The sweet taste of success
● By J. Chambless
Vör Foods founder and president Franklin Steck stands in front of a poster for his products, and holding the product he conceived that started it all – a dark chocolate almond butter cup. (Photo by Natalie Smith)
By Natalie Smith
It was a love of chocolate that got the
whole thing started for Franklin Steck.
But not just any chocolate. Only the dark kind would do, with bars made from a high concentration of cocoa solids and low sugar, giving them a full and rich flavor. Chocolate that was chock full of antioxidants and believed to have cardiovascular benefits, among others. Chocolate that could be relished a small bit at a time.
It was that passion that eventually took Steck on the journey from devotee to manufacturer. As the founder of Vör Foods in West Chester, Steck produces dark-chocolate cups, filled with butter not made from the mundane peanut, but rather from hazelnuts, almonds and cashews. Sunflower seed butter, coconut-filled and vegan selections round out the flavorful half-dozen. All cups are free of gluten, preservatives and soy, and made with 63 percent Fair Trade dark chocolate.
Steck recalled his chocolate dawning. “It started all the way back when I was in high school,” he said. “I'd just gotten my first car. I was too young to get a credit or debit card, so I just had an ATM card. I’d withdraw 20 dollars at a time, because that was my budget.”
He’d drop the change from his cash in the car ashtray, and it started to accumulate.
“One day I had all this change and I thought, ‘I'm going to get some chocolate.' I kind of had this craving.”
Steck went to his local store at the time – Landis Supermarket in Harleysville – and, going through the offerings, something caught his eye: A Lindt 85 percent dark chocolate bar. The percentage indicates the number of cocoa solids in the bar.
“I was just getting into health and fitness at the time,” Steck said. “I started eating a little bit better, and that included eating dark chocolate if I wanted something a little bit sweet.”
Steck was hooked. “I basically fell in love with it. ‘This is great, I thought. I love this taste.' It’s different from milk chocolate. You eat it slower, square by square, throughout the day, rather than all at once, so you could savor it more.”
Little did he know that his teenage obsession would end up being his life’s work. Or maybe he had an inkling. “I've always been kind of entrepreneur-minded,” said Steck, now a resident of Phoenixville. “I had lemonade stands. My dad has a wood shop, so I grew up in that. I used to sell his wood shavings to either farms or people who used it as firestarters. I did a lot of that as kid. And I love the aspect of trying to solve a problem or find something that was interesting and get it to more people.”
But Steck’s pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, encouraged by his high school gym teacher (who also owned a CrossFit gym), combined with his own ambition, resulted in Steck’s first sweet creation.
“My big thing was that there weren’t enough chocolate options that fit into what I was looking for in terms of health and fitness,” he said. “There were so many different types of peanut butter cups -- white, milk, dark -- but no one had ever done a different nut. I thought it was kind of crazy.”
With the help of some buddies, Steck pursued his concept.
Steck and friends made a batch of the cups and took them to his teacher’s gym. “Since almond butter is kind of the gateway food to health and fitness, I thought we should do an almond butter cup,” he said. “So, I went online and searched how to make a peanut butter cup. We experimented and tried ... we bought almonds, honey, salt and vanilla. Mixed up the filling, then made the chocolate; we made the cups and they actually came out perfect the first time! It's actually the only time we've gotten a product right on the first try. Everything else has taken many, many iterations.”
“We brought these cups in and they sold out in an hour. Probably about 60 cups. We were really excited. We thought, 'Maybe this is a thing or maybe they felt bad for us, kids selling chocolate.' But the second bunch also sold out.
“People were really liking them,” Steck continued. “That inspired me to go to small, independent health food stores. One in particular in Lansdale was called Arnold's Way. It’s a raw, vegetarian and vegan cafe. We brought Arnold some cups and he was instantly in love with them, which was a great confidence builder for us. He ordered some and we got some in stock there and they were moving really well. That was our first entrance into a professional just-out-of-the-kitchen level.”
Through perseverance – and promoting a product that people seemed to love – Steck was able to get his almond cups in about 30 stores.
Although he had success with his un-peanut butter cups, it wasn’t enough to commit to full time. In 2014 he opened his own CrossFit gym in Collegeville. “I used to bring chocolate into the gym at the beginning. And people said, ‘These are great, you've got to keep making them.' But I like to stay focused and do one thing really well.”
After two years, he sold the gym and decided to travel to Europe, going to Prague in the Czech Republic to teach English. “I ended up being really bored,” Steck said. “But how can you be bored? I realized I was just itching to get back to start something. Chocolate was calling me, in a sense.”
Changing the name to Vör Foods, after the Norse goddess of wisdom and clarity, in 2016 Steck used his money from the sale of the gym, and some funds from his girlfriend, to lease a spot at the Artisan Exchange in West Chester. The Exchange offers approved manufacturing space to small start-up food companies and seemed just the right spot for Vör's new incarnation.
But Steck wasn’t resting on his laurels. “We reached back to our previous customers, and got a decent amount of them back, and then we spent weeks and weeks and weeks driving around to local coffee shops and natural markets, and driving to New York, and trying to get local markets there. Kind of going door-to-door, going up to owners and saying, ‘Hey, we've got these great cups, what do you think about picking these up in your store? They're not like anything else.’ We did that for a good six months until we had a nice consistent base of customers.”
Someone bearing chocolate, Steck noted with a smile, is usually pretty welcome.
“The small, independent food markets are the bread-and-butter of an initial food company,” Steck said of the basic Vör distribution strategy. “You have to build those roots. They're really the only people who are willing to give you a chance in the first place. It also gives you a chance to validate whether people like the product and whether they're buying it.”
He said their particular customers often shop at these sorts of locations. “Ours is directed toward people who were interested in better options, and [these shoppers are] the perfect demographic for these to work. And you get to meet really cool business owners and market owners,” he said.
In addition to about 100 stores in Pennsylvania and New York carrying the chocolate butter cups, Whole Foods approached Vör and now sells its product in about three dozen stores.
“We're so lucky,” Steck said of the Whole Foods relationship. He believes it was because of their concentration on the smaller stores that the larger company became aware of Vör’s goods.
Almond is the best seller, he said, followed by hazelnut and cashew. Sunflower also has its fans. “The people who love it, really love it. Vegan is for a particular group. And coconut is the newest, so we’re still waiting [to determine its popularity].”
Another product line of Vör’s seemed the natural next step: Nut butters. “We already made the butters for our filling, so we figured we might as well try some,” Steck said. “Hazelnut just by itself, rather than like a Nutella [chocolate and hazelnut spread], has surprisingly been pretty popular. We've noticed people are interested in just getting hazelnuts ground up rather than with chocolate. It has a more kind of that mature, nice, old-school hazelnut flavor. We decided to launch all the butters because of the movement we've been seeing on the hazelnut.”
In addition to stores, the cups have been available through online retailer Amazon, although Vör is restocking its Amazon supply. Currently the nut butters can also be purchased online through the Vör website (www.vorfoods.com/nut-butter), although Steck said he’s working on getting them placed in stores soon.
The butters also come in almond, cashew, macadamia and sunflower varieties. Like the chocolate cups, all are free of gluten, preservatives and soy. The 12-ounce jars range in price from $10.99 for the sunflower seed butter to $24.99 for the macadamia butter, the latter being a much more expensive nut.
Vör purchases its roasted nuts from a purveyor in Philadelphia, and Steck said he’s very pleased with their quality. Since there is nothing in these pure butters but the chopped, roasted nuts, Steck has two part-time employees handling their production. In making the cups, about four employees handle the duties, making 1,000 to 1,300 cups per day.
And while the products are “all natural,” they can’t yet carry the USDA “organic” label. “While we use nothing artificial, no preservatives, no additives, and no colorings -- we are not considered fully organic,” Steck said. “Our suppliers are working towards adding this certification, as are we, but it unfortunately is a very expensive process. We hope to be officially organic at some point as we grow our sales and ability to get that process streamlined.”
More information is available at www.vorfoods.com.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at DoubleSMedia@rocketmail.com.