Raw, vegan, organic, Fairtrade and certified as kosher and halal -- Pana Chocolate is ticking a lot of boxes with its handmade deliciousness. Every product it makes is free from gluten, refined sugar, soy and dairy and is kept as raw as possible.
But Pana Chocolate is not just about creating gourmet goodies. The company supports several environmental charities and plants thousands of trees each year through the Fifteen Trees initiative.
Why? Because Melbourne-based founder Pana Barbounis has chosen to create a business that reflects his vegan lifestyle as well as his passion for global eco-preservation. Indeed, its motto is: "Love Your Insides. Love The Earth."
“Mother Earth is so amazing and without her none of us can be here,” Barbounis told The Huffington Post Australia. “We want to have a business as nature intended it; we want to create as minimal impact as we can and we want to make the change.
“From our packages being recycled and our inks being non-metallic -- as much of that we can do we will and we will pay a little more for that. It definitely connects with me as well that we are connected and grounded.”
Barbounis has been vegan for just over three years, the same time he has run the business. And he has timed his run perfectly. Celebrities are turning to veganism in droves and awareness is higher than ever about the source of the foods we eat.
“I see it all over the world, it is growing every day,” he said. “It is more of a lifestyle and it is inevitable. People are becoming aware of what is actually in your foods.
“Now you go down the aisle of any independent grocer and people are picking up the packaging and reading the label. Now it’s the next level of people asking where does the meat come from. And its sustainability as well. We know the environmental impact -- at least 50 percent contributed by farming so that needs to find a balance.”
This boom in awareness, as well as the company’s eco-friendly philosophy, may explain how, in just over three years, Pana Chocolate has grown to employ 85 people and have an annual turnover of more than $5 million.
“It’s quite karmic and it comes back in so many ways,” he said.
“We have had great growth but we try to do the right thing in every channel. It’s no coincidence that we have had this great result today.”
Although the chocolate is handmade and hand-wrapped in Melbourne, virtually all of the ingredients, including cacao powder, virgin cacao butter, coconut oil, agave nectar, wild carob and cinnamon, are sourced from South America. And every effort is made to keep the ingredients as raw as possible.
“Anything in its natural state and not tampered with is better for us,” he said. “It’s not breaking down any enzymes or the goodness. Once you start cooking, you cook a lot of this stuff out.”
Barbounis says 50 years ago the cacao beans were dried on large shelves or exposed to bacteria, so the beans had to be cooked.
But practices have since improved and keeping the beans raw for the process of making the chocolate is now possible.
And the certifications from Vegetarian Society, the Vegan Society, Fairtrade, Kosher Australia, Al Iman Islamic Society Inc and organic-certified in Australia and Europe are ways to grab consumers’ attention.
“It’s purely being transparent,” he said. “We are everything that we stand by. People sometimes need to see that to connect.”
Barbounis grew up in a Greek household where love and family was often celebrated with food. His passion for food led him to a career in hospitality, although he began Pana Chocolate with no formal training in making these sweet treats.
He started to experiment with the chocolates, convincing boutique retailers to stock them and give him feedback about the flavours he was trying out.
“My first chocolates I ever made were in ice cubes and cake moulds and my first 22 customers I would make, wrap and then deliver on the Vespa,” he said.
“It was great learning for me and I am really blessed. They were giving me feedback and it was so critical for me to understand what the consumer was connecting with and not connecting with in order for me to launch it commercially as a bar.
“I was using this amazing cacao butter that was so fragrant but it dominated the original bars. So getting that feedback meant I could balance the ingredients and the chocolate itself is the hero and not having 6 or 7 ingredients competing with each other.”
Pana Chocolate’s first 10 stockists are listed on the company’s website as a tribute to their decision to take a punt on an unknown guy and his vegan delights.
And this is also why his business model is dedicated to working with other small businesses.
His previous hospitality venture involved supplying food to airports but he was reliant on only two main outlets. This was too risky, and now instead he has more than 2000 small outlets around the country.
“The main reason is to support other small businesses and they have been great ambassadors for us,” he said. “For me it’s been the way I can give back to them with loyalty as a brand. I am quite active in promoting it.
“The majors have got enough brands and enough products and it’s about dealing with some great stores who get behind the product.”
And now Pana Chocolate is going global in a big way. It is now sold in 24 countries and there are plans for a manufacturing outlet in the UK this year as well as push into Asia and then North America in 2017.
“We want to become one of the biggest organic chocolate companies in the world but in a good space and enjoying what we do.
“We reward ourselves with food -- it nourishes our soul, so it’s important we reward ourselves,” he said. “And Pana Chocolate is a reward -- it’s not something to overindulge with, it’s a great indulgence. It’s a whole experience.”