Interview with Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate Part 1 by Victoria Cooksey

Shawn Askinosie has been making craft chocolate for over a decade now, but he was originally a criminal defense lawyer and back in 2005 Shawn switched to bean-to-bar chocolate making. Askinosie Chocolate is located in Springfield, Missouri. This bean-to-bar chocolate factory sources 100% of their beans directly from the farmers with Shawn Askinoise making frequent trips right to the source of the beans in Ecuador, Tanzania, and the Philippines.

I recently got to have an amazing conversation with Shawn Askinoise for the purpose of this interview. Despite being a bit under the weather, Shawn was extremely generous with his time. I could have asked him a 1,000 questions, but did my best to limit them down to a two-part blog interview. Shawn Askinosie has such a positive approach to life, is involved in several projects to truly make a difference in children lives (more on that in part 2), has a huge depth of knowledge of craft chocolate and all that is involved with it and still somehow manages to remain extremely humble at the same time.

And now for the interview Part 1:

Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate

Victoria Cooksey: Have you found any surprise skills that carried over from being a criminal defense lawyer into chocolate making?

Shawn Askinosie: I first I thought that maybe my skill at reading contracts, even though that wasn’t my area of specialties as a lawyer. I thought that kind of thing might help and it has been ok. The thing that has really surprised me the most, and it really shouldn’t have surprised me, is I spent twenty years as a criminal defense lawyer preparing for the courtroom: by that I mean I did a lot of my own investigating and even when I had investigators working for me I still did a lot of it myself. That involved finding people. And just as a journalist would try to find people that would be willing to talk, I have found in the 11 years that I have been doing this that skill of just locating people and talking to them is a skill that has kind of served me well in the chocolate business. Despite the Internet and Google and all that stuff you still have to know what to do. To find farmers; and it’s not easy. To not just spend a jillion dollars finding them, flying all over the place, not having your ducks in a row. I feel that is a skill that has served me well.

V.C.: Any words of wisdom on how to cope and stay positive with both finding an inspiration for a career change and making the transition into a new one?

S.A.: I think that, and actually this question is detailed in maybe half of the book that I wrote with my daughter Lauren, addresses this very question (Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul will be out Nov. 14th, and is available fro pre-order now). What I have found is that people seeking the second career, career change, are not lacking for skill, talent, passion, motivation or the ability to research what is next. What I’m finding is that there is so much information that the proliferation of possibility is actually paralyzing people, so I encourage people to really kind of put down Google and even books, and I encourage them to have contact with people, and conversations with people, not online, and to follow a very specific path that I talk about in the book of what they can to do to discover what their inspiration is after they’ve had a career in whatever field, or even for college students who feel like there are just so many possibilities that they don’t know how to pick. So from a high altitude stand point I think that is what I’m seeing; that people are struggling with, what should I do? How do I find my passion? I think there are things people can do to discover that. I think once that is identified then the more practical things kick in and I really encourage people maybe who are thinking of starting another business; in particular not necessarily another job, or being hired by another firm or something, but the people who are thinking of striking out on their own. I really encourage them to find people in their orbit who are willing to help them kind of pressure test their idea from a financial perspective. I see many people out there with great ideas, great passion, boundless energy who unfortunately have not really examined the profitability of the idea, or have friends and advisers to help them with what this might look like in black or white on paper in order for them to have a chance of making a living and being able to support themselves, or their family. So from a very practical stand point I encourage people to find two or three people that are in their world and help them test the assumptions of their idea and to whether or not it is feasible. Not as dream killers, but as friends and advisers who are balancing the hope of the future of this idea on the realities of business.

Often people who have a little bit of money, or maybe sold something else, are in the worst position because there’s this sort of false sense of security by a big pile of cash that can be depleted quickly depending on what the business is. I’m encouraging people no matter what they are majoring in, no matter what the career they want, they need to take finance and accounting; and I wish I’d had some of that stuff in college, and I just think it’s so, so important for people to take those courses so they can measure the health of their business.

V.C.: Do you find that when you’re putting it out there, and wanting to find the people (to help) that they show up?

S.A.: Yes. The good and the bad of social media is, of course, our social media experience has changed over the years, but I think it’s important starting off on a new venture to put it out there like you said, that they are in need; they need help. I think people are often reluctant to do that because they think it’s a sign of weakness, or failure, when really it’s just a real quality in leaders; in anyone who can, kind of be willing to state their limitations and ask for help. I will say though, when it comes to asking for help you really have to be careful of who you ask and how much you ask of them. It requires I think a great , great deal of sensitivity. You have to think to yourself what is the relationship of this person to me: in other words, how willing would they be to help you with anything? Are they so busy that there is no way they can give you any attention, are they so far removed from the entrepreneurial experience that you know they may be very successful, but they are so far removed from it that they won’t have any understanding or connection to what you are trying to do. So while I think yes, people are willing to help, I think it’s super important that you are very sensitive to who it is you’re asking, how much you’re asking them to help, and that you are being super respectful of their time, and always erring on the side of not wanting to bother them. Often in that case people want to help, but it requires I think a good match and that in and of itself is some work but it is work that will be worth it if entrepreneurs regardless of their age, or level of experience, if they see that they need help, to ask for it. The time spent will be paid back in large measure.

V.C.: Depending who you talk to there are various ways of defining craft chocolate. How do you define craft chocolate?

S.A.: I think that’s a great question, and the real truth of it is I don’t know. I don’t really know and I think there’s been such a sort of abuse of words related to food in the last ten years, small batch, hand crafted, artisan; these are things that have become so ubiquitous that they are meaningless. I know we attempt to make these definitions and of course other sister industries like craft beer, and things like that, have tried to do so by stating the definition will be in how much they produce, or the method of productions and/or ingredients used. I think those are important, but I’m not the arbiter of what that is. I’m not the king of chocolate so I don’t know. In many ways I’m so focused on what I’m doing that I really don’t even know that I’m even the best person to ask that question to. You would think, “But wait you were there in the beginning!”. Which is true, I was I was one of the first people doing this after Scharffen Berger, it’s just that I have my head down; I’m focused on my travel; I’m focused on farmers and I don’t really know. And honestly maybe that’s my failing. Maybe I have a responsibility to kind of participate in how that should be defined but I just really haven’t had that opportunity and it just hasn’t been a real focus for me.

V.C.: After spending time on-site with cacao farmers, what would you want people to know that might be unexpected, or what would you want consumers to know about the farmers themselves?

S.A.: I just got back from Africa. We’ve been sourcing from Tanzania for many years from the same farmer. Now that I’ve been doing this and going on these trips for so long, in some cases meeting with the same people, for in the case of Ecuador I was there last month and that’s the same guy, for 11 years. I’ve looked at pictures of he and I eleven years ago. I was younger and so was he. What I hope people know at some point is that they are real people that are growing these crops who have hopes, and dreams, and fears, and worries like all of us and that they care a lot about what they do and they care a lot about the partnership that we have together. I hope that manifests itself in the quality of our chocolate. That is one thing that I hope people see this integral connection between the farmers and us and the product. That it’s not just this sort of sterile business transaction of buying and selling; its much more than that. People that want to know about it can read about it on our website. The second thing that I would like people to know is that despite the many challenges, in particular let me just say this about the Tanzanian farmers, where I just left, that despite the challenges they face as living in a very remote rural environment with very little access to medical care, not great housing, not the best educational opportunities, that there is this expression of joy among the farmers that I have rarely seen anywhere in the world and I’ve traveled a lot for a lot of years even before chocolate. I’m so buoyed, and propped up by that. When I go, when I come back, when I reflect on it, when I go again, to see it and to participate in it, that it is one of the great lessons of my life that I would say I’m so grateful for; that sort of transcends chocolate, if you will. It transcends it in a way, but then I believe it also expresses it in a way. By that I mean, that I think that this way that we are, and the things we are learning from the farmers as students of theirs, finds it’s way into our chocolate. I mean that very seriously, and I also would say it transcends it in a way that I’ll end my days on this earth thinking about how grateful I am that I was able to see what this kind of joy looks like in a place and time that you might think that it’s not expected, because of how they live and the struggles that they have. It’s something that gives me great peace and hope for the future of our world, and for humanity, and I’m so thankful that I had the chance to see this and I hope in some place, some way, that people who buy our chocolate can get even a slight sense of that.

V.C.: Do you have any insight on how you think the farmers achieve that?

S.A.: I’m not an anthropologist, I’m not a sociologist, I think I would say there are many aspects that contribute to this; one of them is what I would call a village mentality, or a village thought. What I mean is the people are remote, they’re not near a big city, and they are an agriculture dependent group, and very dependent on each other, the way you think a village would be. They are not all the same religion, so they learned to peacefully co-exist with each other in this village. So it’s multi-faceted. I think some of it is their faith, I think some of it is their dependence on each other, I think some of it is the closeness of family. By that I mean great-grandchildren getting to see great-grandparents everyday, so I think there is this vertical integration of family in a village that we really don’t get to see anymore in this country. I also think that some of it has to do with honoring the elders of the village of men and women. All of those things, and things I’m sure I’m leaving out, contribute to this recipe of the different way of life that I am in awe of really.

V.C.: When you have taken your finished chocolate back for the farmer who grew it to try, what are their reactions?

S.A. : I do this everywhere. Whether it’s the Philippines, Ecuador or Tanzania; I’ve been doing this for years with the same farmers and the reaction is one of real, what I would say, is reverence. The farmers are very reverential about this product that has their hard work in it. It’s very hard to get this to them because it’s very hot and humid in these locales, so I go to great effort to make sure it’s cold all the way there in my carry-on; that’s not easy. They’re very reverential about it, very appreciative, and I always bring other origins so they can taste what other people are growing. I bring it in nib form and powdered form. I bring a lot of different things for them to taste and it’s a very important part of my trip and I’ve never not done it on any trip.

Thank you Shawn, and thank you to all of you for reading Part 1. Stay tuned next Friday for Part 2 of this interview with Shawn Askinosie.

Special thank you to Lawren Askinosie for setting up this interview!

Askinosie Chocolate:

Pre-order Shawn Askinosie’s book Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul here:

Victoria Cooksey:

Watch all my craft chocolate review videos here:

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