Even the largest, most well-established companies are struggling with sales and operations challenges brought on by the pandemic as they battle shipping delays, supply chain disruptions, and wavering consumer demand.
For a small Denver business like Bibamba Artisan Chocolate, keeping the business running has been even more difficult. And yet the company—which celebrates its one-year anniversary this August—has not only endured, but reinvented itself in a true testament of perseverance and grit.
To mark the one-year anniversary, here’s a look back at key milestones from Bibamba’s journey and a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Denver couple Patrick and Mara Tcheunou first launched Bibamba’s parent company, Smart Globe International, in 2015. The original plan was to build sustainable cacao farms in Patrick’s native country of Cameroon and sell the high quality beans to chocolate-makers in the United States. The couple purchased 56 acres of farmland and began the long, arduous process of developing the farm operations and growing cacao. Five years after the seeds were planted, the farm had its first harvest.
The first shipment of cacao beans arrived in March 2020—just before the world turned upside down. Businesses pulled back and everything shut down. No one wanted to buy whole beans from a new farm at that time.
Patrick and Mara had taken a small sample of their whole beans to a local chocolate-maker a few months earlier, where they learned how to roast the beans and turn them into chocolate. The workshop was a success; the chocolate experts praised the product’s earthy flavor and natural taste. Armed with the affirmation that their beans made high quality, delicious chocolate, the Tcheunous knew their harvest had great potential.
And so it was time for Plan B: make and sell chocolate themselves.
April - July 2020
Over the next few months, Patrick worked from sun up to sun down to prepare the beans. Dozens and dozens of bags needed to be sorted, cracked, shelled, and winnowed, a lengthy and painstaking process typically accomplished by a machine. Patrick did it all by hand at home throughout the hot summer, using DIY methods he learned from the chocolate-making workshop along with his scientific engineering prowess.
Next came locating a commercial kitchen, roasting the beans, making the chocolate, and perfecting the recipe—all while finding a designer and developing the Bibamba brand, logo, and packaging.
Just four months later, Bibamba made its debut at a farmers market in Cherry Creek. They launched with only one flavor: dark chocolate bark with plantain crisps. The unique bark format simplified the production process and had a natural, organic texture that emulated the company’s sustainable, eco-friendly approach. The plantains were also grown on the farm and allowed the company to differentiate itself by delivering an all-natural, one-of-a-kind product.
Because of the pandemic, Bibamba couldn’t give out samples of the product at the farmers market, which is usually critical for sales of a new food product. Luckily, their story resonated strongly with people and everyone rallied to support the launch. The Tcheunous networked with other local vendors and gained their first loyal fans amongst the small groups of shoppers.
“It was a big gamble,” Mara commented. “The one thing that felt really good was knowing we’d done that workshop and gotten feedback from experts in the field saying our chocolate was good and different. We felt confident in the product, even if we were still learning the ropes with every other part of the business.”
Over the following months, Bibamba sold at farmers markets and holiday markets—still without being allowed tastings or pairings due to the pandemic. The couple forged relationships with local businesses, using grassroots efforts to get Bibamba onto the shelves of coffee shops, small markets, and boutiques.
Finding financial support has been a huge struggle. In the wake of the George Floyd murder and the subsequent civil rights movements, many institutions seemed to be offering money and grants for people of color. Unfortunately, the opportunities proved to be surface level and didn’t deliver.
Patrick said, “Being an entrepreneur is hard. You come with no wealth and you have to navigate a financial system that is set up to prevent you from accessing the funding that people of other skin colors receive. Discrimination from financial institutions, lack of governmental support, and institutionalized racism has not changed. However I have been very pleased by the push from liberal Americans for meaningful fundamental changes that could lead to real justice and much-needed equity.”
Local organizations like the World Trade Center in Denver proved to be immensely helpful, as well as close friends and family who went the extra mile. Patrick’s family back in Cameroon was incredibly involved in keeping the farm going throughout the rough spots. His father, Luc, and brother, Gerrit, lived many hours away from the rural farm, yet they made frequent trips and helped with financial transactions, transportation, shipping, and many other logistics. Mara’s parents, Barbara and Tom Trager, have also been huge supporters.
Mara said, “We have so much gratitude for everyone who has helped us. We’re so indebted and are driven to make the business a success for all of them, maybe even more so than for ourselves.”
The challenges of running a small global business during the pandemic cannot be understated. Just recently, the company endured a four-month delay in the shipment of its second-year harvest. Their entire business and years of hard work could have been devastated if the shipment hadn’t finally arrived earlier this week.
“When you literally have all your beans in one basket, the stress is incredible,” Mara explained. “We were in a difficult spot. We needed to grow sales to make ends meet, yet we were getting low on product and counting down the days until that shipment arrived.”
Now that they’ve finally received the cocoa, Patrick and the team are wasting no time turning the beans into delicious chocolate. They are putting the finishing touches on their fourth flavor of bark—a crisp, bright orange dark chocolate—and will launch two brand new product lines in a few weeks: bittersweet chocolate chunks to bake with and a decadent, rich hot chocolate perfect for the upcoming winter months.
The farm’s harvest will increase exponentially each year, which means that each year they expect to produce more beans and be able to craft more chocolate. The Tcheunous look forward to growing the business in both the United States and in Africa, where the farm creates fair-wage jobs, opportunities for women, and access to technical education.
It hasn’t been easy, but the couple is passionate about the difference their hard work is making.
Patrick said, “As we grow, we continue to improve our business practices in Cameroon and hope to extend that to other places in Africa in the future. We’re improving compensation, making a positive impact in the community, and raising the standards of the chocolate industry and Cameroonian products. I focus on that picture of what we are working to achieve and it helps me not to get distracted or discouraged by setbacks. Also, my team works so hard that I am inspired every day to keep going. They give way more than I do. It’s worth everything we’ve put into it, and more.”
To everyone who has been a part of Bibamba’s journey, thank you so much for your support. We can’t wait to see what the next year brings!
Blog written by: Suzanne Strobel