Raise the bar

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Chocolate

Raise the bar
Now in his 90s and bright as a button, Giancarlo Vanini, ICAM's former head of sales, still drives to its office and helps out, having worked for the company since it began in 1946. Anyone who meets him can tell there's nowhere else he would rather be. His unassuming work ethic symbolises the entire business.

A fair trade pioneer before Fair Trade was invented and a forerunner in organic chocolate, ICAM has directly supported the development of high profile UK chocolate brands. Consequently its low profile outside the sector seems undeserved, especially as it chalked up annual sales of more than €100M in 2010.

However, the reputation it has cultivated makes it increasingly difficult for it to dodge the limelight and, indeed, the entire food industry would be the poorer for it if it did. Especially the UK food industry, which is its biggest market, including own-label business with Morrisons, Tesco and Asda.

Two of ICAM's staples are organic and fair trade cocoa powder and ingredients, with single origin supplies and couvertures (high quality chocolate that is used to make bars or inclusions in confectionery and cakes) proving popular.

One of ICAM's proudest achievements is its work on understanding the politics and intricacies of cocoa supply and cultivating and refining cocoa bean strains.

Different regions and strains of cocoa bean deliver subtly different taste profiles, as do varied fermentation methods, soils and even seasons, says ICAM president Angelo Agostoni. Beans range in colour from dark brown to white, with a high proportion of white beans coming from Madagascar, which in large quantities deliver white chocolate.

Sao Tomé & Principe, an island off Africa's west coast, is one region that has risen to prominence, says Agostoni. Others include La Finca in Spain and ICAM says it is approaching what it feels is the optimum fermentation method for Ugandan cocoa beans.

"Criollo and Trinitario [beans] give the most complex taste experience with secondary flavours, although if you prepare Trinitario in a poor way you can still get poor results,"​ he adds.

ICAM combines expert cocoa sourcing and close co-operation with manufacturing and equipment partners on processing and fermentation methods to deliver bespoke products. Inclusions, particularly hazelnuts, are just one of its specialities.

Not only does ICAM strive to give cocoa farmers a fair price, it also supports their development. "We try to share knowledge with growers,"​ adds Agostoni. "We have established a system of cocoa bean drying and fermentation centres and they are very interested in how these systems operate.

"In the Dominican Republic they have learned how to test cocoa liquor and these things can't be developed overnight."

Agostoni's cultivation of a direct and close relationship with growers from an early point means ICAM grappled with sustainable sourcing way before it became a fashionable buzz-phrase. It also means it can trace every bag of cocoa beans back to individual plantations.

Having got to where it is through forward thinking, the company is well aware that to keep growing it needs to keep innovating. That's one reason why it's shifting much of its processing from its traditional base near Lecco on the picturesque shores of Lake Como to flashier e50M facilities in nearby Orsenigo.

ICAM processed 15,000t of cocoa beans in 2010, with an output of about 20,000t in a 365-day operation and production has been fully transferred, Orsenigo has the capability to at least double current capacity.

The 35,000m2 site includes a dedicated cocoa bean warehouse capable of storing 1,500t, with a separated area for organic beans. Building began in 2008, but the full transition will not be completed until the end of next year. "The first block, which converts beans to cocoa liquor and butter, has been completed,"​ says research and development manager Antonio Agostoni.

Beans are roasted and ground, producing cocoa butter, and liquor which is more fibrous and viscous. Both are either pressed to form solid cakes and turned into powder or processed further in Bühler conches. These refine the chocolate over varying periods of time, depending on the texture and flavour required and there are segregated conches for organic products. Organic sugar is sourced from co-operatives in South America, and milk powder from Europe, is added as required.

Production will be fully managed with real-time SAP software, a comprehensive enterprise resource planning system. This is especially valuable considering ICAM works with more than 200 different chocolate recipes.

There are built-in environmental benefits, such as a trigenerator, which produces the factory's entire energy requirement by converting bought-in methane gas, and recovering energy from water used for process cooling.

ICAM also aims to concentrate storage of packaging and finished products, which was previously partly outsourced, at Orsenigo. The new factory will help the business adapt to demand, says Antonio. "Before 2007, 50% of business was in moulded products, 2025% was finished products under the ICAM brand and the rest was ingredients. Gradually product support has changed towards ingredients."

For example, in August 2010 ICAM announced it was working with Ganeden Biotech on a Chocolate Plus Private Label programme to develop probiotic chocolate containing 60% or 70% cocoa content and omega-3 flaxseed oils.

That's just the start when it comes to innovation. "We are working on a project to develop chocolate enriched with flavonoids [powerful antioxidants],"​ adds Antonio.

In addition, Orsenigo includes capability for chocolate chip production for muffins and biscuits, which was originally developed for the US market and has really taken off, he says.

While the company continues to cultivate its ingredients and services, it also plans to drive annual sales past e150M within five years by developing more own-label and branded consumer products. These would include Fair Trade and/or organic bars with high levels of inclusions, says Antonio. "ICAM as a name doesn't convey the family heritage, so we have decided to develop the Agostoni brand as a pilot project."

Having already built a strong trade in the US, the chocolatier launched products under the Agostoni brand there at the beginning of this year and wants to expand it in Europe in retail and foodservice. "We're happy and confident enough to make the first move into the UK under that name and we're still trialling, testing and talking to distributors. There's no reason to stop us developing it in other countries."

In fact, the company is now bringing GoDo, an expansion of its branded business, into the UK, the product having already met with success in other countries. Available in snack-sized 15g bars, in many ways it embodies everything ICAM stands for, combining organic and Fair Trade credentials with high quality dark chocolate and a range of inclusions.

General manager Adelio Crippa adds: "There will be polarisation between value and premium products. There's a big opportunity to produce high quantities of quality bars at minimal cost. We have just launched a private label range for a major US retailer and have established links with US brand Sweet Riot."​ Crippa is also targeting Germany and, further afield, Russia and Brazil.

Orsenigo can make 200g and 100g bars, as well as easter eggs. And ICAM continues to be open to working with partners in the wider candy market to produce confectionery such as pralines, and even chocolate spread.

If even a tenth of ICAM's plans bear fruit, the Agostoni family looks set to continue its chocolate reign for a long time to come. A fact which partners and consumers will welcome and which competitors have little choice but to grudgingly respect.

history in the making - important milestones in the quest to create a chocolate empire

In 1946 Sylvio Agostoni, father of current company president Angelo, founds ICAM, convinced that chocolate, at the time a luxury gift item, could become a mainstream consumer product. The market is dominated by wholesalers, but Sylvio, a salesman by background, trades directly with independent shops on a weekly basis. Ferrero was the only other Italian chocolatier at the time to do this.

The chocolate industry was still rudimentary in the 1950s and raw materials were scarce, but ICAM strikes an exclusive deal with equipment supplier Vitali to instal the first horizontal cocoa press. This enables it to make its own cocoa butter and supply ingredients to other chocolate manufacturers, enabling it to distinguish itself from its peers.

By the early 1960s, ICAM is processing more than 5,000t of cocoa beans a year and has become one of the top four chocolate companies in Italy. Sylvio dies in 1961 and his wife (Carolina) Vanini Agostoni, who died earlier this year, takes the helm. Her son Angelo joins the business in the late 1960s, followed by his four siblings.

Throughout the 1970s Angelo gains global experience in sales and marketing, but particularly focuses on cocoa sourcing. He travels to more than 20 cocoa producing areas and learns the issues influencing the supply chain.

As the following two decades unfold, supermarkets begin replacing independent shops and brand advertising becomes more vital and costly. Rather than invest heavily in brands, ICAM pursues emerging retail own-label products, which were expected to taste better than brands and cost less. The company is renowned for delivering value for money, so it attracts business fast. "There was a time when ICAM controlled 100% of Italy's private label chocolate,"​ says Angelo. "We still continue to be the leader, with 8090% of that market."

ICAM develops a name for sourcing from high quality, specialist cocoa varieties, including organic beans. It works with brands such as Green & Blacks to develop distinctive chocolate flavours.

In the late 1980s Angelo begins work with cocoa co-operatives such as the National Federation of Dominican Cocoa Producers (CONACADA), teaching them to ferment cocoa beans. They had previously only worked with unfermented beans. He helps to build the region's reputation for high quality cocoa beans and develop quality standards for cocoa.

In 2007 ICAM is officially listed among the finest quality global cocoa suppliers.

Related topics Confectionery

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