Opening up with Natalie and Karen Keane of Bean and Goose.
From giant seasonal sharing slabs made to be broken by a little wooden hammer to layering in savory, smokey and sour flavors into rich dark and milk chocolate, the Keane sisters aim to make the best, most interesting Irish chocolate possible. And as you’ll read, it’s come about rather naturally due to their sibling bond and shared love for solid ingredients.
&Open: Let’s start with your childhood and your love for sweets. Do you remember a distinct moment when chocolate didn’t feel special anymore?
Natalie: About eight or nine years ago, I was doing some research for work in the Irish chocolate market. I was looking for Bean and Goose-esque chocolate (before Bean and Goose existed); essentially a world-class chocolate brand that did things better than most. But I really couldn’t find one, not in Ireland at least. That was the point that I turned to Karen and was like, “There are Irish chocolate brands that do a lot of things really well, but there’s no one out there connecting with the new, modern chocolate consumer.” She agreed, of course. The problem was that we didn’t know how to make it.
So that was our first hurdle. We decided to meet with a French chocolatier, Benoit Lorge. He's a really great chocolatier and pastry chef. And he taught us how to handmake chocolate the traditional way: hand-tempering on marble. We did that with him for about three days and completely fell in love with the process.
We then had to practice our skills and get better. Then at the same time, we had to think about what kind of chocolate we wanted to make. What do we want our brand to look like? What do we want customers to experience? How is it going to feel special? All the logistics that come with entering into a saturated industry.
&Open: And what is it that ultimately makes Bean and Goose’s chocolate stand out?
Karen: I suppose because from the very beginning, we knew we wanted to be the best chocolate makers in Ireland. So we had huge ambitions to begin with. And to be the best meant we had to make the best chocolate. So it meant going and finding somebody like Benoit to teach us how to accomplish that.
Karen Keane of Bean and Goose
And that led us to the whole process of hand tempering. The beautiful thing about hand tempering is that you’re doing what the machines do nowadays, and it can take you about two to three hours. But by doing that, you're actually learning how some of the best chocolate in the world is made. The tempering method brings out all the best flavors of that chocolate. You’re giving it that shine, that snap. And you can only hand-temper really high-quality chocolate, so it kept us honest in only sourcing best-in-class ingredients. The whole process is a beautiful mix of art and science. You have to keep track of room temperatures, humidity percentages, where the chocolate is coming from… It’s tedious work. For our first three years in business, Natalie and I hand-tempered every single bar of chocolate that left our workshop on our very own marble slab. And the trick was to be patient, go slow and take your time. Which is an unusual thing to do in this day and age.
&Open: Moving fast and breaking things doesn't make sense for all businesses. How has moving slower and taking your time with the development of both the brand and product helped you create a business that’s really special?
Karen: We take our time with everything. And we've been in business seven… No, nine years now! My gosh. But I think for us, we only scale up and jump to higher levels when we don't compromise our most important brand values, which are 1) sustainability, 2) ethical credentials and 3) the quality of chocolate we produce.
Natalie: Exactly. And we have to have everything lined up. When we scale or expand our business in some way or another, we ensure everything is perfect — that there are no compromises, no matter what. That's really important to us.
Karen: When you're building a brand, you have to be mindful of your customers just as much as your product. We’ve always brought our customers along on our journey because we’ve found it’s led to real brand loyalty.
Natalie: But that happens slowly. You just can't do that overnight. You have to really build trust with the customer. And I think that's what we have done, and it's one of the main reasons why we're still here today.
We can do all the marketing in the world, but the best marketing is word of mouth. Telling somebody else about Bean and Goose is so much more powerful than anything else.
&Open: Bean and Goose’s ingredient combinations are unexpected yet incredibly tasty. Where do you pull inspiration from for new flavors? What does R&D look like?
Natalie: So I suppose our starting point is our chocolate. We source sustainable chocolate from Ecuador. We trace it right back to the community that grows it. We then pair that chocolate with Irish flavors and ingredients that our brand has built stories around. So that's always our starting point, isn't it?
Karen: Yes. We also give ourselves constraints to work with, and that helps inform what kind of flavor we're gonna produce.
Probably the most important part of the business is coming up with new flavors. But what’s interesting is that Natalie and I don’t really set aside time for it. They kind of come about through spending a lot of time together. We're sisters, and when Natalie stays at my house to work together for a few days, it's a very natural process.
For example, we have a monthly tasting club, and Natalie owns a beautiful apple orchard. All the apples were ready, and we thought, how perfect — we’ll dehydrate the apples and use those for this month’s tasting. So while I’d like to sit here and say it’s really methodical and super thought out, it’s not. It’s all very organic and mostly informed by what’s in season, what’s happening with Irish producers, who's producing beautiful product out there and so on.
Natalie: The other thing we often think about when coming up with flavors is what the customer's going to do with the product. How are they going to enjoy it? Like, with some flavors, our goal is to enhance that lovely moment of drinking a good coffee or cup of tea. So our flavors for those small, bite-sized bars all pair nicely with a hot drink.
Karen: We think about visuals as well. With our sharing slabs, we know that it’s very experiential. When you open them, they need to feel abundant, beautiful and impactful. So those things inform what ingredients are incorporated into bars, too.
&Open: What’s it been like working as sisters and business partners?
Natalie: I love it. I think it works because we have so many shared experiences from being siblings that have actually led us to exactly the same place, which informs what we think a great brand should be.
We're always completely aligned with where Bean and Goose is going to go and what we're trying to achieve. And I really like it. The fact that we spend so much time together is fun, too.
Karen: It's so great when you have a shared vision. We know exactly what we want Bean and Goose to look like.
We both have different skills within the business, too. I look over production and the day-to-day running of the business, and Natalie looks ahead to the future of the business and where we're gonna be in 12 months’ time. And then we come together and execute!
&Open: Sustainability is important to you both. What’s been one of the most rewarding parts of your commitment to ethical sourcing? Any new sustainability plans on the horizon?
Natalie: We’re really proud of the communities we support through sourcing our chocolate. We source it from Ecuador and it's grown by just 17 families and they’re paid above their trade prices. We've worked with them from the beginning, and it’s not only been a pleasure but something we’re really proud of; being built on ethical foundations. It's easy then to follow that through the chain and work with like-minded, sustainable partners when sourcing other ingredients here in Ireland.
Karen Keane of Bean and Goose
Our next goal is to look at delivery and shipping logistics to see how we can expand our sustainability efforts into that area of business operations.
In terms of “ethical” projects, we organized one last Christmas for our Ecuadorian growers. When harvesting the cocoa pods, they have to transport the cocoa beans up a nearby river to complete the next part of the process, which is lying the beans out on big sheets to dry and ferment. They used to have to hire water taxis to do this, which are expensive — especially if you have to make trips more frequently as our demand continued to grow. Long story short, our community and customers raised €5,000 for them to build their own canoe to make this river trip less expensive. They just finished their canoe a few months ago, motor in tow, and it’s on the water being used as we speak. The project allowed them to put more profit in their pocket at the end of the day.
&Open: What's your favorite chocolate bar at the moment?
Karen: I like the new milk one that we just launched. The Treacle Soda Bread bar. We toast and dehydrate treacle soda bread and then it’s run through our milk chocolate bar. It's just got this great, classic milk crunch flavor, like an old-fashioned bar of chocolate. It’s really delicious.
Natalie: I like the Coffee and Cardamom bar. Which is funny because it's actually the opposite of Karen’s. With the Treacle Soda Bread, the main “thing” is texture. It's really crunchy.
With the Coffee and Cardamom, it’s all about those powerhouse flavors. We take dark chocolate and add fresh Nicaraguan coffee and cardamom to it. It's not anyone’s favorite job breaking open all the little cardamom pods and taking out the tiny seeds. However, it makes all the difference in that chocolate bar. It feels like home; based on the whole idea of Arabic coffee, the cardamom and the coffee together… It's amazing.
Natalie Keane of Bean and Goose
&Open: Alright, let's talk about gifting. What makes Bean and Goose a really great gift?
Karen: It's a great gift because of the experience. There’s a great deal of thoughtfulness that has gone into each and every bar of chocolate. From the packaging to design to the illustrators to the storytelling to even the mold that we use. All of those things add value to the entire gifting experience. The layers of our chocolate tell a story, and that holds weight with those who indulge in it.
&Open: Who is Bean and Goose for? Is it for the person that really cares about sourcing and where everything's from, someone who loves an adventurous flavor profile…?
Karen: You know what, we find that a lot of people buy Bean and Goose for people that maybe have everything or know everything or have traveled and tried all different types of foods and such. They always say, “Ah, this is gonna wow them. They're gonna love this.”
Natalie: I think it’s also for people who just love beautiful things and understand the thought and the work that goes into making those things beautiful. In my mind, that’s the ideal customer. The one that has a real appreciation for the low and slow.
&Open: What is your favorite reason to give someone a gift, whether it's chocolate or something else?
Natalie: We like the occasion of “just because” — it’s unexpected, and so then the gift feels real, real thoughtful. I of course love giving gifts for the usual celebrations, but there's something really heartfelt and sincere when it's just because I'm thinking of you, and I knew you'd love it.
There are a couple of times during the year that we send gifts either to customers or people that we've worked with just because we appreciate them. And so many people email us to say, “Do you know what? That chocolate bar arrived on a day when I was feeling really bad. And that just made my day.”
That's what it's all about.
&Open: What's the best gift that you've ever given?
Natalie: One year, I gave Karen a donkey. And it seems to be the gift that keeps on giving, because that donkey had a baby. She's got few donkeys now. Laughs.
Karen: It's quite funny because donkeys have really long life spans. So I keep saying to Natalie, “I haven't got any children. But I've got three donkeys. So you're gonna have to look after those donkeys when I go, ‘cause they're gonna be living an awfully long time.”