Emma Smith is the woman behind local raw chocolate company, Zimt. Built from scratch by Emma nearly a decade ago, to date this little confectionary operation has broken some very big culinary ground in Vancouver, and its ambitions go well beyond its local reach.
We recently caught up with the forward-thinking and compassionate businesswoman to learn more about the inspirations, triumphs, and unique challenges of developing an ethical vegan candy business…
First of all, what has been your most memorable chocolate experience, to date?
There is certainly no shortage of memorable chocolate experiences! Some great, some tricky. I was fortunate enough to go to Ecuador, and meet some cacao harvesters. One woman, I will never forget. She had on a sort of woven rucksack, with a strap holding it to her forehead as well as her shoulders. This rucksack held all of the freshly harvested cacao – the beans are covered in a wet pulp when the pods are first opened. And that means, this was a very heavy load. She let me try to carry this, the way she does and, wow. I can’t imagine how much gym time one would have to put in to prepare for that! Yet, this is her daily experience. Agriculture is no joke, and it had been a few years since I volunteered on a farm. What a great reminder, and a further insight into how much appreciation is due to the farmers who harvest this beautiful product, and beyond.
Growing up, what role did chocolate play in your life and what made you decide to start taking chocolate seriously?
Well, I was a very fortunate kid. And naturally, this would include chocolate consumption. My mum’s side of the family is German, so you can imagine there was no shortage of chocolate about. That’s the extent of it, though, in terms of growing up. What really made me decide to start taking chocolate seriously, was not so much the process of making it, but the ethics surrounding it. I learned about unfair labour practices at a very young age, including child labour, and found it completely abhorrent that sentient beings would be forced to harvest products in such awful conditions. That made me take chocolate seriously – there were very few ‘fair trade’ brands out there at that point, but I was very happy to support them and their mission.
Conscientiousness plays a big part in your business. What current issue in the chocolate/cocoa industry (or other related industry) has got you excited these days that you think people should know about?
Yes, thank you – we do aim to ‘overthink’ things – one really ought to! There’s a lot of increased competition from larger businesses – this is certainly on my radar. Companies know that slapping a ‘vegan’ or ‘organic’ label on products is a surefire way to entice the market. But, I would like to bring further awareness to those organizations who truly believe in not only these product attributes, but hold these as company and personal values. There is a growing number of makers out there like Zimt who truly live out these values. There are those who make an effort to go beyond what the latest buzz words are, regardless of their market value. The most important thing to remember is: who, not what. Enough money will buy you anything, but if you’re only following the money, a lot gets missed. We have been using compostable packaging from the get-go – not because the market cared about it back then, or even knew about it, but, I knew about it, and I cared about it. So that’s that. I know it will take some time, but I hope we can ride out the wave of confusion and provide some treats and some heart that consumers are truly excited about and be excited to support. That would be very exciting to me!
From your nearly decade of experience running Zimt, what is the key to engaging with the community at large (ie non vegans and vegans alike) and getting people impassioned about their chocolate?
It is a true privilege to engage with the community on such an important topic – it transcends chocolate, for sure. I really consider it a personal responsibility to represent veganism well to vegans and non-vegans alike. At the end of the day, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us really do want to live compassionately, to not hurt those who are most vulnerable, and to enjoy life. I love it when I explain to folks that not only is there vegan chocolate, there is amazing vegan chocolate, and beyond. Taste buds only go so far – they are quite surface (pardon the pun). People need more than that, whether they realize it or not. Who wants to live a surface existence? There’s so much information out there and I understand why folks are overwhelmed and confused. There’s a lot to be said about doing your own research, but I think that the most important thing, really, is to look within, have an honest discussion with your heart. I hope I can encourage people to do this. It isn’t easy and we need all the kind encouragement we can get.
Locally, and in general, attitudes towards veganism and the availability of vegan products has changed/improved so much in the past decade. How has this affected your priorities or business approach? What are the new unique challenges these days, and what challenges or issues are you most happy to see in the past?
The shift in market awareness is an incredible opportunity and challenge. For Zimt, however, we are not changing our priorities. Simply advertising ‘vegan’ products as an approach is working for now, for larger businesses, with greater distribution and deeper pockets. But for those of us who think far beyond market appeal and numbers, this doesn’t do the trick. This is about educating the public and quite frankly, this is the most daunting task. It is about informing people about not only what they are supporting on a micro level, but who they are supporting and subsequent ripple effects from their choices as consumers. (Yes, there’s lots of work to be done!) So, I aspire to engage with people as much as possible, and shed some light on why Zimt and other vegan, organic businesses are a bit different than your run of the mill offshoot product line. The good thing is, most people are at least familiar with the term vegan these days. That’s a little different than when we started out!
Reading through your bio and past interviews, you seem wired to be a successful business woman! Your perseverance is so impressive! What personal traits have you had to work against and what has building Zimt from scratch taught you about yourself?
Thanks very much – I hope so! Success would bring me a great deal of satisfaction, because I know I would put that success to good. There are a lot of deserving individuals out there who need more support and I’d like to provide that.
The personal traits to work against are likely endless – I discover more all the time. One that was recently brought to my attention is that, not only am I a small women running a business, I’m a small blonde woman. I’m not the most perceptive person, but it was explained to me that these traits may make it difficult for certain members of society to take me seriously. The good thing is I don’t care about those opinions. I just have to work with them. This includes adjusting to my personality as it was formed within our culture. I would say I feel like I’m gaining ground most days, but the bottom line is, I’m a lady, and all things being equal, business culture is going to be a bit tougher for me. So I must be tougher than that.
Building Zimt from scratch has taught me that I am much, much stronger than I ever would have imagined. Though to be honest, there are many times I wish this hadn’t been tested. No matter how much grit one has to get through a situation, it doesn’t mean that a toll isn’t taken. This was only gained through discomfort – and lots of it.
You’re still so young – decades down the line, where do you see yourself and Zimt?
That’s an interesting one for me to consider – the possibility of making it to decades down the line doesn’t usually cross my mind. Time feels like a finite luxury. For myself, I would really love to calm down life a bit. I just work way too much, and feel very guilty if I am not working. I’d like to adopt a bunch of pets, and maybe foster kids someday, or at least really support foster families. There are so many completely wonderful beings out there who really need to be given the time of day – you just need to get to know them. I’d like to make this all a possibility, through Zimt. If it doesn’t drive me crazy, I would love to keep Zimt going myself, offering more fun treats and spreading the good word. I’m not sure that we will be able to operate in Vancouver forever – that’s really the landlords’ call!
Now that you’ve been doing this for a while, how do you stay curious and inspired?What in particular has piqued your curiosity lately?
I get mildly curious surrounding improving production techniques, and creating better systems. It isn’t so much curiosity, as a desire to achieve a particular outcome – that just takes grit, especially doing things this way. It has remained consistent over the years. Curiosity doesn’t keep things going for me, but inspiration to do better does.
Zimt is holding a grand opening on Saturday, February 29, 2020 (2-5pm). Head over to the Clark Drive cafe to check it out for yourself!