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Updated: August 8, 2022 Women to Watch

Women to Watch: Collaboration is the special ingredient for Kate McAleer's chocolate business

Photo / David Clough When Bixby was embraced by Whole Foods it put the operation into high gear.

Kate McAleer founded Bixby & Co. in 2011. A New York University graduate, she combined her interests in cultural history with the culinary arts, earned diplomas in pastry arts and culinary management and recently earned an MBA in food marketing.

McAleer has won multiple awards, including Gorham Savings Bank’s $30,000 LaunchPad competition in 2014, the New York-based Tory Burch Foundation $100,000 pitch competition in 2016, the $25,000 Greenlight Maine Grand Prize in 2021 and this, year, the national Good Food Award and three Specialty Food Association sofi awards.

A 2014 Mainebiz Next List honoree and 2019 Small Business Administration Maine’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year, does product collaborations with Maine companies like Split Rock Distillery, Maine Grains and Allagash Brewing Co., and plans to open a chocolate café in Waterville.

Products, manufactured in Rockland, are in Whole Foods, Hannaford, Market Basket, Shaws, Stonewall Kitchen, Rosemont, Walmart and L.L.Bean. Certifications include organic, non-GMO, kosher, gluten-free and vegan.

She recently returned from Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Summit in Washington, D.C., where she was Maine’s team captain.

Mainebiz: Why chocolate?

Kate McAleer: In addition to have having a passion for fine chocolate, there were some pivotal times in my life that brought me to chocolate. My mother is a breast cancer survivor. We became aware of chemicals and what goes into our bodies. I also studied in France, where they’re so advanced on chocolate. And I’ve always loved chocolate. But there were no organic candy bars at the time.

MB: What did the start look like?

KM: A lot of R&D. I prototyped a product in my mother’s kitchen and pitched the concept to Whole Foods via a program for young entrepreneurs. They took a chance on me. I had to go into full gear to find a licensed kitchen, get it certified and make the first product entirely by hand.

MB: Where was the first kitchen?

KM: In New York State, where we’re from originally. We moved to Maine in 2013 and leased a shared kitchen in Belfast for one year, until our factory was ready to occupy Rockland in 2014.

MB: How much was first Whole Foods order?

KM: A couple of thousand bars for 30 stores.

Photo / David Clough
Bixby Chocolate has worked hard to broaden its product line.

MB: You began sourcing beans in 2018. How did that unfold?

KM: My family and I traveled to meet the farmers in various countries that we were going to source from. That started a whole journey to find amazing cacao. Much like wine, for example, there are varietals of cocoa pods and cocoa trees. Different origins have different flavor profiles. The visits sensitized us to basic human rights and social issues, such as child labor that’s used to grow the crops. I wanted to find a conscious and clean supply chain and shine a light on some of the lesser-known origins. We decided to source our cocoa beans from small farms that sustains the rain forest and pays fair wages to their workers.

MB: How many beans do you import?

KM: When we first started it was one sack, 120 pounds. Now, over 25,000 pounds per year. We make over 100,000 pounds of finished product, using both bean to bar and fine chocolate bulk chocolate.

MB: Tell us about your collaborations with other Maine companies.

KM: The collaboration with Maine Grains started with R&D in the middle of the pandemic figuring out oat milk bars, which launched this year. We started out buying Allagash Beer at Hannaford and prototyping a brittle. Now it’s on a rocketship for growth. L.L.Bean picked that up.

We partnered with Split Rock Distilling in Newcastle. We soak our cocoa nibs in organic bourbon to make a bourbon chocolate bar, which is one of our top sellers.

MB: Revenue trends?

KM: We saw a bit of decline during the pandemic but it’s coming back. We’re striving to grow on average around 20% every year.

MB: You’re creating chocolate and creating a business. How do those creative processes compare?

KM: It’s just very cool to talk about chocolate, market chocolate, create chocolate — the whole combination. And it’s fun. In terms of the business, it’s a lifelong learning process. Collaborations are a great opportunity to learn from other businesses. I also enjoy listening to customer feedback. We have an engaged social media community. And having incredible mentors has been rewarding.

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