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Meet Volo Chocolate at the Small Biz Bazaar at QuickBooks Connect San Jose 2019

QuickBooks® Connect  is your moment to step back from the day-to-day demands of running a business to get the learnings and skills to help blueprint your future. It’s two days of inspirational speakers, small group and one-one-one learnings, and support from some of the savviest experts in the industry. It’s also an opportunity to connect with small business owners like yourself, including the master makers joining our Small Biz Bazaar, where you can discover unique products available for purchase.

We sat down with Susan Mall of Volo Chocolates to learn more her business journey, advice, and what she’s looking forward to at this year’s QuickBooks Connect.

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While living in Mexico and working at a small beach resort at the Southern tip of Baja California as executive chefs, Jeff and Susan Mall fell in love with the flavors and soul of Mexican chocolate. They enjoyed many wonderful hours experimenting with the many ways they could bring out the flavors through various techniques and ingredients. It wasn’t long before they created a great “bean to bar” craft chocolate recipe. They felt they had created something special. Once they returned home to Sonoma County, they decided to start their chocolate making business with all of the love and passion that fine chocolate deserves. They produce more than 1,200 chocolate bars per week in their production studio in Windsor using local ingredients whenever possible.

Shauna Maher: Hi! Can you tell me a little bit more about Volo Chocolate? How did you guys get into business?

Owner, Susan Mall: My husband and I are both chefs; we first owned our own restaurant and then worked as consultants for a hotel. At the hotel, we had access to cocoa beans for the first time. Jeff, my husband, and I love to make things from scratch – we’ve made everything from our own bread starter to bacon- so it just made sense to start experimenting with chocolate. Chocolate can be super complex to make, but we just said, “We understand the basic principles of production so let’s take our experience as professional chefs and focus on creating unforgettable chocolate!”

Shauna: That’s awesome! So, when you started working with the chocolate and playing around with the beans, did you think it would become your business, or was it more of a passion project at first?

Susan:  It was definitely a passion at first! We were simply making chocolate bars to sell to our hotel guests, but then we brought a batch of bars to a party with a bunch of foodies. One of them ended up on the desk of the food editor for the Press Democrat who announced we had started a chocolate company! At which point I told Jeff, “I guess we’re going to be chocolate makers now. Let’s do it.”

Shauna: Wow, that’s awesome–how long ago was that?

Susan: Three years ago – crazy.

Shauna: Obviously, you have experience with running businesses and being an entrepreneur. Was there anything that was different or surprising when you started Volo Chocolate?

Susan:   Honestly, it’s been an amazing experience for us, and the amount of growth we have had in the past three years was incredible. We are known in Sonoma County as reputable, honest, passionate, thorough, creative, inventive people. Eighty percent of our customers approach us to purchase chocolate! We’re in 17 wineries, five hotels, and 70 retail locations all over the country.

Shauna: That’s so great. I can tell you’re super passionate about doing your own thing. What is it that you love the most about running your own business?

Susan: What we love is truly being able to express ourselves and our passion through our work, and what’s more fun than chocolate? Truly, anytime we tell somebody we sell chocolate, their face just lights up.

Shauna: What are some of the challenges you guys have navigated while growing your business? What keeps you up at night?

Susan: The biggest challenge for us has been cashflow . That’s a huge challenge for any small business owner. Because we owned a restaurant for almost 16 years, Jeff and I are willing to do any part of the job that needs to be done – washing dishes, mopping the floors, anything! A lot of people will say, “You own your own business – that must be so much work!,” and honestly, compared to running a restaurant, this is a vacation. So, the work isn’t a challenge, but cashflow is challenging. Other than that, we have what I call gold-plated problems, like are we going to be able to produce enough chocolate to meet the demand. It’s the best problem in the world to have, so we’re up at night strategizing on how to meet the demand.

Shauna: Definitely. With all of the demand and all of the different things that you’re balancing, what helps you stay motivated?

Susan : We love connecting with our customers! I will get online and look at past orders and reach out to those customers just to get feedback on what they loved and would order again. We also go to our local farmer’s market every Tuesday, bazaars, wineries – anywhere we can be face to face with our customers. It’s great to meet new people and tell them about the cool things we are doing, like our Chocolate Club.

Shauna: Chocolate club? Um, that sounds amazing.

Susan: Yeah! It’s a subscription of our chocolate that arrives at your door once a month.

Shauna : Obviously you enjoy many components of your business, such as meeting with customers and getting to be creative, but what are some of the aspects that you wish were easier or would make your life easier as a business owner?

Susan : It sounds really sarcastic, but having more hours in the day and feeling more rested when I’m at work. Because we are so passionate and love food, it’s hard for either of us to just stay home and rest.

Shauna: You can definitely hear the passion in your voice when you talk about your business. What’s your next business goal or something big you are working toward?

Susan:  Expanding further afield into the Bay Area. We are as far south as Mill Valley, but we’d like to be expanding into Marin, Berkeley, Oakland, down onto the Peninsula, and of course into San Francisco. Right now we’re doing careful managed growth. That, and getting the correct machinery in place, so we can grow well. We have one employee who hand wrapped 26,000 bars of chocolate last year alone.

Shauna: Wow, I can’t imagine that! I’d love to know, how do you define success for yourself and your business?

Susan:  Being able to do what we truly love. I go back to being a chef; when you’re a chef, you live, breathe, and eat food. Everything that you do in your life is focused toward food. When you go to bed at night, you’re reading food magazines or cookbooks. When you’re looking at various articles on the internet, you’re looking at food. What’s somebody doing? What’s going on in this thing? The fact that chocolate was a different branch of food … it’s really exciting. We’re like food geeks.

Shauna: Loving what you do is definitely a key to being successful as an entrepreneur. Do you have any other advice or places you are glad you invested in your business?

Susan: Definitely. Spend money to travel or get your hands on your physical product right away. Early on, we invested in a trip to Guatemala to work with the people who were sourcing our beans. Being able to touch the trees and look at the cocoa pods and see how they grow was an experience like nothing else. We were able to see this marvelous transparent trade that the company we work with does and feel a deep connection to that place, and those people. It was expensive, but it was so worth it.

Shauna: Absolutely. From the business management side, have you guys learned a lot of that as you go? How did you learn what to do?

Susan: Both of us come from entrepreneur families. We have the ability to talk to other people in the chocolate business to learn from their experiences. I also read Entrepreneur Magazine, I listen to Planet Money. Our favorite podcast of all is How I Built This, which really helped to prepare us for anything–like installing cameras so we can watch our machinery when we aren’t physically at the factory.

Shauna: Do you guys use QuickBooks® for your own business? How do the products help your business run?

Susan: Yes, for awhile now. Getting our QuickBooks up and going was just as crucial as buying a printer, a laptop and a desk. It’s something I wish we had done from Day One. We rely on it for almost everything. It helps in planning sales, planning production, and building. We also pay our employee and keep track of her hours in QuickBooks – I love that. And, it integrates with our bank, which is invaluable.

Shauna: I’m so glad to hear it! We are so excited to have Volo Chocolate at QuickBooks Connect this year. What are you most looking forward to in regards to the event and being a part of it?

Susan: Well, QuickBooks is as synonymous with business as Facebook is with social media. It’s very exciting to be around people that are pumped up about what they are learning; that energy is just wonderful. And, we’re excited about the fact that we’re going to get to showcase our chocolate to a lot of people that may never have seen it.

Shauna: Yeah, that is exciting! This year at QBC, we are focused on Owning the Future. What does that mean to you and your business?

Susan: The funny thing is, what do we want for our future? We want to be able to sell as much chocolate as we can possibly make and enjoy life. That’s truly it. We don’t want to conquer the world. We don’t want to be bigger than Nestle. We want to be able to make pure, good, high quality chocolate that we’re proud of. That’s it. If that’s what our future looks like, we’ll be happy.

Meet Susan at the Small Biz Bazaar at QuickBooks Connect 2019.

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