Scott Witherow: Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co.
Revealed by the Nashville Guru on 02/20/12
If you’ve been around Nashville for a little while, you’ve probably seen an Olive and Sinclair chocolate bar taunting your taste-buds as you wait in line at your favorite store. The old-fashioned look of the wrapper matches the tasty Southern Artisan Chocolate that’s inside, bursting with authenticity, innovation, and a bit of Southern flare.
Scott Witherow’s chocolates have become a Nashville staple in just a couple years, with names like Gwenyth Paltrow sending hundreds of O&S treats to her friends, and major stores like Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma carrying the brand across the nation.
We sat down with Scott last week at the Olive and Sinclair factory in East Nashville to discuss his entrepreneurial journey in Music City. Scott is genuinely an awesome guy, he cares so much about his team and the quality of his product. We love that Scott uses organic cocoa beans in his chocolate and how he is collaborating with other local businesses.
What did you do pre-entrepreneurship? How long have you lived in Nashville?
I was working at F. Scott’s as the pastry chef and teaching pastry classes at the local art institute. Before that, I was studying culinary all over the place, including England and Chicago.
Did you always know you would work with food?
Yes, I’ve always been obsessed with food. I have been in kitchens since my first job. I’ve always had a mega-sweet tooth. Every kid likes candy, and I only know what I did, but my wife says what I did was a bit extreme. For example, I had one of my dad’s old briefcases filled with candy that I would carry around with me. If I could sneak my way in to the pantry, I would grab the bottle of grenadine and just drink it.
Where did the name Olive & Sinclair come from?
It’s based on old family names. Sinclair is a reference to my grandfather, and Olive is a reference to my wife’s great aunt. We really liked how the names sounded together, and I wanted a name that sounded like it’s been around a while.
How did you know at the beginning that the Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co. concept was strong enough to pursue?
I have always run my ideas by my dad, who is really business-savvy. Since I’ve worked in restaurants my entire life, I’ve always thought about opening a restaurant, but my dad never really liked that idea.When I was working as a pastry chef, we were ordering chocolate from all over the place, so I started researching how to make chocolate.
I didn’t see a local maker in the South at that time. I happened to be in Canada, and I ran in to a bean-to-bar maker who really inspired me. I bought a pound of his stuff, ate it all in my hotel room that night, and decided then and there I wanted to be a bean-to-bar maker. After explaining everything to my dad, he said that was the best idea I had yet, which was enough for me to pursue my dream.
To my knowledge, we’re the only bean-to-bar chocolate company that uses brown sugar instead of granulated or turbinado. I made the same chocolate bars we have now and blind-tasted all my friends, and all of them preferred the bars with brown sugar.
Did you ever doubt your business?
Yes, there were so many times during the process that I wanted to give up and go back to working in a restaurant. Occasionally there are days when you want to do that anyway. There’s probably no way I would do it again. My wife and I were both working when I first started this, and I was also teaching pastry at the art institute. I was falling asleep in between everything. It was so stressful starting the business. When I started it, in my head, I thought, “I can make the bars, I can wrap the bars…” but you don’t think about every single little thing that comes with it. I didn’t have a marketing plan or sales plan – we were very blessed. I just worked on a quality chocolate that’s fun, personable, and southern, small batch. And even on a bad day, it’s great – I’m making chocolate.
How did you manage to grow your business so quickly?
I made one batch and pretty much gave it all away. Soon after that, we were getting calls from various stores, including Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma, that wanted to carry our products. We haven’t really had to do anything to get the chocolate in stores. All of it’s really been a huge blessing. Gwyneth Paltrow was shooting a movie here, and I guess she really liked our chocolate. She called and wanted 500 bars and sent them to her friends. We ended up getting a lot of press that year, and that’s really how our name got out there. It was all very grassroots and word-of-mouth.
Pick one: College or Experience?
For me, my education in food was more experience. Living in Europe allowed me to immerse myself in the food and culture there. I was really obsessed with England’s food. It really made me miss the South more. It took me a while, but it made me appreciate the South more. If we’re talking food, I would say experience.
How do you keep your focus on Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co., not swaying to other new ideas or ventures that
often jump in the way of entrepreneurs?
It can be hard, sometimes my dad has to smack me around and tells me to stay focused. I never want to spread myself too thin.
How do your business practices support other local people or businesses?
That was one of the biggest goals of mine when I started the business was to use chocolate as a vehicle to collaborate with other companies and have fun on projects together. So far I have partnered with local country ham producer, Allan Benton, to create the Smoked Nib Brittle. I also got together with Prichard’s Distillery and we released a Double Chocolate Bourbon Bar. We also worked with Terrapin Brewery on a chocolate flavor called Terrapin Moo Hoo – The Milk Chocolate Stout. I have really had fun experimenting with these businesses to create a unique product.
What is your most popular product right now?
Definitely the brittle! Both the Bourbon Nib Brittle and the Smoke Nib Brittle are flying off the shelves.
Why is Nashville a great city to do business? If you could change something about Nashville to make it a better
place for entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Nashville is home, which makes it a great place for me to do business. The food scene in Nashville is rapidly growing now. It took us a little longer to get going, but I feel like it’s perfect timing right now. You can see it in the success of some of the restaurants in town like City House, Catbird Seat, and the Hermitage Hotel. There are so many good producers. As long as we’re all focused on making a good product and work together, I think it’s a great place to do business.
In my ideal Nashville, there would be some sort of new business grant dedicated to redeveloping areas of Nashville or make use of old, gorgeous buildings that are overlooked. Old, historic building are being torn down for new developments and it’s a shame.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I do work crazy hours, when it’s necessary. When it’s not, though, and say it’s a really nice day outside, I take time for myself and hang out with my wife. That’s one great thing about having your own company.
What’s your favorite area and/or spot in Nashville?
City House is my favorite restaurant, without question. I love 12 South Taproom, too; they have a great beer selection. I’m a downtown, Historic Franklin guy, though. I love being able to walk around downtown Franklin, which is within walking distance to my house.
What can we expect from Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co. in 2012 and beyond?
I have a lot of ideas! Currently, we are experimenting with aging chocolate sauce in bourbon barrels. Also, we are creating a buttermilk white chocolate bar.
What’s one thing you want people to know about you as a person aside from your business?
I love anything old! I also love tinkering with stuff. I get into any kind of food hobby, I do some home brewing and would love to have a bee farm, but my wife is a little iffy on that idea. My dad and I just planted 45 apple trees. Down the road, I would love to do ciders or something.