Interview with Deb Music of Theo Chocolates, Part II

May 12, 2011

Deb Music

Read Part I here...

While almost every child in the northern hemisphere has grown up loving chocolate, few have pursued their dreams so far as Joe Whinney, founder of Theo Chocolate.  After a career in conservation and development in Central America, Joe’s fascination with cacao farming led him to launch the nation’s first organic, fair trade chocolate factory, and from the looks of things, his star is rising rather rapidly as Theo shakes up the chocolate industry, challenging its competitors and suppliers to make not just their chocolate palatable, but their profits palatable as well – by way of paying living wages to those who grow cacao and giving back to the communities that support cacao farming through educational missions and partnering with development projects which provide critical social services.  In other words, “sustainable” is not just an environmental objective, but an economic and social one as well.

But behind every successful man there lies a good woman, or at least a good partner, who has helped him to get there.  But few can say that the good woman who helped him to get there was his ex-wife.  When Joe Whinney was climbing cacao trees and shooting snakes with indigenous farmers in Belize, the woman who would become his wife, and later ex-wife, and still later Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Theo Chocolate, Debra Music was living in Cambridge, studying marketing from a social justice perspective.  Deb wanted to help businesses grow sustainably and ethically, while helping social programs become more effective by integrating successful business models into their project strategies.  In Part I of my interview with Deb Music, I introduced the Theo factory.  But how did she get into the business in the first place? 

Were you working alongside Joe in Belize when he first stumbled upon cacao farming? 

Deb Music: “Joe had already been working with cocoa farmers for six or seven years [when we met] and at that point he decided that he was going to pioneer the supply of organic cocoa into the United States.  I mean he’s very visionary in his thinking and in some ways he was very ahead of the curve.  He’s been grappling around with some of the issues regarding fair trade way before it became as prominent an issue as it is now.  [And] I was around in the days when he was hunting and pecking on a manual typewriter, sending letters off to every chocolate maker saying, ‘Hey, want to make some organic chocolate?’” 

What was the response he received? 

DM: “Most of them weren’t interested at all.  Most of them were like “Who is this young punk, and who cares?  Who cares about organic chocolate?’  It was at a point in time when the organic food industry was just burgeoning.  So he was at the cutting edge of organic food.  There was one factory in New York City that was interested but they basically said if you bring me the customers and you bring me the organic chocolate, sure, I’ll make organic chocolate.  So that was what he basically did. . . [And] we were married during the time when he was able to actually get organic cocoa into the United States for the first time and get brands like Newman’s Own and Cascadian Farms to produce the first organic chocolate products.” 

But as Willy Wonka sagely advised, “You should never doubt what no one is sure about.”  And as Joe persevered in his dreams to bring organic cocoa to chocolate makers, his vision expanded. 

But it wasn’t until after Deb and Joe divorced that Joe’s entrepreneurial spirit and hard work made opening a chocolate factory of his own a real possibility.  Until then, no one in the United States was making their own chocolate exclusively with organic beans, much less fair trade certified.  But Joe was determined to be the first, and to make that happen, he needed someone who could educate consumers about why a three dollar chocolate bar was three dollars well spent.  And for that he turned to his former wife, Debra Music. 

Did you have any experience in this sort of thing?  What led Joe to bring you on board after your marriage ended? 

“During that time I did a lot of social marketing and marketing consulting and cause-related marketing.  Social marketing is when you take marketing principles and you apply them to public health campaigns.  Things like HIV protection, smoking cessation, domestic violence.  My background was very much in brand building and cause related marketing and that was partly why when Joe decided to build Theo and move [from Cambridge] to Seattle” she said, adding that they have a child together, Henry, and Joe wanted to maintain a relationship with his son.  But having business savvy, Joe Whinney knew if he was bringing his former wife on board, she had to know what she was doing. 

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams,” Willy Wonka has said, and so it was that Joe Whinney’s dream would not only make Deb Music’s career, but Deb Music’s own talents would help Joe Whinney to get there. 

What could you bring to Theo Chocolates that others could not? 

DM:  [Joe] also wanted my help in conceptualizing and building the brand.  Because one of the cornerstones of Theo is our educational mission, and so it was sort of a combination between his expertise in sustainable agriculture and development and my background in cause-related marketing and social marketing [that built the Theo brand].  So that was how I got into it – and I love chocolate!  And I knew a lot about cocoa related issues just by having been around Joe for so many years.”

Did you ever envision Theo would be this successful? 

DM: “It’s so funny, [success] is such a relative term.  We’re only five years old and we’ve worked incredibly hard. . .  It’s sort of like the phenomenon of bands that finally make it and people say “Wow, where’d you come from, you’re an overnight success,” and they’re like “No, we’ve been playing in dive bars for fifteen years!”  It’s a little bit like that.  I mean this has been a really, really long road for Joe, and I think success is relative.  For a small company I think we have achieved a lot of success, particularly regionally.  I think Theo has become a really beloved brand in the Pacific Northwest.   And that’s humbling.  But we’re trying to build a national brand and on that scale we’re still relatively small.  So I feel like we have a million miles to go.  But I’m really, really proud of what we have accomplished.  We’ve educated tens of thousands of consumers, we’ve won dozens of prestigious awards for our product quality and our mission, so I’m both really proud of what we’ve accomplished and acutely aware of what we need to do to have the kind of impact I’d like us to have.” 

Just what has been the impact of Theo, and where do they envision going?  Stay tuned for Part III . . .