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Breaking Into a Saturated Market with Christopher Norman | EP. #141

July 10, 2024 | Author: Andrew Maff
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If there’s one market that’s saturated- it’s the chocolate space. So how do businesses break through and gain traction? On this 141st episode of the E-Comm Show, Andrew Maff interviews John Down, Chief Chocolate Officer of Christopher Norman. 

While anyone can make chocolates, not everyone can have an unwavering commitment to quality. From making chocolates at home to making chocolates for Martha Stewart, Hermès, Kate Spade, and more... Christopher Norman has distinguished itself in the market. An artist at heart John, applies the same creativity and passion to his chocolates that he does to his art, from there… everything just falls in place.

Watch the full episode below, or visit TheEcommShow.com for more.

 

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 Breaking Into a Saturated Market with Christopher Norman
 
 

 
SPEAKER

 

 

 

 

Andrew Maff and John Down

CONNECT WITH OUR HOST: AndrewMaff.com  |  Twitter: @AndrewMaff | LinkedIn: @AndrewMaff 

 

 

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John Down

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After seven years of living in Halfmoon Bay on BC’s Sunshine Coast, John Down and Joe Guiliano are still glad they made the move from their Christopher Norman Chocolates storefront and factory in the financial district of New York City. After 25 years of creating artisan chocolate for the likes of Tiffany, Forbes, Dean and DeLuca, Bloomingdales, Kate Spade, and Hermès, Nordstrom’s, and Guggenheim Museum; and being featured regularly in a long list of media – Oprah Winfrey, Food & Wine, New York Times, Bon Appetit, Vogue, Martha Stewart, Anthony Bourdain, Gourmet, Newsweek, and CBC – Shelagh Rogers & Vicki Gabereau - they packed up and headed for BC where John was born. Their decision to head west came after their health progressively deteriorated after 9/11, where in September 2001 their business was within blocks of the Twin Towers. By 2013 Joe, a native of New York, said good bye to his city and country; and John returned home to the Coast, near family, accomplishing their goals of returning to health, to restarting their business, and finding space for John to pursue and exhibit his first love, Art, which he practiced and exhibited throughout his career as a New York chocolatier. John and Joe continue to work in the worlds of chocolate and art and to participate in the community. See where to buy their chocolate locally List of Retailers

00:03

You know, we're just committed to exceptional quality, and you know, that's how we began, and that's how we've continued.

 

01:02

Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of The E-Comm Show. I'm your host, Andrew Maff, and today I am joined by the amazing John Down, who is the CCO over at Christopher Norman Chocolates. That is your chief chocolate officer. So this is going to be a delicious episode. John, how you doing? Man? You ready for a good show?

 

01:19

Great. Andrew, yeah, what a pleasure meeting you. Thank you. Thank you very much for having me. This is, this is a new experience for me.

 

01:29

Hey, first time for everything. This is going to be a great time. I'm super excited for this one. I love CPG, brands I've worked with. I don't even know how many at this point, but chocolate's awesome. So super excited to learn a lot about that side of it too. But I think you know, because I know you've listened to a couple podcast episodes we were talking about that for a little bit there the I like starting him off relatively stereotypical. Just tell us a little bit about your background, obviously, how you got started over at Christopher Norman, we'll take it from

 

01:57

there. Okay, great, good. Just so my partner, Joe and I started, well, began in Christopher Norman chalkins in 1992 in New York City. And my partner was, his background was he was an agent for opera singers. And I still am a visual artist, painter. And anyway, I had made chocolates for one of my events, and somebody had brought chocolates from Paris and from one of the fine chocolate boutiques there. And then someone there from Japan was were chocolate connoisseurs. And so I, you know, I just for fun, made chocolates for it. And everyone's like, Wow, where did you get these? And anyway, that's kind of how it started, and then, and then I was just making them at home in my kitchen. And then all of a sudden, the New York Times was interested in writing about it and this, and one thing after another. And so we got a space downtown, just off the Bowery and it was just one thing after another. And then, you know, we did a chocolate show at one point, and then Martha Stewart came with her entourage and kind of zeroed in on us. And then I did a segment with her, which really started to help catapult the business, you know, and and then it just Yeah, sort of just kept growing exponentially. And then we had all the the top accounts in New York from Dina and DeLuca or, you know, and then department stores like sax and Bloomingdale's and bendles, and just on and on it went. And so we were sort of at the right place at the right time, and kind of before the chocolate boom, which was, I don't know, a bit later, I guess, the early 2000s so we were kind of on the ground floor, and had all these wonderful accounts. Then it just then we started, you know, we had a I guess when we then we had to move downtown. Well, actually, what we did is we participated in the redevelopment initiative of lower Manhattan after 911 and so we actually found a space beside the New York Stock Exchange a couple of doors down, and it was 4000 square feet. And so we did the build out, and had a jewel box of a little store, and then the factory setting and offices and stuff like that. And then, I guess just before that, when we did the build out off the Bowery, it was initially my painting studio, and then I moved that to 14th and ninth, which wasn't too far from where we lived. And so I had that going and and then the factory going downtown, and, yeah, it was just great. It was pretty exciting. And I. You know, then we started our website. Well, we started before we moved downtown and and that's just, you know, got us going. And then around that time too, with all the accounts that we had, you know, across the states and so on there, I had a exhibition of my paintings in Tokyo. And then there was somebody said, Oh, this is the guy who makes the chocolate anyway. One thing led to another there. And we then Japan became our biggest market outside of outside of the states. And then we worked with Mara Beni, which was the largest trading company in in Japan, and that sort of morphed into working with another, more kind of boutique trading company. And then because of the shipping and the cost of everything, we entered into licensing agreements. And so they started making the chocolates in Japan, and that was kind of a nice setup, but yeah, and then they would come over, and we had Japanese we were in Japanese magazines and Japanese TV and all kinds of stuff. And then I was invited to participate in a chocolate show there, and they gave us an award for my efforts of making chocolate paintings on site. Oh, wow. I know it was amazing. It was just something it did. And then that sort of turned into a little gig with Hermes, the luxury brand. So they were opening a new flagship store in Tokyo, and they commissioned me to do six large chocolate paintings. And I know it was good. It was quite it was like, Okay, what next? You know,

 

06:58

yeah, say you're you. I don't know if it's your delivery or if it's just accurate, but it seems like a lot of this stuff has just kept coming your way, and it's just been, you know, pretty nice that it's, it's just basically the quality product is, is kind of selling itself, am I right?

 

07:15

Yeah, yeah. I guess you know when I well, just for an example, when I did the design for our chocolate bars. I guess that was, well, let's see. Well, in the early 90s, whenever, and I've kept the same design, you know, and it just is sort of a timeless look, you know, it's kind of classic, but they're, they're really colorful, and the packaging is really colorful. And at that time, a lot of the sort of chocolate packaging was gold or brown or kind of blue or something. But so when I came along and with my artistic background, you know, I sort of had a different bent on the packaging and and as well as the chocolates, and I started doing the hand painted chocolates, and that sort of took off in a in kind of an exciting direction, and and then, I guess, as I got I'm going to be 66 In August, they, I guess there was one article that came out that referred to me as the the grandfather of the New York chocolate school. Wow. But anyway, yeah, we had, it was really exciting, and we had a wonderful staff. And you know, it was, you know, it wasn't that big. But, you know, we had about 10 employees. And then let's see what I'd be. I'm trying to think what happened after, oh, I know, like the other thing too, that sort of was a bit of a problem with the business moving downtown. Was, you know, there was so much construction going on post 911 that there was, it was hard to run the business, you know, just with all the construction trucks and this and that and so on. But, you know, we made a go of it.

 

09:13

So that's amazing. I mean, the the PR that you've had over the past 20 some odd years is amazing. Like, I know I've got a bit of a list here, but you were mentioned through Oprah, Winfrey, food and wine. New York Times, bon appetit, Vogue, Martha Stewart, Anthony Bourdain, gourmet Newsweek, CBC. I mean, this list is like nuts. So I got so what do you what would you say is, like the biggest differentiator chocolate is an incredibly crowded space, like it is wildly difficult to break out into that space. So you've got to have some element that is, either you were a first mover, or you've got some kind of differentiation. Behind it. So what would you say is the big difference of your chocolate versus your competition?

 

10:05

Well, you know, there, like you say, there's, it is a very crowded space now, but, you know, and there's many people making, really, you know, fabulous chocolates, you know, and, but I guess, like, for the number of us that are, I guess, at the, you know, top tier, if you want to say, you know, we're just committed to exceptional quality. And you know, that's been, that's how we began, and that's how we've continued and and, you know, as far as all the press goes, you know, it's just, you know, well, being in New York, it's kind of the, you know, media capital of the world. You know, we sort of had that there, and we were doing something really, you know, unique at the time, and unusual. And, you know, like hand painted, kind of Faberge eggs and all with, you know, kind of filigree and designs and different things. I made them well, for instance, the Forbes magazine, well, Malcolm Forbes had a big Faberge collection, so they wanted me. I did a Faberge egg for an article in Forbes. And then there was a magazine in Australia, a fashion magazine, and they asked me to do something along those lines for them. So I did. I sort of used the coral reef there as a as an inspiration. So the the eggs were sort of covered in draw Jays and kind of coral colors. And then other ones were tiny little fish that were blue and green. And so you didn't know what it was until you sort of looked at it and go, Oh my god,

 

11:49

yeah, that's amazing. Like, it's, I just, I'm I've done so much work in the CBG space. I've worked with a lot of like, snacks and chocolates in the past. And, like, it's not easy, because it's, you know, no one wants to be the first one to try something online. They typically want to try it in retail, and then it's a matter of, how do you get them into retail? And so obviously, you had a great brick and mortar business, but so now you're no longer in New York, though you're in Canada, right? Yeah, yeah,

 

12:24

on the Sunshine Coast, not too far out of Vancouver, it's an interesting kind of geography in that it's on the mainland, but because of the mountains and the fjord inlets and so on. There's no road to get here, so we take a ferry from Vancouver, and it's about a 40 minute ferry ride. And then to get to our place is about a half hour drive up the coast, and it's just this extraordinary setting. It's just unbelievable. And so we have an acreage that kind of has a steep driveway we get up to, and there's a perch, and we overlook the the Salish Sea and Vancouver Island and and it just goes on forever. So it's really nice. And then we built downstairs our chocolate atelier. So it's no longer, you know, 4000 square feet, yeah. But anyway, yeah. So, you know, I'm still, you know, at one, well, at one point in New York was big. I, you know, the staff, most were making the chocolates. I would do some of the supervision, but we had a, you know, ahead of the kitchen and all that, and then people doing packaging, and, you know, the enrolling machines and everything. And so now

 

13:48

I guess I'm, you know, sort of semi retired. I didn't know I'd be making chocolates this long, but,

 

13:57

yeah, so I'm just doing it, and I have, you know, someone comes in and helps with the packaging and and some of the social media, which I'm not so good at. I think it's a generational thing, right? But, yeah, so, you know, we we have, our reach is pretty small. We sell in Vancouver and Victoria, Toronto, and then, of course, our website, you know, we get orders from the states and and can't and Canada. So that's pretty much, we don't get orders very much anymore for overseas or Japan or anything, yeah. So it's just a small, little boutique business, but it kind of has had a big footprint at one time. Yeah, I

 

14:43

was gonna say, so like, obviously, you know, you're, as you mentioned, you're semi retired, so you're kind of, what's the plan with the business now, is it you're gonna kind of let it run its course and just, well, eventually close it? Or what's the thought there? So

 

14:59

just be. Because of my background being an artist, I still paint. I have this wonderful studio a couple of properties over that. It's a, it's a 2500 square foot cinder block building that's two floors in the forest with this incredible view, right? So I paint there. And, you know, I, I, I've shown in, well, you know, New York and Tokyo and Venice, where else in Italy, Florence. And, you know, I'm in collections, sort of around the world of it. So that's a big, you know, that's was my sort of first passion, and still is. And so the chocolate company kind of started, and it was like, Oh, well, that's that could be my day job and to support my life as a painter. And because when I first moved to New York, I was working at one of the galleries, and that was exciting, and I met lots of great people, but I'd always been self employed, and this sort of opportunity presented itself, and so the goal was kind of to build it up and sell it, and then, you know, kind of retire into and, well, live as a as an artist full time, yeah. And things kind of didn't go that way. And it was kind of fun, like when we were doing the chocolate bars for Kate Spade, or, you know, stuff for Martha Stewart, or, you know, the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolis Museum, whatever, you know, there was all these people with these mega businesses around, you know. And he thought, yeah, well, maybe, maybe that'll happen for us, you know. And anyway, it didn't. But I, you know, it's what I, I mean, in a perfect kind of scenario, I'd love to, you know, train some young people and have them take over the business. You know, that would be a, you know, that would be a nice situation, because, you know, it is a good little business and and, you know, with some young energy, you know, they could come in and take it back and pass even where it was before, you know, yeah,

 

17:07

sounds very good point. So your your revenue mostly coming in now. So you mentioned, you get some sales coming in through the website every now and then. Where else is it coming through? Oh, so

 

17:19

wholesale, mostly to, you know, gourmet stores and boutiques, the wineries up in the Okanagan there's, there's a new account up there, and, and, yeah, and I'm not, we used to do a lot of private label as well. And that's not, we're not doing that right now. So, yeah, it's just, you know, retail stores and the website ad. Funny enough. So I knew this chocolate guy in San Francisco who Michael ricciotti, and he started out about the same time I did, and he used to do the farmers markets in San Francisco. And he was like, Yeah, I do. And anyway, then that turned into having a shop at the Ferry Building. And, you know, having this wild, successful build it a business that he had, and I had never what we did the like the Christmas markets at Grand Central and things like that. You know, a few holiday markets, but I'd never done a farmer's market. And up here, every Saturday, they have this wonderful Farmers Market on the in the little town from here. And they, last week, they had over 1700 visitors for this little, tiny town on the coast. And it's really fun, you know, the, not only the vendors fund, but the, the a lot of tourists come here because it's, you know, kind of a that's, it's a tourist location, yeah. And everyone's just like, Oh my God. It's like, oh, I Christopher Norman, what are you doing up here. And it's amazing how many people we've met that know the business from New York, you know,

 

19:08

yeah, how did Christopher Norman, your name's John, your partner's Joe, had Where'd we get that from?

 

19:18

So my middle names are Christopher Norman, alright, then and John down. Chocolate doesn't sound very whatever, but Christopher Norman sort of has a nice ring to it and makes sense and, and I sort of wanted to, you know, kind of keep it separate from my life as an artist. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. But yeah, it's, yeah, it's, it works for a chocolate company, I guess, yeah, it does. No,

 

19:48

I completely agree. I like the name. I was just like, wait a minute, that's not lining up. Yeah. Ton of sense. But either way, John, thank you so much for being on the show. I really appreciate it. I don't want to take up too much your time. I know you have. A ton of chocolate to make, which is awesome, cool, this coolest job in the world. Yeah, really appreciated having on the show. I'd love to give you the opportunity let everyone know what they can find out more about you, more about Christopher Norman, and, of course, more about your art as well.

 

20:12

Yeah, I forgot to include my link to the website, my art website, but it's just johndownart.com Yeah, and well, listen, this has just been great. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

 

20:27

Yeah, not a problem. I appreciate you being on the show. Everybody tuned in, of course, thank you as well. Please make sure you do the usual rate review, subscribe on whatever channel you prefer, or head over the ecomshow.com to check out all of our previous episodes. But as usual, thank you all for coming and we'll see you all next time.

 

20:46

Thank you for tuning in to The E-Comm Show head over to theecommshow.com to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform or on the BlueTuskr YouTube channel. The E-Comm Show is brought to you by BlueTuskr, a full service digital marketing company specifically for e-commerce sellers looking to accelerate their growth. Go to bluetuskr.com Now for more information. Make sure to tune in next week for another amazing episode of The E-Comm Show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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