One always feels a sense of optimism when writing about Greek entrepreneurs attaining success abroad. One such business is Zoe’s Chocolate Co, owned and run by the Tsoukatos siblings Pantelis, 35, Zoe, 33, and 25-year-old Petros. The young entrepreneurs are doing brisk business in the United States, sending their inventive and delicious confections far and wide, including to lofty events such as the White House press corp dinner, the Oscars, the Emmy awards and the G8 Summit. The company has received rave reviews in the American press while its client list includes the likes of Oprah Winfrey and George Stephanopoulos. It has also been awarded twice at the prestigious Good Food Awards, the first time in 2013 for its Sesame Tahini Crunch and this year for Zoe’s Greek Honey Yogurt praline, coated in the company’s signature dark chocolate.
Like so many Greek Americans, the family’s history in the US dates back to the 1900s, when they started out selling homemade chocolates from a hand cart in Baltimore. The business grew with time until the siblings’ father, Giorgos, a self-taught, progressive and ambitious visionary, took over at the head of the chocolate-making business.
“After university we all went our separate ways and had no intention of continuing the family business,” Zoe tells Kathimerini. “Pantelis studied business management and so did Petros later. I worked on issues of public policy and international development, and then at a state consultancy firm in Washington.”
A life in chocolate, though, appears to have been written in the stars.
“We came back home to Pennsylvania in 2007 and decided to join forces to preserve the family’s know-how in chocolate,” says Zoe. “We believed that we had a unique product and story to tell. The business was named Zoe’s Chocolate, or chocolate of life, as ‘zoe’ means life in Greek, and this breathed new life into the family history. As a company it is entirely different to that of our father and grandparents. Yet we have preserved their values and traditions, adapting them to the present.”
Giorgos and his wife, university professor Eleni Tsoukatos, had taught the children to appreciate good, homemade food, cooking with fresh and organic ingredients grown in the area. They imprinted the notion of food as means of bringing people closer together.
“This is something we pass onto our customers, creating a kind of extended family and keeping in touch with them,” says Zoe. “We want to educate them about chocolate so that they can enjoy not just the flavor but the whole experience.”
Today, Zoe’s Chocolates travel all over the world, as far as Thailand and Australia, and, of course, to Greece.
The chocolate industry has always been forward-thinking.
“We try different ingredients and try to set new trends, to introduce flavors that you can’t get anywhere else,” explains Zoe.
“We make chocolates that have a hint of nostalgia but also a modern note, that remind us of our favorite Greek flavors, like honey, nuts, citrus and cinnamon. As we live in the States, we have also created a series that is reminiscent of classic American flavors, like apple pie. My brother Petros has trained alongside many French chocolatiers.”
One of the secrets of Zoe’s Chocolate’s success is the use of high-quality organic products from local farmers.
“We have honey from our own beehives, our own herbs and dairy products from local producers. We also import honey from Greece, as well as Greek coffee and certain liqueurs which we experiment with in new combinations,” Zoe says.
Zoe’s Chocolate Co was born in 2007, a dramatic year for the American economy, when funding for new businesses had all but dried up.
“My brother and I were just 27 and 25 years old when we moved from Washington back to the family home in Pennsylvania and started the business,” says Zoe.
“We applied for a bank loan but no one would give us ‘kids’ any money, especially not in a recession. The denial cost us. Our parents supported us as much as they could at the start and a lot of friends rushed to help us open our first store. For two years we didn’t have a salary. Gradually the company grew and we managed to get some funding from local authorities, which allowed us to buy our first big machine.”
Pantelis, the eldest of the three, is in charge of financial planning, Zoe is responsible for marketing, product design and development, while Petros and dad Giorgos are the creative force behind the venture.
Mom Eleni, who teaches Spanish literature, Spanish and French, helps out on her days off and when demand spikes during the holidays.
“We are a very close-knit a family and that carries through to the professional level,” explains Zoe. “Of course there are always challenges in a family business and it is imperative that each member has a distinct role. The important thing is that we have found a balance and we are all accountable to one another. We have learned a lot about life through the business. After all, a good idea is not enough to succeed; it takes tremendous sacrifice.”
Zoe’s Chocolate stores are located in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, and Frederick, Maryland.