The owner of the guest house was so ecstatic that we finally ended up seeing his country that he gave us many recommendations. The issue was that we only had 4 days available: the first and last for the journey, and in between for visiting. We still managed to cram in one more visit on the final day before driving home, however.
And this is how we ended up at Zotter chocolate factory in Austria. The place is located in a small village named Bergl in the Styrian province of Austria. You know you’re getting close when you find yourself on curvy roads under the watchful gaze of Riegersburg Castle, for it’s about 4-5 km away from the chocolate factory.
We got there at 10 in the morning, right when people were starting to arrive. Personally I couldn’t wait to get out of the heat and go inside and start a tour of the Schoko Theater. It is a one-way gallery with little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous. It also has mostly glass walls so one can see inside the factory and how the workers go about their days. The glass isn’t the only see-through thing though. The company has been praised by the World Fair Trade Organization for its transparency in regards to where the cocoa beans come from, among other things in which I will go into detail later. I found this necessary to point out because there’s great value in companies who not only have nothing to hide, but also choose to show off everything they do.
Anyway, the gallery is impressive. I can’t put a number on the amount of samples you are given. Counting everything might take the magic away. You are given everything from every stage of the chocolate making process. We tasted everything: cocoa beans, milling powder, chocolate fountains (with various flavor mixtures like raspberries). You’d think that the entry price was generous in letting you taste 30 samples, but you’re not even halfway through! You have a full on wall with various high quality spices like cinnamon or saffron for smelling. Even my father who has a strong dislike for cinnamon loved the smell of it there, which is saying something. We’ve tasted their invention, hand-scooped chocolates, which is chocolate layered with various ingredients. Josef Zotter started out this way actually, experimenting with various flavors and had massive success in his confectionary. After opening the factory here though, the amount of hand-scooped chocolate types went through the roof. They even let visitors create one themselves on the monitors scattered around the Theater.
Even though I’m a business student, I prefer small and medium sized companies (preferably family owned) over giant corporations. The main philosophy of corporations is achieving economies of scale: make cheap products at tremendous amounts and sell them at very small, competitive prices. This means adopting a standardization strategy: make one product type that fits this mold, but quality is sacrificed. Zotter goes in the opposite direction. The product “type” is the same but the ingredients differ greatly, and the bars are sold at a premium. Chocolate is commonly a Valentine Day gift, but I also believe quality chocolate has to be made with love; and due to how much care and effort they have put in their business, I think I can say that chocolate is the valentine of the Zotter family. I mentioned earlier the World Fair Trade Organization (WTFO). Zotter is a member of the organization, which promotes fair trade and sustainability, by encouraging companies to develop the local areas where they procure the raw materials. As an example, Zotter works with various supplies from Latin America. They maintain a healthy business relationship by paying good prices for the goods that lets these supplies thrive. To give you an idea, they pay an average of 5-6 US dollars for a kg of cocoa beans, sometimes even up to 12 USD, depending on the quality. The world average is 2.3 USD per kg. They also give standing invitations for suppliers to visit the manufactory in Bergl, they have 100% traceability on their cocoa beans, and they fund various projects such as a charity called “Chocolate for School”, where 50 cents for each chocolate banana bar goes to helping impoverished Peruvian children go to school instead of sent to work (because of the financial situation of the families). Finally, while they do use the usual business buzzwords on their website, almost every page has a joke about themselves, the family, or just a funny photo. They appear to be very genuine which isn’t easy to be or do for companies.
But I digress; let’s carry on with the Schoko Theater. They showed off many awards, funny photos of Josef Zotter, and neat little sculptures. By the end of the tour we had to brace for one last round of tasting: finished chocolate bars, nougat, and a dentist area. You heard me right, there’s a dentist chair for kids. There we tasted their chocolate take on what dentists use as a disinfectant, because we needed to wash our mouths after all that chocolate. It’s made out of pure sugar cane brandy mixed with chocolate and a bit of lemon. Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker!
My absolute favorite was the chocolate and music tasting. For each hand-scooped chocolate they had a song playing which you could listen to. There was artwork behind the bowl of chocolate, which gave you the song and artist names, and beautiful album covers, along with chocolate in the shape of a record. The songs and chocolate that marked me were Adam Ben Ezra – Can’t Stop Running (bass only) and Santana – Europa. I can’t believe I haven’t heard of the former by now, but I noted it down for my collection, and the latter is a song that I just love.
And just like the chocolate theater itself, I am reaching the end of I can say. Kids adore the factory. You never get a moment’s rest with them. We got in a bit earlier than most groups but once they caught up with us we were overwhelmed. Visitors included people from all over the globe and of all ages. At the end I overheard a lady mention that she’s visited the factory a few times in the past few years, and every time there was a new exhibit. The company says they have 270,000 visitors a year and based on what I’ve seen, I believe it. By the time we got to the parking lot, it filled up to the last spot. And if you can’t find a place to park, well, according to a cool sign over there, there’s another Zotter Schoko Theater in Shanghai, approximately 8500 km away from there.
I enjoyed this vacation very much, and the Zotter factory was the chocolate topping on the cake. I highly recommend checking the place out. My advice is to leave your gluttony at home. Do not eat an entire plate of cocoa beans or don’t try to finish a chocolate fountain (it would be hilarious if someone tried though) because you won’t be able to taste anything else. My only regret is that I didn’t get to visit their Edible Zoo, but that’s something to look forward to on a return trip. Till then, Auf Wiedersehen!
Zotter Schokoladen website
World Fair Trade Organization review 2019 (page 15)
My own eyes, ears, tongue, smell, and touch