Happy New Year, everyone.
Noka Chocolate is now struggling to conduct PR damage control in the wake of the Dallas Food blog's revelations regarding their product, issuing a statement on the blog's attached forum. Their defense rests entirely on ambiguity. In reading the following fisking, bear in mind that at no point does Noka deny the cardinal point of Dallas Food blog's exposé, namely that the chocolate ("couverture") used by Noka is bought as is from Bonnat.
NōKA Chocolate has never intended to suggest that the Company makes chocolate from “bean to bar” (roasting, grinding and otherwise processing cacao into couverture). In fact, we’ve sought to make this clear in numerous public statements. In an effort to further clarify this wherever possible we are reviewing all of our communications to ensure there is no room for misinterpretation.
It is verifiably true that the owners of Noka (sorry, but I can not be bothered to copy the affectation-ridden spelling of the company name) have never suggested that their company "makes chocolate from 'bean to bar'." Indeed, they have explicitly stated in the past that this not the case. However, since Dallas Food blog never claimed that they had, this is irrelevant.
Moreover, that Noka has denied being involved in every stage of the "bean to bar" process does not preclude that it has suggested it is involved in some stages of that process. Dallas Food blog cites instances of Katrina Merrem stating that Noka starts out with "a semi-processed form of chocolate" (see here), or chocolate "in a semi-processed state" (see here). The implication is that the material with which Noka works is a semi-manufacture, and that Noka completes the final stages of the manufacturing process. In the first example, Merren responds to the question "But basically they [Noka] kind of take it out of its shell and smoosh it?" by saying "Exactly. They do that. And they process it." But what Noka gets in is couverture; finished, edible chocolate in bar form. Noka does not in any way alter the composition of the chocolate, it merely alters the form. It does not take anything "out of its shell" unless by "shell" you mean "manufacturer's packaging."
NōKA Chocolate is proud of the fact that owner Katrina Merrem is a “chocolatier” (person or company who crafts couverture and other ingredients into chocolates, truffles and other confections). We have never intentionally suggested that she is a “chocolate maker” (engaged in roasting, grinding and otherwise processing cacao into couverture). All of our communications, including our Web site and a small booklet included with every gift we sell, identify Katrina as our chocolatier.
Noka may have consistently identified Merrem as its chocolatier, but this statement is the first time that Noka has explicitly stated the distinction between a "chocolate maker" and a "chocolatier." At the time of writing, the word "couverture" does not appear anywhere on Noka's website, and this word is crucial in understanding the difference between a "chocolate maker" (one who makes chocolate) and a "chocolatier" (one who makes chocolates). In fact, I would surmise that the coining of the term "couverture" was necessitated by people in the business itself having trouble with the distinction between making chocolate (singular) and making chocolates (plural). It's a safe bet that all but the most hard-core of chocolate-fancying consumers are aware of the difference; that is exactly what Noka is relying on.
NōKA Chocolate stands by the statement that this is “our chocolate.” NōKA’s couverture is made to our strict specifications. We specify the source ingredients, the region from which the ingredients are sourced and the process by which the couverture is made.
None of these statements is, strictly speaking, untrue, but their phrasing is highly ambiguous; I would argue deliberately so. If I buy a bar of, say, Green & Black's Dark 70% at the local supermarket, it becomes mine once I pay for it; legally, it is "my chocolate," and in the same sense, the couverture Noka buys is legally "their chocolate" once the transaction is completed. But my bar of Dark 70% will remain Green & Black's creation unless and until I alter the composition of the chocolate; if all I do is turn the bar into chocolate shavings, the chocolate does not magically become "Jurjen's Dark 70%." In this regard, it is telling that the Noka statement assiduously avoids the use of the word "couverture," instead sticking with the more ambiguous "chocolate."
Then we have the claim that the couverture "is made to [Noka's] strict specifications." Again, this is not strictly speaking untrue, in that Bonnat's product presumably meets Noka's list of requirements for a couverture. That list may even have been drawn up, at least in part, prior to Katrina Merrem reading Bonnat's ingredients list. But claiming that something is made to your specifications—as opposed to it merely meeting your specifications—implies that it is made in a certain way because you requested it be made that way. The notion that Bonnat makes its couverture the way it does at Noka's specific request is implausible.
The quality and purity of our chocolates and truffles are above reproach, which is why NōKA Chocolate was the top ranked luxury chocolate in the world by the respected food editors of TASTE.
Noka never misses an opportunity to tout the fact that Taste put Noka's product at the top of its list. But does that really mean anything? The episode lauding Noka's product dates from no later than December 2005; the first episode of Taste aired on October 17th, 2005. So we're not talking about a program with the cachet of BBC2's Food and Drink (which ran for 18 years) or BBC Radio 4's The Food Programme (running since 1979). In the November 2005 issue (.pdf file) of Scoff!, a British newsletter on the topic of food and drink, freelance writer Nick Kirby reviewed Taste and concluded it was "a case of not much style over too little substance." Describing the program as "famous" (Sky One attracts around one and half million viewers for its most popular shows, of which Taste is not one) or its editors as "respected" is a stretch, to put it mildly.
NōKA Chocolate considers information regarding our couverture to be proprietary. We respect supplier confidentiality and as such will not comment on speculation about any of our vendor partners. The non-disclosure of proprietary information is commonplace in the chocolate industry and the food industry in general.
This is cunningly crafted verbiage, intended to create the impression that it is common practice among chocolatiers not to disclose information regarding the couvertures they use. But that's not what it actually says. It says that "non-disclosure of proprietary information is commonplace"; that's a no-brainer. What it does not say is that it is "commonplace in the chocolate industry" to consider "information regarding [one's] couverture to be proprietary." And well it should not, for as Dallas Food blog pointed out on page 6 of its exposé, it is in fact commonplace for chocolatiers to be entirely upfront about, and even take pride in which couverture they use.
This statement is emblematic of Noka's marketing tactics. The company does not make statements which are demonstrably and unequivocally false. Instead, they make ambiguous claims which are likely to be misinterpreted (as they are intended to be), sometimes accompanied by a little stretching (excuse me, "semi-processing") of the truth to provide a nudge in the right (that is, wrong) direction. And if the customer gets the wrong impression (namely that Noka is selling something truly exclusive, as they keep claiming, rather than simply remolding and repackaging someone else's finished product), well, caveat emptor, right? I don't think so; when you charge a markup that obscene, you assume a responsibility to be upfront. If there's any justice, Merrem and Houghton will be looking for new jobs before this new year is out.