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Callie Neylan Bellflower Chocolate

Being alone in the bowels of Seattle’s oldest Catholic church past midnight isn’t as scary as you might think. My husband and I spent hours in the basement kitchen of Immaculate Conception, formulating batches of chocolate as we launched our first start-up endeavor: a craft chocolate company. It was there, in large part, that we discovered our backgrounds in software development and design were going to prove very useful in chocolate making.

In software development, there’s this thing called “MVP” or “minimum viable product.” A minimum viable product is the most pared down version of a product that can still be released (or “shipped”). It’s a concept derived from agile software development, a framework built around the premise of “sprints”—i.e., quick cycles of feedback, iteration, and design. As defined by Technopedia, an MVP has three key characteristics:

1. It has enough value that people are willing to use it or buy it initially.
2. It demonstrates enough future benefit to retain early adopters.
3. It provides a feedback loop to guide future development. 

Last summer, after a year of testing recipes and sharing  with our friends, we released our first MVP at the Queen Anne Farmers Market—our flagship product, bean-to-bottle botanical chocolate milk on tap. It turns out the MVP strategy works great not only for tech products but for chocolate, too. Food is often a product and, like software, benefits from repeated trial, error, and design iterations. 

Applying our agile experience to chocolate milk, we knew that making it “minimal” and “viable” meant selling business-to-consumer at first, something we could do easily at a market. Selling business-to-business, or wholesale, would be far more complicated. To sell wholesale, we’d need to bottle the milk, which requires expensive, specialized pasteurization equipment, plus jumping through regulatory hoops at the state level (it’s much easier to buy an assault weapon than legally sell milk products, but I digress …). Selling growlers of chocolate milk on tap at a market required simpler permitting. It was the least we could do to get our products into the hands of our “users” to test with a broader customer base for more feedback. 

Callie Neylan Bellflower Chocolate

Photos: Callie Neylan

Making our MVP also involved figuring out our scale and production capacity. Initially, we made micro-batches of only dairy milk. The night before our first market, we pulled an all-nighter at our commercial kitchen, then in the Catholic church’s basement, making way too much milk: 30 gallons and six different botanical versions. We didn’t sell nearly as much as we thought we would, and we knew that making 30 gallons of chocolate milk every week was not sustainable. All-nighters in your 20s are one thing. In middle age? Umm … no. So we scaled back from 30 gallons to 6, six botanicals to three, and sold only at every other farmers market. Later, when we introduced another product, bean-to-bar chocolate, our packaging was financially minimal, made with paper from Paper Source, Scotch tape, and cheap labels from OfficeMax—the minimum needed to wrap things sufficiently.

We knew our product was viable because the stuff we were making was good—confirmed ecstatically by our friends. Once released, our bean-to-bottle chocolate milk garnered a lot of great feedback at the farmers market, resulting in quick design iterations: formulation changes to improve the emulsion of the chocolate with the milk (we don’t use fillers or emulsifiers) and the introduction of nondairy versions. We also learned that our “users” love that our chocolate milk is not too sweet, so we made no modifications to the sugar levels. Between each market, we went back to the kitchen and tweaked our product design based on user feedback.

Borrowing the MVP philosophy to “build” chocolate like we build software works well for us. This strategy works well for architects, too. As described in the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, when creating new wings at Seattle Children’s Hospital, ZGF and the design team built an MVP out of cardboard, testing the floor plan in a warehouse by having staff, patients and parents walk through it, simulating day-to-day tasks, then moving things around based on feedback. This was easy and fast because their MVP was built out of cheap, light materials (see “Hospital Design Started with Yarn, Cardboard, and Duct Tape” for more).

Whether designing food products, digital products, or buildings, using MVPs in the design process leads to an even more desired end state: the “MLP,” or minimum lovable product—something I strive for in my design practice every day, both digitally and gastronomically.