The Styrian chocolate producer is known for his ability to use unusual creations to stand out again and again. One important focus is on fair trade and organic production. Visitors to his chocolate theatre can follow the production of his chocolate from bean to bar, tasting the different stages along the way. Afterwards, they can go to the edible zoo and meet the food on their plate in person. This idea is not to shock but rather to make people understand. We spoke to the chocolate expert Josef Zotter about blood chocolate, the art of failure and why he sometimes wishes he was American.
How do you create space for innovation?
Well, I don’t sit myself down and plan new product ideas. The ideas come automatically while I’m working – my office is chaotic but here is a system to it – I often write notes on pieces of paper, which are then moved around according to current priorities. I work on paper. And sometimes I have the most unusual ideas in my edible zoo. The thing is to relax and let the ideas come.
Who comes up with new ideas at Zotter?
I do! If Zotter is on the packaging, Zotter has to be behind the product. I combine tastes in my head to create something entirely new. I know what something will taste like before it has been produced. Luckily, I have more ideas than we can produce in a season - the difficult thing is to decide what not to make. I even have to take bestselling chocolate out of the product range to make space for new ideas.
We know that you’re not a fan of market research. What do you think about test rounds?
What for? The chocolate is perfect already. It doesn’t have to be to every-one’s taste. But if it is to your taste, you’ll love it. That’s why we have 365 varieties: long live diversity and individuality! If we didn’t have those things, would we ever have Bacon Bits or Hempseed and Mocha – or Fish Marshmallow, or Raspberry Blood chocolate with real blood?
How do you know when it’s better to set an idea aside?
I leave the pieces of paper on my desk for a while and look through them again later. Only if I still find the ideas exciting, do I think about a recipe.
Is failure really an art that can be learnt?
What is failure? Not every idea has to be amazing – of course there have been ideas and products that weren’t as successful. That just means that we stop making them. The important thing is that we tried them out. It’s no good complaining that nothing ever works out, just because one thing failed. You need to dust yourself off and carry on!
Are you good at failing?
Who isn’t? Do you know anyone who does everything perfectly straight off and is never unsure if they have made the right decision? That would be boring. Okay, one bankruptcy procedure in life is enough, but now I can look back and say that I learnt a lot from that time. No one helped me then. But some-times you just have to initiate a fresh start yourself.
Is what you create after failing worth more than being successful on the first attempt?
I loved my cafes. And now chocolate is part of my life. I don’t regret what used to be. It’s important to live in the here and now and make the most of the current situation.
How sustainable can chocolate production be?
This is a complex topic because you first have to define what sustainability actually is. I can of course only talk about sustainability in my company. At Zotter, all our ingredients from the south are fair trade and are certified as such. Every ingredient is organic and we produce 64% of the energy we use at our production site here in Styria, by means of photovoltaics and our heating plant. Last year, we managed to reduce our residual waste by a third. Our vehicles are almost entirely powered by our own electricity. So our energy is pretty clean! The EMAS certification rated our sustainability very positively.
How important is it for employees to like you?
Of course, as a boss it is better not to be unpopular but you are in charge and sometimes you have to pull people back on track. Which isn’t always pleasant, but does it mean that you’re less nice?
Up until now, all your children have become part of the company. Will anyone who doesn’t participate be disinherited?
No, of course not! I’m happy that our two older children want to continue living according to our ideas and values and also want to work with us. I never asked them to or expected that they would make this decision, but of course I’m pleased about it. With our youngest, careers are still a way off. The important thing is for all options to be open to our children and for them to get to know the world by studying or doing work experience abroad. But if they do decide to come back to their roots and build a life here, that’s great.
Sauerkraut or crackling? Crackling.
Meat or chocolate? Both good.
A bit of Zotter wisdom? Philanthropy is the most valuable asset.
How many of the ideas are yours? What is an idea exactly? The moment of inspiration. What comes next isn’t entirely from me.
Last film? It’s a while ago now but Plastic Planet and We Feed The World made a big impression on me.
Tennis or ice hockey? At my age – tennis!
Bedtime reading? Magazines on food and design. I only read books if I have a lot of time off and that doesn’t happen often.
Would you like to be American? Sometimes, yes. Particularly when I think of their positive energy, which makes everything seems possible.
Could someone else do it better? Yes, of course. No one is that important.
© Cover photo: Petra Rautenstrauch, Zotter