production power to a cocoa producer who traditionally profits least from the market.

“I’ve lost confidence in my version of the model,” he says. “I cannot justify any longer driving 40,000 miles a year [driving my daughter to school] because I can’t afford housing in order to make fancy chocolate bars that get shipped by air mail around the U.S. It has a minimal positive social impact, and tremendous material and energy-footprint impacts for the properties of the product.”

Gasko is prone to unconventional experiments; it’s an approach that has made his $16 chocolate bars a cult favorite among consumers of fancy cocoa products. Part of an early craft chocolate wave in the mid-aughts, Gasko got his start making chocolate out of a 400-square-foot room in Minneapolis while working as a full-time cheese counter clerk at his local Whole Foods. “I describe this as a hobby that took over my life,” he says.

From the beginning, Gasko set an idealistic standard for Rogue Chocolatier’s sourcing by paying twice the minimum price for cocoa from independent farms in Peru, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, and Honduras. Unlike other purveyors, Rogue also never used inclusions — ingredients commonly added for flavor like fruit, nuts, and salt. Along the way, the company caught the attention of the Atlantic and received a glowing review from author David Lebovitz.

But Gasko’s optimistic, anti-establishment approach to the industry may have also contributed to Rogue’s undoing. At its peak, the company only made about 1,000 bars a month. “I’ve gradually made more and more labor-intensive processes and more difficult processes” rather than growing the company, Gasko says, adding that his goal was never to make much money. For the past several years, Rogue has mainly stayed afloat thanks to the slightly-better-than-retail margins of direct-to-consumer sales.

Now a parent living in Massachusetts, Gasko finds himself without the income to continue sustaining his family, let alone his hobby-turned-business. Those financial pressures as well as an existential fear of his personal contributions to climate change drove Gasko’s decision to close Rogue Chocolatier, and he’s now feeling on edge about his legacy in the chocolate world and uncertain of what he’ll do next. “My whole adult life I have spent almost every single day in this chocolate factory doing this [and] in my mind thinking that I was making certain sacrifices in order to serve an ideal,” Gasko says. “It’s the only thing that I’ve ever been modestly successful at. My whole sense of identity and everything that I’ve ever worked on... all of that is going [away]. It’s very scary.”

So far, Rogue Chocolatier has only around $11,000 pledged towards its GoFundMe goal. Money from the campaign will go towards finishing Rogue’s final batch of bars as well as to clear debts and pay for the costs associated with transferring the equipment to a new owner. “Right now, I’m concerned that people don’t get what I’m trying to do,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting necessarily that everyone would, but fewer people are getting it than I was hoping.”

You write in your GoFundMe about chocolate’s negative environmental impact. Did you have any principles for how you wanted to make ethical chocolate when you got started?

I think I was mostly interested in making good chocolate. The idea was to buy high-end raw materials and that would be better for farmers; making high quality chocolate with the idea that that would have secondary effects. I certainly have had some environmental concerns in the past, but I don’t know that that was really my primary motivation, or would have been in the top 10 motivations.

Why did you decide to create a campaign to transfer ownership rather than liquidating your assets like a business typically would?

Because it seems like there’s a possibility for a better outcome. If the stuff gets liquidated, it goes to someone who’s already fairly wealthy, most likely, or it gets broken down [into] components. All of the internal knowledge is dispersed and lost.

It’s a couple things. One of them is trying to make it so that we can fulfill as many obligations as we possibly can. The other is to try to create a positive outcome out of this closing. A third one, which is more abstract, is that there is a political quality to doing things in this way, which people may agree or disagree with. I believe that if we are successful in crowdfunding, that on some small level we could perhaps expand people’s notions of what’s possible. There might be a way to build a new path forward, which could open up different ways of thinking about things, but maybe not. It’s a long shot.

What sort of support or feedback have you received from people about the crowdfunding campaign?

Some people who are in craft chocolate are not particularly happy that I’m critiquing craft chocolate, because they have what may be considered a more pragmatic view of things: that if we just build the industry, there’s going to be greater potential to improve farmers’ lives. I’m not saying that craft chocolate can’t improve farmer’s lives. My critique is about structural inequality and power and distribution of value.

Absolutely craft chocolate can pay higher prices; it can contribute to better working conditions and better outcomes for farmers. [But] it generally does not because it’s focused on specialty cacao. It tends to not be as favorable toward the farmers who are the poorest and the most disadvantaged right now. It tends to be more favorable toward farms and producers who are already fairly well off. You have mid-range to larger farms that are able to vertically integrate post-harvest processing. That’s quite different than the majority of cocoa farmers in West Africa, who are below the international extreme poverty line in income, and experience hunger and other problems related to poverty.

Why haven’t you named the producer that you’re trying to transfer equipment to?

The feedback is: “It’d be great if you had the specific producer, and could tell that story and get people engaged in that way.” But I don’t have time to get all that together right now. I’m certain there are groups that will be a good fit, and I’m speaking with people right now to see who’s going to be the best fit. That stuff takes time, and I was very concerned about saying it’s going to X producer before all the details are worked out.

You’ve expressed that it was really hard for you to make a living doing craft chocolate in the way that you were doing it. How do you think that would be different in the hands of a producer?

The costs of living are radically lower, so even if you derive the same amount of value, then automatically it’s way more feasible... My plan is to have either a farmer-owned cooperative, where there’s equity already built in, or if it needs to be through a private party, that there is equity ownership and voting arrangement as part of the contract when we transfer the equipment.

How are you vetting these producers? Are you looking in certain regions?

Some people have reached out. Some people I already know… I’d really like to make this work in West Africa, if I could, because I think it would probably have the biggest impact there. A lot of these projects don’t happen in West Africa because frankly, it’s not as much of a priority: USAID stuff in say, Peru, is primarily as part of a coca eradication effort. It’s political. There’s a lot of money that has gone into Peru, and there’s some fairly functional advanced cooperatives in Peru. Or there’s some people in Columbia who are good. There’s some existing people in Ecuador.

What on-the-ground facilities does the producer need to have in order to actually acquire and use this equipment that you’re offering?

They need a building which has some rooms, plumbing, and sewage capabilities, and that you can paint. It needs some capacity for HVAC, either with air conditioners or a centralized system. I’ve got a big air conditioner that I’ll probably be sending that would help cool a room, but it’s not enough for the full facility.

The biggest issues that I think are [going to] constrain the location are the adequacy and reliability of the electrical grid. If electricity is really unreliable, then you might have issues conching [a mechanical process by which cocoa butter is distributed through chocolate]. I know some producers in Peru that produce liquor samples in a small lab, they sometimes have issues because the power goes off in the middle of the night. Unless you have a way of getting a backup generator, or something like that, that’s a problem. You also need industrial power.

Did you model this transfer of knowledge and equipment off anything else? Have you ever seen anything like this?

I’ve thought about transferring production to origin for many years. I went so far as to design a whole modular factory that could be built in shipping-container-style modules. The idea was that we would manufacture the modules here, and then transfer them very close to farms to reduce the carbon footprint… I’ve thought about doing models like this for a number of years, but I haven’t really had a way of doing it. I’ve also had the inertia of this existing factory and business. This just seemed like a natural way of doing something that is how I believe that things should be done anyway.

What is the contingency plan if you don’t raise this money? Are you just going to go through liquidation? You’ve already said you’re not interested in selling the business or transferring ownership.

I will try to make it go as smoothly as I can, but the most likely outcome is creditors will need to be paid, and I’ll go into liquidation, and they’ll be stripped for parts. All the institutional knowledge will be lost unless I decide to do consulting or start another business or something. There’s an idea of re-imagining the commons through peer-to-peer interaction, modeled on Wikipedia. I’ve reached out to some researchers in that area to try and see if there would be a way to connect some of those ideas with what we’re doing. It’s difficult to find something that will work for this model immediately, but I have considered possibly commodifying the knowledge base through documentation and finding ways of distributing it: written materials, or YouTube, or something like that. I haven’t spent a lot of time looking into that. That’s maybe one possibility.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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