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Inside Indy's Endangered Species Chocolate's successful year of contribution to conservation

"2020 was our best year yet." Company donates $500K to conservation groups
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Posted at 3:22 PM, May 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-10 08:52:18-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Five years ago, Endangered Species Chocolate, headquartered in Indianapolis, pledged to donate 10% of its annual net profits to conservation organizations. By 2021, they've donated over $2.6 million to its GiveBack Partners spread throughout the country and internationally.

"2020 was our best year yet," Whitney Bembenick, food scientist and ESC's director of marketing and innovation, said.

Last year alone ESC gave $500,000 to two organizations, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and the National Forest Foundation.

With that money, according to ESC, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund was able to distribute 14,000 trees to help improve food security. It also allocated over 200,000 hours to protecting gorillas, 350,000 acres of habitat, and removing 2,500 snares that resulted in zero gorillas getting caught and harmed.

The National Forest Foundation was equally able to benefit from the donation, ESC said, by continuing to protect endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the threatened anadromous coho and chinook salmon. Additionally, the foundation was able to restore 4.2 acres of wildlife habitat, 66 miles of stream, engage with 6,532 youth, and complete 116,244 acres of fuel reduction.

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"Chocolate making is as much a science as it is an art," Bembenick told WRTV as we went behind the scenes of its humble manufacturing site on the northwest side of the city.

Since the chocolate company's origin in 1993, the promise of making genuine chocolate has remained the self-made responsibility of ESC. That responsibility always goes back to the duty we as humans have to take care of the environment, but the magic happens in Indianapolis.

The process for ESC's real and simple chocolate in the U.S. starts with the cocoa bean processor in Milwaukee. Then it's shipped to Indy where ESC has two buildings, one for processing the blocks of chocolate, another for shipping the final packaged product.

It's a process that ESC takes seriously. So seriously in fact that the company ceased its once-allowed chocolate-making tours because it felt it disturbed its process and didn't want to take any chances of its product being less in-value.

"You work with a product for so long, you get a knack for knowing when things are right and wrong," Bembenick told WRTV.

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Inside Endangered Species Chocolate. Pictured is a hallway leading to the production room where boards of educational facts related to chocolate are displayed.
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Rows and rows of boxed up chocolate blocks ready to be processed through the Endangered Species Chocolate's recipe lines.
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Endangered Species Chocolate is made on the northwest side of Indianapolis.

ESC's success last year started with the inside, and its 45 employees.

"We were really blessed by a good Christian leader and our CEO. He shut down the facility for two weeks at the start of the shutdown, to allow us to figure out how to move forward. No one saw a job loss or interruption," Bembenick remarked.

She says the entire idea of a million dollars was rooted in one question by the company's CEO Curt Vander Meer: "What's the most joyous moment of the year for you when you go to work?"

His response, Bembenick said, was calling their GiveBack Partners in December to tell them there's a check in the mail for their efforts.

"There's just a whole ceremonial moment to it," Bembenick said of the company's culture surrounding conservation. "But that response that we see from the conservation partners that we pair up, that's what brings the most joy at ESC and so that's where this idea of, let's get a million dollars back. Hey, we can do this!"

Although the last year was an extremely successful time for ESC as they saw an uptick in sales and surpassed its donation goals, Bembenick says it was not met without its challenges.

"And what we're going to continue to see are increasing costs — every business is seeing this across multiple platforms and industries. It is happening. We're able right now to still maintain so that we don't pass on that cost to our retailers or our customer, but it happened," Bembenick said.

"We know there's gonna be challenges, not just from 2020, even though it was a great year, but moving forward, marching forward, how are we going to lap what we're dealing with right now," Bembenick explained. "Last year, there was a surge in the grocery stores, right, people just, they wanted anything that was on the shelf. If there was anything left. And so, it presents challenges moving forward. So it wasn't just 2020, it's the years beyond, that we have to sit back and say how do we navigate that. But so far, I think we have a great plan."

ESC's goal is to raise $1 million annually for conservation by 2027.

Those who wish to help the local chocolate company can purchase their products at Kroger, Whole Foods, Target, Meijer, Fresh Thyme, The Fresh Market, Market District and George Street Market.

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The finished product of Endangered Species Chocolate rolling through the line.

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