Coco Polo, a manufacturer of sugarless chocolates, could have gotten started in 2001.
That's when it formed a partnership with a Hawaiian grower of a plant used for stevia, a sugar alternative. Yet, despite Coco Polo's product being prepped for the market, it had to wait for the Food and Drug Administration's green light for the ingredient.
That wouldn't come until shortly before Coco Polo sold its first bar in 2011.
Losing 10 years of sales would bother most CEOs, but John Cunnell saw the delay as an opportunity to perfect Coco Polo's product. After all, Chocolate without sugar takes more than a couple batches to perfect.
“I mean, there's no point in making chocolate that doesn't taste great,” Cunnell said.
After being afforded time — and, thus, the prospect of finding the elusive flawless formula for its chocolates — the Highland Park-based Coco Polo was able to generate $1 million in revenue within its first three years of launching.
And though Cunnell expects Coco Polo to settle down to a 20 percent growth rate in the years to come, there's certainly plenty of opportunity for a company that's one of only two major players in the sugarless chocolate category.
Here's how it all runs:
Coco Polo works with 19 warehouses across the country to bring its products into natural and health food stores. Getting the product to distributors is fairly straightforward, Cunnell said. Persuading retailers to stock any or all of its 13 products is harder, yet still doable.
But the company's biggest challenge — and what threatens its planned growth most — is getting the public to identify the product on the shelves and buy it. That's why the products are distributed to retailers such as Whole Foods or Fresh Market, as Cunnell explained:
“The consumer of those stores is much more aware of ingredients and understands more readily what we're trying to do. In a general grocery store, the number of people who know what stevia is drops off dramatically.”
Changing that is going to require capital. Coco Polo already is putting 40 percent of its revenue back into marketing, but it's looking at investment as a way to push more advertising.
The company has the production capacity in its Highland Park factory to reach $4 million in revenue.
Before looking that far off, though, Cunnell is anticipating reaching $2 million, when he expects the company will start netting profit.
Savoring those profits entails that the public not be hesitant to take a bite of the products.
“What they'll find is the same great flavor they're used to,” he said.
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The biz in brief
Name: Coco Polo
Headquarters: Highland Park
CEO: John Cunnell
One more thing: The active compounds of stevia — a sugar alternative — have a negligible effect on blood glucose, making it attractive to people on carbohydrate-controlled diets.
Highland Park: The chocolate capital of N.J.
Coco Polo’s Highland Park chocolate lab is actually a combined manufacturer-retailer. The companion store is referred to as Birnn Chocolates, and it has a history that stretches back almost a century.
Back in the 1950s, a prior iteration of Birnn Chocolates (referred to then as Birnn Candy) even had 11 stores across New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“It was owned by a couple different families over the years,” said Cunnell, who took the helm of Birnn Chocolates in 1991. “It’s now just in Highland Park, (but it continues) the tradition of having a range of quality chocolate products.”