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Story of cocoa

Maker of gourmet hot chocolate has done sweet circle

Stephen Story has come a long way since he started mixing hot chocolatey blends in his Centerville kitchen. There have been zigs and zags, wild successes and failures, too. Now, Story's journey has come full circle, in a way — back to Stephen's Gourmet Cocoa.

What began as a personal love for homemade hot cocoa became a novel holiday gift for neighbors and friends, then grew into a small business venture and a way to ensure that his son, Dallin, now 14, who was born with cerebral palsy, will have adequate financial support far into the future.

The company, christened Stephen's Gourmet Kitchens, was born in 1990 and quickly blossomed. By late 2000, Stephen's Gourmet Cocoa reportedly claimed 40 percent of the Utah market and was sold in 48 states. Profits, as well as salary equivalents for Story and his wife, Jan Story, went into a trust fund for Dallin.

"There's enough money in there now, so that when Jan and I are no longer able to take care of Dallin, he'll have what he needs," Story said.

By 1995, Story had begun to separate himself from the Stephen's Cocoa operations. That year, along with a handful of business partners, he launched another venture, Tahitian Noni International. Tahitian Noni juice, extracted from the Morinda Citrifolia plant, is marketed as a health-enhancing beverage.

In the last six years, Tahitian Noni reports it has done about $2 billion worth of business. The company has operations in more than 50 countries, employing over 1,000 workers and close to half a million distributors.

Story formally separated Stephen's Gourmet Cocoa's United States and international markets about 24 months ago. Farmington-based Indulgent Foods, a subsidiary of Cornerstone Nutritional Labs, acquired the trademark, marketing rights and brand for the United States, while Story, under the newly formed Stephen's International banner, was granted the rights to foreign markets.

Then, a little more than 12 months ago, Stephen's International was acquired by Morinda Inc., which also owns Tahitian Noni. The sister companies are based in Provo.

"We're essentially a start-up company," said Daniel Bastian, managing director of strategic alliances and global sales at Stephen's International. "We've spent the last few years putting the infrastructure in place."

Stephen's International reps have gone to 30 countries around the world in the past 18 months, Bastian said, "to introduce the notion" of gourmet hot cocoa.

"Fifteen years ago, the multi-flavored, high-quality cocoa industry did not exist," Bastian said. "Steve (Story) started that industry. Now, the rest of the world is where the U.S. was 15 years ago. The market is wide open."

Both Story and David Cowley, chief operating officer at Indulgent Foods, are quick to say that Stephen's Gourmet Cocoa and Stephen's International are different companies, selling different products.

"It's not the same formula, and it's not the same manufacturer," Cowley said. "We own the Stephen's Gourmet Cocoa trademark and marketing rights in the U.S. The rights and trademark for the international market were granted in 2002 to Stephen's International. Other than that, we're not involved with those guys at all."

Story calls the relationship between the companies "friendly." But both are clearly focused on their own fields of play.

"We are taking Stephen's to the world," Story said. "We've completely reformulated all of the products. We've changed the packaging. . . . We're selling Americana. We're selling an experience — an escape, a lifestyle, romance.

"We don't want to go to England and tell people that our product is better than Cadbury," he said. "We may believe that, but what we really want to do is tell people that they need to try the American experience. Everything we've done centers around peace and peacefulness, a time of relaxation and escape."

Initial target markets include Western Europe, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and all of Asia. Though the response so far has been good, Story is realistic about the road ahead.

"It takes time," he said. "This year will be a big year. We've invested tremendous resources in the last year, and it will take more. It'll be a fight every day to be in business. We're just babies, making baby steps. But everybody that we've made presentations to are ecstatic about the quality of the product. That has been our strength, from the very beginning."

For Indulgent Foods, the focus is on pressing forward into new markets, starting here in the West.

"We want to take Stephen's from a strong Intermountain brand, a strong Utah and Idaho brand, to a strong national brand, particularly with growth in the western U.S.," Cowley said.

Every year for the past four years, Stephen's has seen sales increases, Cowley said. The brand's market share continues to increase.

"This year, we will produce and sell 2.5 million pounds of hot cocoa," he said. "That is up substantially from other years. So we continue. We continue to grow."

E-mail: jnii@desnews.com