Shipping Chocolate: The Story of Carl the Snowman
Kate Weiser Chocolate's Carl the Snowman
Kate Weiser shares the story of tackling packaging & shipping for a very unique product!
Talk to anyone in the chocolate business and they will tell you that shipping is a huge challenge. Chocolate is delicate, it can scuff, scratch or break. It is very sensitive to changes in temperature, which can cause it to go out of temper. When you've worked so hard to create the perfect chocolate product, you want it to arrive in perfect condition!
So imagine the challenge of developing packaging and a shipping solution for a 3D chocolate snowman! That is exactly what Kate Weiser of Kate Weiser Chocolate faced when she needed to figure out how to ship Carl the Snowman across the country. If you haven't heard of Carl before (also known as the original hot chocolate bomb), he is a chocolate snowman with a belly full of drinking chocolate mix and a head full of marshmallows. He even has his own Instagram account, but he gets lots of attention on Kate's Instagram account too! We were so happy when Kate agreed to answers some questions for us about the challenges she faced, so without further ado, here is Kate's insight into packaging and shipping Carl!
1) Combining molded chocolate & drinking chocolate in a cute figure is such a great idea - how did you come up with it?
It was my first Christmas in my new store front and I knew I wanted to make a few molded pieces for the upcoming holiday season. It was very late in the game, I think it was late October. I created a snowman prototype with nothing inside of him and showed him to one of my customers. I remember her saying "Oh how cute, but it's so sad that you have to kill him!" I started laughing and then realized that forcing my customers to kill their adorable snowman was kind of a funny/great idea. How do you kill a snowman? You MELT HIM! The idea came right after that like lightening. I knew the only way to get people to melt him was to pack him with hot cocoa mix. Adding marshmallows that would pop up to the surface of the cocoa would be the best part! So I made another prototype, this one filled with our own cocoa mix and homemade marshmallows. We tested it to see how much milk would be the best tasting end result, and tested several to make sure the whole process worked. Once we knew it would work, we knew it would be big for us. So I wrote a quick recipe to let our customers know how much milk to use and that was it!
2) What are the steps involved in making Carl?
The steps to make Carl have transformed over the years. The first year was the most ridiculous. Again, I created him in late October so I didn't really have any time to try out different methods. We made less than 100 to start out, and once the word got out in Dallas that week (he wound up on the cover of the food and wine section of the Dallas Morning News), we couldn't make them fast enough. We ended up having a massive waiting list and I had to hire a whole Carl team to keep up with demand.
Here are the steps of how we made him that first year:
We used a medium sphere mold and a small sphere mold
1- shell both size sphere molds with 3 layers of chocolate
2- make the hot cocoa mix in robocoup
3- make the marshmallows and freeze
4- cut the marshmallows into tiny pieces
5- fill the larger sphere mold with hot cocoa mix and seal together, rub smooth
6- fill the smaller sphere with marshmallows and seal together, rub smooth
7- using a hot plate, create a flat bottom on the larger sphere to it stands upright
8- glue the smaller sphere onto the larger sphere to make the basic snowman shape
9- glue the 2 sphere piece onto a flat chocolate bar as the base
10- chill, then spray with a white chocolate cocoa butter mixture to turn him white and give him that fuzzy texture
11- hand pipe on eye balls
12- create a custom transfer sheet that is orange, layer with chocolate and cut small triangles for his nose, glue on the nose
13- create a green custom transfer and layer with chocolate - cut into ovals for his big button, glue on the button
14 - shell a swirl mold to make his hat and attach to his head
As you can see, 14 steps is pretty insane when you are talking about a product that someone buys before you even put them on the shelf. We were capable of only making about 100 per week this way, so we ended up hiring on an overnight crew to work all through the night to get these completed.
Carl the Snowman - the first generation
The second year, we created a custom mold which was key. It basically let us skip several of those previous steps and make him in 2 pieces instead of 4. The third year, we used the same custom mold but then started production in August instead of October. Carl is shelf stable so making him so far in advance didn't effect the flavor or finished result. The first year we sold 1000, the second year 3200, and this most recent year we ended up selling 4300 and had some left over. By the end of year 3, we were capable of making 100 per day.
Rows on rows of Carls ready to be assembled!
3) Tell us about the packaging that Carl came in the first year you sold him. Did you ship Carl the first year? What were the challenges?
I'm actually surprised that the packaging I selected that first year still works today. It's a basic stock clear box from clearbags.com (great place to get clear packaging without minimums) and we created an insert branded platform with all the instructions on the back for customers. This is what we still use today. The packaging is great for displaying on our shelves, and is a snug enough fit for customers to drive him home in one piece. As long as Carl is attached to his base, he's not going to move within the box.
We did not ship Carl his first two years. Just from how he was produced, I knew that he was way too fragile to ship. I had some customers not heed our warning and ship him anyway on their own accord, and each one reported to us how the entire snowman exploded and turned into a giant box of hot cocoa mix upon arrival. So many customers were begging me to figure out a way to get him from A to B. After each holiday, I sit down with my team and we choose certain things that we want to improve for the next holiday season. Creating shipping packaging for Carl was our big goal for the 2016 holiday season.
Carl's plastic box packaging for retail, along with his feature close up on the cover of Edible Dallas & Fort Worth!
5) Carl is now three years old - how has the packaging for Carl changed over time? What was the process that you went through to design Carl's new packaging and shipping material?
With each passing year, packaging and products both can change. You always want to be looking for ways to improve, whether it's form or function. We try to improve the overall look as well as the function of protecting the chocolate. I usually focus on 1 or 2 that need improving since doing so usually involves a bit of an investment. For retail, he comes in a clear box with a custom branded insert. So we spent very little money on the physical box and the more I buy, the less I spend per unit. We put our money into the custom branded insert. Telling Carl's story is a huge piece of the puzzle so we wanted to make sure that not only did the final product look amazing, but it also told his story well.
The process to ship Carl began last April, so shortly after our 2nd year with Carl. We decided that we wanted to focus on getting him shippable before the next Christmas so we went to work. Creating custom packaging is quite a long process so you want to make sure to give yourself several months. I had a few different local packaging companies take a look at Carl and come up with some initial ideas on how to keep him safe. After about 2 months of vetting different companies, they all told me the same thing - It can't be done.
So by June, I had kind of given up on the idea of getting him ship safe by Christmas. By chance, another local packaging company rep came in and started talking to me. I mentioned Carl and that other companies had failed at keeping him safe. This rep happened to be a young guy who loved the challenge and took one back to his office to get to work. We had several meetings after that, discussing all the variables of why he was breaking, weak points on the Carl that needed protecting, drop testing, foam vs bubble, vacuum vs plastic, all these different things we could try. A prototype was created and I signed a very uncomfortably large cheque with fingers crossed that this would work.
The first test consisted of a hard plastic case that had a customized "Carl" shape (think action figure plastic). We put in a Carl, sealed it up, wrapped it in tons of bubble wrap and shipped it to my mom in Louisiana. DISASTER. Ok - let's try this again. We adjusted the prototype. We wrapped it in bubble wrap and shipped it to my mom again - this time it made it, but the head had popped off. Still not good enough. We ended up realizing that the way the plastic case snapped around Carl was causing the customer to decapitate poor Carl every time they just tried to get him out of the box. More adjustments. More back and forth. We were close. The rep, Alec Feltman (genius), recommended we move to the more expensive thick foam to ship him in. Turns out that the vibrations of being on the back of a FedEx truck was doing most of the damage and if we could absorb those vibrations better, we would have a better result. More custom things = more money = a more stressed out Kate. I decided to go for it. AND IT WORKED!!! We shipped one to my mom - PERFECTION - she shipped it back to me - PERFECTION. We shipped one to my friend locally - TOTALLY WORKS. After a bunch more testing we finally placed our order. The whole process ended up taking about 5 months and we received our finalized shipping materials 2 days before we started selling Carl again.
We ended up shipping several hundred that year and only had reports of 2 with minor damage.
Carl's shipping package
6) How was the packaging and shipping material received this holiday season? Were there any challenges? Are there any changes you plan to make in the future?
The biggest challenge we face now is that I had to purchase such a large amount of these shipping materials and they were insanely expensive. So we are sitting on a lot of inventory on an item that only moves one month a year. The goal for next year is to somehow get Carl to go viral, or get him on Oprah's favorite things just so we can go through this inventory faster.
7) Carl sells for $35.00 online and the shipping and handling charge was $20.40 to ship him from Texas to California (for example). Did you get orders for Carl from around the country? Did you get any feedback about the shipping costs?
Shipping chocolate is probably the #1 frustration for me as a business owner. We are still very small so the rates that FedEx gives us are not that great. If we were amazon.com, then we would be able to pass along free shipping or super cheap shipping to our customers - but we are no where near doing that kind of shipping volume to get those discounts. What a customer pays in shipping on my website is directly from Fedex. This past year we ended up shipping Carl all over the country.
Carl is $10 more expensive to ship than to grab off our shelf. The $10 is purely to cover the cost of what all that custom crazy packaging cost me. So to start with, Carl becomes $35 instead of $25. Then the shipping charge is generated by fedex.com through the back end of our website. I, as a business owner, have no say in what fedex charges my customers. This is what is so hard to explain to customers. We get complaints all the time as to why the shipping costs the same as the chocolate. People are so used to these giant companies that can offer super cheap rates and expect the same from a small business. We used UPS at first, but realized that Fedex gives our customers better rates so we switched.
The rules on how to ship chocolate are also super frustrating for me and many of my customers. We can only ship Monday-Wednesday because we do not want your chocolates sitting in some non temperature controlled FedEx warehouse over the weekend. Fedex does Saturday deliveries but only in-state, so you are looking at tons of out of state customers frustrated that they placed an order on Wednesday after 1:00 pm and it won't even leave our shop until the following Monday. All these rules are stated on our website, but again it's so detailed and there are so many rules, most customers do not want to take the time to read them. More phone calls, more explaining to customers how the system works. And don't even get me started on the melting issue! We are in Texas - so when people in New York place an order and it's 60 degrees in New York, they do not understand why we cannot ship to them. The issue is that it spends a day in the back of a Dallas truck which can get to over 100 degrees even on a cool fall day.
I have talked to so many chocolatiers about the issues of shipping and it seems like we all have the same overall feeling about it. We all deal with these issues everyday because we all want to share what we do with as many people as possible. If you ship 500 shipments and get phone calls about 5 of them leading to unhappy customers - that's considered a total success. But those 5 phone calls break my heart and is sometimes what I focus too much energy on. After my first year of shipping, I decided to take on what I call the "gold standard" of customer service. It's easier to just make someone happy then to explain why you can't.
This past year I received so many emails about how they buy a Carl every year and were so happy to finally be able to send one to their mother, or sister, or grandchildren and they usually attach photos of those family members watching their Carl melt. It's those emails that make all the time and money and energy behind it totally worth it.
Thank you so much to Kate for sharing such a wealth of information with our readers!
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