Where it all started and where it’s going: a conversation with the Zotter family, inventors of the hand-scooped chocolate, and art designer Andreas H. Gratze.
In 1992, the first ever hand-scooped chocolates were created in the back room of your patisserie in Graz, Austria. What flavor were they and how did it all begin?
Josef Zotter: Innovation is often borne out of the need for solutions. That’s what happened with our hand-scooped chocolates. We were already producing bonbons and chocolates at our patisserie, but we did it the classic way, using casting molds. At the time I received a large order which I wouldn’t have been able to fulfill in time as I didn’t have enough molds. So I had the idea to make one large chocolate bar and just break it up into smaller ones. I spread the chocolate onto a large board, sprinkled it with pumpkin seeds and spices and then added layer upon layer. Our client was absolutely delighted, some journalists even dropped by, and everyone wanted to know exactly what my process was. I tried to explain it to people simply, so I said: layer by layer, just like with hand-scooped paper (handmade + scoop) – and that’s how my idea got its name.
Andreas H. Gratze, you’ve been Zotter’s art designer since 1994 and have turned their wrappers and packaging into veritable pieces of art. Each piece of packaging was designed by you, from way back when until today. Where does your inspiration come from?
Andreas H. Gratze: The ingredients Sepp (Josef Zotter) uses are extremely innovative, which on its own fosters lots of ideas, but usually, my entire environment influences my drawings. Each design tells a story, that’s my motivation. And with each new flavor, I can create a whole new story.
Of all the ones you’ve done, what are your favorite designs?
Andreas H. Gratze: There are so many, but if put on the spot, I would say “Apple-Barberry” and “Rose and Basil”.
Zotter has been doing fair trade since 2004. In 2006, you’ve switched the entire range to organic, and you’ve been producing your chocolates bean-to-bar since 2007. What are the reasons for those decisions?
Ulrike Zotter: Our cacao journey to Venezuela was pivotal, that was in 2001. We asked ourselves: what are we contributing, how can we make a difference? That’s why we shifted everything to reflect fair trade. Organic products are our general philosophy, that particular shift just took a bit longer, as we were already using a large number of ingredients at the time, so we had to wait for each one to be available as an organic product. Whenever we make a decision, we go all or nothing, so it’s never just part of the business, but always 100%. Bean-to-Bar has always been our dream. Until then, only white, milk and dark chocolates were available, and so we thought there was so much potential for other possibilities. Our bean-to-bar production gives us so many options, so much development potential as well as direct contacts to our raw material suppliers.
30 years of hand-scooped chocolates. How many formulas and new recipes does that make over the years?
Josef Zotter: Oh, that’ll be a lot, I would guess we must have created around 1500 recipes at this point.
You tend to develop new flavors together with your daughter Julia. Don’t you ever run out of ideas?
Josef Zotter: No, because the spectrum is so versatile. Julia also often introduces new trends. That’s the beauty of two generations working together. And the energy and drive in our product development definitely come from her.
Julia Zotter: Compared to 30 years ago, the advantage we now have is being able to produce each layer ourselves. We manufacture everything in-house: the chocolate, the fruit fillings, the pralines, the caramel, the marzipan, the brown butter toffee. We are able to come up with textures which wouldn’t have been possible 30 years ago.
Michael and Julia, you’ve grown up with chocolate, you’ve been working in the family business for years, and you represent Zotter’s future. Why did you choose to be part of the family business, and what are your priorities?
Michael Zotter: We know the business inside and out and are its oldest employees, so to speak. I’m 33 years old, Julia is 34. I was born in 1988 while my parents achieved record profits with their patisserie. We were born into this business, so to us, it’s our natural environment. Not being superficial is very important to me. If there’s a question about a product, I want to be able to provide an answer as opposed to saying, oh, I’m not sure, that bit is done by a different company. For the future, we envision the business as only increasing in size to the point where we still have sufficient oversight and are aware of each detail. I’m a perfectionist that way. We’re 100% behind organic + fair, that’s a given for us. And it’s really lovely to be able to say that.
Julia Zotter: We know the business so well, it’s not like a job we’re obligated to do. We have so much freedom to create alongside our responsibilities. I decided on fully joining the business when we switched to organic and fair and when we did our first cacao trip where I met our partners – the farmers – for the first time. My priorities are the affinity with our suppliers, the organic + fair principles, environmental protection and transparency. We are a social enterprise, and the way we do things, you can actually see our actions having an effect. That’s something you can definitely dedicate your life to.