By Doniphan Blair
Walking into the OCHO Chocolate factory in West Oakland feels more like entering a laboratory. Not only is there shiny equipment everywhere and everyone is wearing white, you’re asked to don a hair net and—if you are hirsute in the masculine manner—a beard net.
As if that were not enough, “the team has enjoyed the benefits of access to education,” co-owner Denis Ring told me when I dropped in the other day. Indeed, the management staff of four all have food science degrees from UC Davis and general manager, Grace Erickson, just finished her Columbia accounting MBA.
“She has an incredible background,” Ring said, smiling and offering me one of his chocolates—dark mocha.
As it happened, he and his partner, Scott Kucirek, weren’t even looking for a plant manager. But after Kucirek met Erickson, after he did a presentation at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, they decided they had to have her.
The reason: Erickson had worked at both Ghiradelli and Tcho Chocolate.
Meanwhile Kucirek has an MBA from Haas and Ring one from Yale, he told me, adding that he also has a masters in philosophy from Fordham. After surveying the world’s philosophies, we can assume Ring decided to go with Epicurean or outright Hedonism.
Denis Ring, co-owner and food developer for OCHO, in his office. photo: D. Blair
“We have a term, the ‘OCHO Face,’ which you had when you ate that first bite,” Ring said, giving himself away. “What I call deliciousness.”
“The expectation for an organic candy bar is pretty low,” he continued, “but when [people] taste the OCHO, they light up, the OCHO face… a sense of surprise at how good they are.”
Most organic candy bars use an “ingredient deck” developed in 1980s or ’90s but “what we are trying to do is make the bar more familiar by modern America standards and delicious,” he elaborated.
“Even though some people a legitimately concerned about sugar intake, we use an organic cane sugar because it tastes better.”
Although OCHO started in 2008 in Folsom, near Sacramento, they got rolling when Kucirek came on board in 2010. Recent arrivals to West Oakland, they started production here on July 1.
They are now producing seven flavors: caramel nugget, coconut, peanut butter, mocha and dark coffee, dark chocolate with peppermint, milk chocolate and caramel.
After starting as a buyer at Costco and Grocery Outlet, Ring got into food development in 1997 at Whole Foods. “The nickname for Whole Foods is ‘Whole Paycheck’ so I approached the CEO and said ‘What you need is an affordable all natural product line.’ They agreed and I brought in the team.”
He would challenge his manufacturing partners to do things like create a chicken stock that didn’t taste like a salt bomb. Ultimately, his team created the first several hundred products but in the back of his mind one was missing: the all-natural candy bar.
Ring’s dream was to start an organic candy bar company and run it as a hobby. “It was really clear to me is that were was no organic traditional America candy bars. There are variations of nutrition bars that taste like candy bars but they get extruded through a die and get put under a waterfall of chocolate.”
The OCHO [blood] family [lft-rt]: The Rings, Denis and Tim, and the Kucireks, Juliette, Natalie and Scott. photo: D. Blair
After leaving Whole Foods, he started Bode International and did product development for the O Organic line at Safeway; some stuff for Fresh and Easy, Target and Costco; and even a few projects in South Africa and Australia.
But he stayed in touch with one of his Whole Foods colleagues and they worked on various candy bar profiles until they came up with the kind of filling they wanted.
Instead of buying chunky peanut butter, for example, they would use creamy peanut butter and add back the peanuts, since they then stay crisper longer and improve the “mouth feel,” a technical term to confectioners, as I was learning.
“What is interesting with mocha,” Ring said focusing on the bar I was finishing off, even though I had promised myself not to eat a lot of chocolate on this assignment, “There are a lot of conventional ways you can add coffee flavor, [usually] some sort of extract.”
“We experimented with a bunch of recipes and found [they] all tasted like coffee flavorings instead of coffee. So in our nugget, we actually have ground espresso. You might be able to taste a little of that grit. Over time, those ground up beans soften inside the dough and become part of the ‘texture profile,'” another technical term.
“Scott and I are parents”—indeed, not only did Kucirek’s older daughter, Natalie, and Ring’s son, Tim, attend kindergarten through 4th grade together—which is how they met—but they were both working in the “lab” that day along with Juliette, Natalie’s younger sister.
“It is hard to find a candy bar that you want to give to your kids. Once I had my first batch of sample bars, ‘bench top bars’, I started handing them out to parents in the schoolyard. I asked, ‘Would you buy this? Do you like it?'”
At that time, Kucirek was running Zip Reality, a company he founded which does online real estate.
“If you ever get tired of real estate, I’d love to have you come on as a partner and work with me at OCHO,” Ring would say, having recognized that Kucirek had the chops to run the company while he could handle product development and industry connecting.
At that point, he took his “bench top” bars to his friends at Whole Foods. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t raise and spend a bunch of money unless we knew the concept would succeed.”
Once they approved they did their graphics, made their packaging and did a full-on presentation. The Whole Foods buyers signed up for every store in the area.
“The most important thing about our bars is that they are delicious; the second is we want to have some fun doing them, and third: they are affordable,” Ring said.
“Our bars are $1.99—you can get a slab bar at Whole Foods and pay $8.00. The fourth component is ‘Oh by the way they are organic,’ so you can be sure you are not ingesting hydrogenated oils.”
“When I was at WF [working on 365], what interested me, as an academic, is that a lot of the natural brands refer to harvest and earth and nature—like Earth’s Best. What I liked about 365 is that once it got into your memory it was easy to bring back. Also the color palette we used [for the packaging] was highly saturated and bright.”
Although in “OCHO”, the “O” stands for Organic and the Cho stands for chocolate, the “O” and “C”, together look like a sidewise “8.” In contrast to the 365 packaging, OCHO uses a lot of white, a bit like their factory lab, with a big brightly colored “OCHO”.
“What I liked about OCHO, when I dreamed it up, was that a number is easy to remember. Everyone in the world knows what OCHO means. [The brand] could thrive in Latin America; it is a good luck number in some of the Chinese cultures; it’s recognizable all over Europe,” he said, although for the time being they are focusing on the United States.
“Oakland has been treating us well,” Ring said. “I befriended the guy with pit bulls across the street. We hand out damaged bars— which we can’t sell—just to say we are new to the neighborhood and we make candy bars.”
“We know the guy two doors down, Fargo Choice Foods—he’s an industry friend of mine from 20 years ago, the people from Hodo Soy and the Kia Kale folks.”
“We are trying to buy as many of our ingredients locally. Our chocolate comes from Union City; our printing is done in the Bay Area; our design is Bay Area. We are not manic about it but we are part of a community and we want to support it.”
“We started out with only Whole Foods but now we are at Andronico’s, Molly Stone’s, Whole Foods in Southern California and we’ve been approved recently by Raley’s.”
“We have done a video [and] we want to get into digital marketing—we have a Facebook page we have done a little Twitter—as well as the basic block and tackle of setup in a new store, cut open our bars and hand them out. I think if they taste the bar they are pretty likely to buy one.”
“We want to be part of the Oakland food scene. We are very interested in staying Oakland. Although this is an interim facility, the next step is going to be much bigger. It is a good spot for us because it is temperate: it is not going to freeze in the winter and even in these heat waves it is a more comfortable here than in Stockton or Concord.”
Read more from the original publishers, West Oakland Works.