Candy man taking probiotic chocolate national

December 19, 2016 | GET MORE : Entrepreneurship

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With a bit of help from U.S. Bank, this Cleveland chocolatier is launching a new company selling healthy chocolate. 

Even debt tastes better when it's covered in chocolate.

Entrepreneur Joel Fink has spent almost three decades successfully building his reputation as a candymaker in Cleveland, Ohio. As the owner of Fantasy Candies, he makes frequent local TV appearances where he’s known as The Candy Man. He has been highlighted in several morning show segments talking about chocolate, especially its health benefits.

Now, Fink, 53, who hasn’t been in debt for "many, many, many years," is taking the big leap and going national. And, as it has been since 1988 when Fink opened his first bulk-candy store in Cleveland, U.S. Bank will be right by his side.

In early 2017, Fink will launch a new company called Blue Planet Chocolate, spinning off his new line of chocolate bars with probiotics mixed in them, the same type of healthy bacteria touted in many types of yogurt. He’s been working for years to develop the perfect recipe that balances taste and health benefits.

Fink has been making and selling an early version of the bars through Fantasy Candies for a few years. To emphasize the healthy benefits of the products, he sought certification from Cleveland Clinic as a healthy product, receiving the famous clinic’s stamp of approval with its Go! Healthy label and landing a spot on the clinic’s website marketplace.

The new product lines are made with 72 percent dark cocoa solids so they have the well-known benefits of cocoa with all the flavonoids and antioxidants that have been touted for years. The squares will initially be made in four flavors: cinnamon chia, cocoa nib, ground espresso and blueberry chia and sell for between $5.99 and $6.99 per pack. 

People like the dark chocolate and the crunch and flavor of the chia but have no idea there’s any probiotics in there, Fink said, even though each square has about 250 million spores. 

"We've made it good for you, without sacrificing any of the flavor or texture," he said. Blue Planet also will make two versions of chocolate-covered Baobites, small chewy snacks made from Madagascar-grown baobab fruits, which are loaded in antioxidants.

Turning to a trusted source

Fink is selling the squares today under the Fantasy Candies brand in a 23-store chain of grocery stores in Cleveland, and has had good results. The success there is what compelled him to target a national audience, but that created challenges too.

"We’re not a large company and we can only make so much," Fink said.

Fantasy Candies is making the product in-house with its small staff of 12 employees right now, but only has capacity to make a few thousand pieces per day.  

To grow its scale without adding a bunch of overhead or employees (it might add one or two), Fink turned to a private-label manufacturer in Youngstown, Ohio that can make between 50,000 and 100,000 pieces of chocolate per day. He’s also talking to an even bigger vendor in Pennsylvania that can do more than that, should sales really take off. 

To begin the national roll out, Fink met with his banker, Ben Robinson, a U.S. Bank business development officer in Cleveland. They discussed a variety of options and Fink settled on a $170,000 SBA-backed term loan. 

"I've never met anyone so passionate about chocolate in my life," Robinson said. "Joel has the drive, he just lacked the resources to take it to the next level."

Even though he’s debt-adverse, Fink realized he’s got to finance the expansion on the front end or risk having a meltdown on the back end after the launch. 

Fink said he didn’t solicit other banks when he was looking for expansion financing.

"U.S. Bank has always been able to fulfill my needs. When I needed a backup credit line for certain times of the year, it was right there right away. I know all the bankers. It’s really comfortable," Fink said.

The deal was also a good fit for Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank, which is the second-biggest SBA lender in Ohio. In fiscal 2016, U.S. Bank completed 244 SBA loans with a cumulative value of $83 million in the state. 

A Chocolate Launch

Fink has spent the past few months preparing to launch Blue Planet. The brand, which Fink described as "earthy" has trademark protection and an online presence. Fink hopes to begin the first large-scale production run in December. He forecasts that by 2018, Blue Planet's annual revenue will top $1 million, eclipsing the annual revenue of Fantasy Candies.

To kick off Blue Planet’s marketing effort, Fink and his wife Suzanne in January will travel to San Francisco for one of the largest annual candy industry trade shows where they would like to gain some traction with retailers and possibly stir up some publicity.

Fink hopes Blue Planet Chocolate gets noticed by a big star such as Oprah Winfrey too.

"We want to take this product big, because it is so darn good, and let the rest of the world know about it."

Sam Black is a Minneapolis-based member of U.S. Bank's corporate communications team.