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UW class launches pair into caffeinated-chocolate business

As a class project, two undergrads at the university’s Foster School of Business dreamed up a company to sell quality chocolates infused with caffeine. Now they’ve got their product on the shelves at Bartells and at Nordstrom’s cafes.

Joe Chocolates, a company started by students at the University of Washington, is generating some buzz, not just for nibblers of its caffeinated chocolates but also among retailers.

Born during a 2015 entrepreneurship class at the UW’s Foster School of Business, the company now has its products on the shelves of some two dozen local retailers, including Bartell Drugs. It recently landed a deal that will put its chocolates in Nordstrom’s coffee bars in several regions.

“Who thought a school project would turn into an almost nationally distributed product so fast?” said Sam Tanner, 23, CEO and co-founder. Before the Nordstrom deal, the company’s first widespread distribution arrangement, “we were self-distributing through Seattle, driving my car around.”

The idea of making a caffeinated chocolate arose during the Foster School’s two-quarter Creating a Company class in fall 2015. Tanner and his fellow student and company co-founder Peter Keckemet, 22, wanted to make something tasty that would help themselves stay energized during long study sessions or hikes, and that was easy to grab and eat on the go.

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Other caffeinated chocolates were already on the market, but “we found the quality of the chocolate way too low and education of customers — about how much caffeine was in them — way too low,” Tanner said.

So they set out to make their own higher quality chocolates, receiving mentoring from the likes of Jean Thompson, owner and CEO of Seattle Chocolates; Fran Bigelow of Fran’s Chocolates; and Bill Fredericks of Chocolate Man in Lake Forest Park, and who is president of the Northwest Chocolatiers Guild..

As part of the Creating a Company class, they received $1,200 to launch Joe Chocolates (the name is a play on the expression “cup of joe”), creating the caffeinated chocolates in a shared commercial kitchen in the University District. (They were able to pay back the $1,200 with subsequent profits from the company.)

Tanner, who grew up in a family of chefs, and Keckemet, who has worked in the food industry, decided to grow the company after both graduated in spring 2016. Keckemet is now chief operating officer of Joe Chocolates. The company has one other, part-time employee — a friend from college.

They currently operate out of a production facility in South Park, where they temper dark chocolate couverture (chocolate with a high cocoa butter content) from Guittard Chocolate. They mix in coffee beans from Lighthouse Roasters, as well as their own handmade inclusions such as caramel and toasted coconut. And they package the products themselves.

The company has three mainstay flavors…

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