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Frederick Schilling: A Real Sweet Heart

by Jennifer LeBlanc

Frederick Schilling
University: Ohio Wesleyan
Major: Religion
Grad Year: Dropped out to become a professional ski bum

Company: Dagoba Organic Chocolate
Title: Founder
Industry: Cacao/Chocolate, Food & Beverage
Year founded: 2001
Type of company: Chocolate manufacturer
Location: Ashland, OR
Number of employees: 50
Website: www.dagobachocolate.com


The King of Chocolate

As a teenager, Frederick Schilling wanted to be a rock star. Now he is the chocolate king.
In 2001, Schilling founded Dagoba Chocolate, the first and wildly successful organic chocolate company. All products are organic, Kosher Certified, non-GMO (genetically modified) and non-irradiated. Dagoba's environmentally conscious headquarters in the US and its cacao sources in South America both bear the marks of humanitarian business: small farms, co-ops, fair trade, generous wages and health benefits.

In six years, Schilling has earned an extensive list of awards and media exposure. But in our exchange of emails, he confessed a damning secret: "I didn't even like chocolate ten years ago." (Chocoholics everywhere gasp).

So how does one become the king of chocolate without a sweet tooth? For this interview, Schilling was kind enough to lead us down his path to success.

In the Beginning, Man Must Find Himself

As an undergrad at Wesleyan University in Ohio, Schilling studied religion - not culinary arts or business. Instead of graduating, he "dropped out to become a professional ski bum." After dabbling in a variety of things, he eventually found his calling in the kitchen.

"I was working in a restaurant as a line cook/day sous chef," he explained, "and I started to appreciate the chocolate we were using." His academic studies blended perfectly with his new interest. "Because of my appreciation and passion for religion and cultural beliefs, once I learned about the reverence the Maya and Aztecs held for cacao, I was hooked on this sacred bean." He extended that reverence to the name of the company: "Dagoba is a Sanskrit word referring to a shrine. Like wise, ancient cultures, we regard chocolate as sacred and chose our name to impart that."

First Steps

After discovering his main ingredient, Schilling began by researching the market. He discovered that the word "organic" is mostly associated with fruits and vegetables, not a luxury like fine chocolate. Schilling gladly stepped in to change this, bringing his life-long "humanitarian/ environmentalist side" to the challenge.

Next came slaving over a hot stove. Despite Dagoba's overnight popularity, Schilling had to take the time to learn about the origins and processes of chocolate, and perfect his own technique. "I started to hand make the product for the first 1 1/2 years," Schilling said. Other chefs simply acquire the ingredients and use them as they are. Schilling took the time to learn how cacao becomes chocolate - about the pods, then beans, fermenting, drying, roasting, grading, grounding, blending, conching, and tempering. He also had to tackle how to attain high quality with healthy, ecologically-friendly ingredients, third world economics, and international laws.

"I spend a lot of time traveling to countries of origin sourcing cacao and visiting the farmers that supply us our cacao."

Schilling's unofficial title is "chocolate alchemist," referring to the early chemists who tried to transform junk metals into gold. Compare the image of a cacao bean, resembling a mere almond, to the site of a decadent bar of dark chocolate. Alchemy indeed!

Stepping Out

Schilling introduced his goodies to the world at New York's Summer Fancy Food Show. According to the Dagoba story on the company website, their product was honored as "Best Organic Bars" by Food & Wine Magazine before the year was out. Every year since, Dagoba has won awards for both taste ("Best Organic Milk Chocolate," San Francisco Chronicle 2002) and environmental efforts ("Green Power Leadership," EPA 2005).

"The movement of organics, socially/environmentally responsible companies and also the popularity of dark chocolate all helped the company grow."

Schilling acknowledges his unique product, but he also credits timing with his success: "The movement of organics, socially/environmentally responsible companies and also the popularity of dark chocolate all helped the company grow."

Mom and Pop Operation

Schilling also recognizes that he couldn't have done it alone. His father, a veteran of IBM, and his mother gave advice, lessons from experience, and energy to the venture. On the website, Schilling praises his parents as "an invaluable part of Dagoba's success." His mother continues to manage the international sales.

The Corporate World

In October of last year, Schilling's hard work paid off in the ultimate way: Dagoba was bought by Hershey Co. Details about finances and cooperation were not revealed to the press, but it must have been a sweet deal for all involved. Hershey certainly likes the opportunity to branch out into the growing world of organic food. In a press release, Schilling remarked, "This is a tremendous opportunity for Dagoba. Hershey's deep commitment to quality and sustainability throughout its supply chain will help Dagoba improve and expand its mission of improving cacao farmers' livelihoods and expanding organic farming methods."

The Third World

The sale does not mean, however, that Schilling has retired to a tropical beach. "I'm still involved in all aspects of the company; marketing and production," Schilling vows. "I spend a lot of time traveling to countries of origin sourcing cacao and visiting the farmers that supply us our cacao." In Costa Rica, for instance, he swapped alchemy secrets with a chocolate-making women's group. While his Dominican Republic source boasts "the largest organic Fair Trade co-op in the world." Photos on the Dagoba website show Schilling in these environments.

The Heart of the Matter

After six years in the organic chocolate business, Frederick Schilling boils down his success to one key element: having heart, and putting it all into your venture.

"Someone tells me I can't do something, the first thing I'm going to do is attempt to prove them wrong."

When asked about those who discouraged him, Schilling replied, "someone tells me I can't do something, the first thing I'm going to do is attempt to prove them wrong."

The best advice he ever received: "listen to everyone, but follow your heart. I don't remember who told this to me? but it's the mantra I still hold close to me when making a decision." He'd say the same to any aspiring entrepreneur.

Rock star, alchemist, businessman, activist-all of these titles are applicable-but Frederick Schilling is above all a king of chocolate, one who sits upon a throne he built himself.
Dagoba Organic Chocolate
Dagoba Organic Chocolate
Dagoba Organic Chocolate
Dagoba Organic Chocolate
 
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