Follow-Up File: Sweet Earth tastes sweet success

Name: Eve Neuhaus

Job: Co-owner

Business: Sweet Earth Chocolates

What they said then:

In January 2010, The Tribune featured Sweet Earth Chocolates in San Luis Obispo.

Owners Tom and Eve Neuhaus opened the business in 2004 in partnership with his sister and brother-in-law, Joanne and Ross Currie. Forging a new niche by focusing only on fair-trade and organic products, they produce their chocolates in a kitchen above the Currie’s Splash Café.

In July 2010, they added a retail shop a few doors down from the restaurant.

“Yes, it costs a little more,” said Tom Neuhaus of their products, “but if you treat chocolate as a privilege, as a special experience, then it’s worth it.”

What she says now:

Word has spread about the retail shop, which is not very visible at 1445 Monterey St. and has limited signage.

“The Christmas season was way bigger than we anticipated,” Eve Neuhaus said. “It took us about a year for people to figure out where we were.”

Online sales, she estimated, were up about 30 percent over the previous holiday season.

Competition has increased over the past few years from other companies now providing organic and fair-trade bulk goods to small chocolate makers.

But demand continues to grow for Sweet Earth’s retail and wholesale ready-to-eat items, like peanut butter cups and peppermint patties.

The company also co-packs products bearing other businesses’ labels. These include coffee beans for Google, chocolate bars for Intelligent Nutrients in Minnesota, chocolate bottle caps for New Belgium Brewing Co. in Colorado and various treats for Allison’s Gourmet in Nevada City, Calif.

“The bulk goods have always been the part of our business that has carried the rest,” she said. “The point-of-service items surpassed bulk goods for the first time in 2010.”

The company now employs eight people full-time, with as many as 20 part-time, seasonal workers. Many of those are students hired to hand-wrap chocolates for shipment.

“We’re at the point where we need to automate more than we have,” Neuhaus said. “It would be more economical if we had a wrapping machine.”

That investment could run as much as $45,000, she added, and would reduce the number of students they employ.

With the growth, they are also considering moving to their own commercial kitchen soon. Depending on what’s available and whether they buy or rent, she estimated such a move could cost anywhere from under $200,000 to $400,000.

The retail store, which began “as a bonus” when they needed more storage, makes up about 10 percent of sales. But it is also seeing more repeat business, especially as Sweet Earth has begun taking part in community events such as Art After Dark, which will be held again Feb. 4.

It has boosted off-season income by buying a 1940s-style milkshake machine to blend both vegan and traditional milkshakes. It also began producing frozen bananas and truffle pops, similar to a Fudgesicle.

“Not too many people buy chocolate in the summer, so we added a freezer,” Neuhaus said. “It was successful.”

— Raven J. Railey