Katie Bartlett & Kyle Wilson are the co-founders of Toronto-based bean-to-bar chocolate maker Soul Chocolate. They talk about how their globetrotting opened their eyes to the world of specialty chocolate and coffee, what they wish people knew about chocolate, and the importance of constructive feedback for entrepreneurs.
We’ve loved this super-talented, funny and sweet (in all senses of the word) duo — our partners here at Joya for all things chocolate — since we met them a few years back. We’re excited for you to get to know them a little better too!
Q. Why chocolate? How did you end up here?
The idea of careers tied to specialty chocolate and coffee came about when we had spent some time in Australia and New Zealand, right at a point in both our lives when we were unsure what we wanted to do career-wise. Before that, neither of us had any real experience in coffee or chocolate.
I (Kyle) was a Tim Horton’s coffee drinker — I had no idea what quality coffee was — and even on the trip I was so shocked that brewed coffee was $4-5. We got jobs as bartenders in northern Australia at a spot that had an espresso machine, and I was curious so they let me play around with it. First I was just making coffee for myself and eventually the staff were all asking me to make them coffee. I became the “coffee guy” for a couple hours each day.
The chocolate piece came about later in our trip in Wellington, New Zealand, where we stumbled on a cool shop that was a cafe up front and chocolate shop in the back with about 30 kinds of chocolate. Back then we didn’t even know 30 kinds of chocolate existed! We knew milk, bittersweet, but not all these chocolates with so much complexity and different layers, chocolate as a craft. That opened our eyes to the possibility of doing something like that as a career.
We both love to travel and explore, and because of our sourcing trips it now gets to tie into our business, which is sweet!
Q. What keeps you motivated?
Kyle: Some days I’m motivated by going into the shop and trying a new chocolate we’re working on, and other days it’s getting ready to pitch to a new account we hope to work with, or seeing progress in the people who work with us. It definitely varies day by day, week by week. Part of what’s so much fun is that no two days are structured to be the same — it keeps it fresh.
Katie: I know what Kyle means about the daily things It’s always exciting sampling a different origin, roasting it, making a small batch and seeing what you can make from it.
Q. What’s one thing you wished more people knew about chocolate?
Kyle: I think it’s understanding where things come from — the full process — and becoming connected to it. I wish people knew more about the people who are growing cacao, that it’s a fruit that takes a lot of work not to screw up and make delicious. There are so many little steps that depend on people, and everyone involved in the process deserves to enjoy their lives and get paid for their hard work. Lots of people don’t know these things and are willing to buy cheap chocolate just because it’s cheap, but there’s a lot more to it than just the dollar sign at the grocery store. When you truly understand the process, it’s interesting how much more willing you are to do something because you want to support someone, or maybe you end up avoiding it completely because it’s causing harm.
Katie: I’d add from a different perspective, realizing that chocolate is complex in flavour. It’s not just like a sweet brownie. It can be fruity, floral, nutty…. But a lot of people assume that chocolate is chocolate and there’s no difference in flavour.
Q. One recent food/health trend that excites you?
A lot of people are talking about buying local and we like the idea of that shift. We always try to buy things from farmers markets. We sell a premium product and we’re trying to live that in other ways too and support people who grow quality products. It’s exciting because not only is there a shift happening at the consumer level, but big businesses will also start shifting the way they do things to appeal to the public.
Q. What are a couple of your favourite activities in Toronto and why?
Katie: I love the Beaches, walking along the boardwalk. I’m transported out of all the busyness of Toronto. It’s soothing and calming and you can be mindful.
Kyle: One of my favourite things is the Leslie spit, running on it is pretty awesome. The other day we went to White Lily Diner and they have this Southern breakfast with grits and gravy and fermented veggies and collard greens, and it was probably my favourite breakfast I’ve ever had.
(Photo by Ruth Elnekave)
Q. If you could sit next to one person on a transcontinental flight, who would it be?
Katie: Interesting question! For a while I was listening a lot to Tim Ferris. I’d want to meet him and get into his mind.
Kyle: For a while I was fascinated with Elon Musk and how he can be the CEO of how many businesses? And be hustling so much and accomplishing so much. I’m really curious about his life, although it’s probably mostly work. He’s a fascinating, interesting dude!
Q. If you were one of your chocolate bars, which one would you be?
Katie: Hmmm, I don’t know! Maybe Madagascar… that’s the first that came to mind because it’s my favourite one. The fruitiness is balanced enough that I can crush a bar pretty easily! But I’m probably most like Venezuela because I’m quiet and subtle!
Kyle: I’m going to say Papua new Guinea because it’s really adventurous and funky and weird… I’m a goof and I’m weird! The Papua New Guinea has an interesting fruitiness but also a smokiness… it’s an interesting combination of flavours you wouldn’t expect. I always call it the most adventurous chocolate we have. It’s out there.
Q. What’s your current motto?
Kyle: To try to constantly improve and push things a tiny bit forward every day. Always tinkering, making slow, small improvements to things over time that can add a lot of value in the long run. It works for me, it’s kind of who I am.
Katie: To take everything in and be grateful for everything. That comes to my mind every day at some point.
Q. If you could have done one thing differently (relating to Soul) what would it be?
It’s interesting because everything we’ve done has led us to this point so we almost wouldn’t want to say that we would have done anything differently — who knows how that would have altered where we are now? People always told us to hire early but you can only do what’s in your means, so we didn’t. But if the budget would have allowed and we had had more start-up money, we might have hired people earlier to get some extra hands in there so we could focus on growth and other things.
Q. One piece of advice you would give any entrepreneur?
Kyle: Persistence. You have to keep going, taking things in whether they’re negative or positive and not letting the negative things stop you. It’s very easy to take things personally and as my dad always says, it can take the wind out of your sails. There are always little things that you might have to tweak and shift if they’re not working, but keep pushing forward. That’s when success comes, when you get through that hurdle.
Katie: Being open to constructive criticism because it can help you grow and grow your business and help you find different paths than what you originally planned. For example, when we had first started making chocolate we had sent our bars to a chocolate shop in the US to get their opinion, and some people didn’t like them and had some harsh feedback. But that caused us to revisit and re-taste everything, and we recognized that we were maybe roasting a bit too dark, so we changed that and made some other pretty big improvements, I think. Sure, you might experiment based on feedback and then realize you don’t agree and prefer things the way they were, but that process is important.
Kyle: It’s good to have that feedback, like a reality check. A lot of feedback you get early on is from friends and family and they just want to be supportive, but it’s good to have someone who doesn’t know you give you real, honest, valid feedback.
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