Since opening in 2005, Donna & Company has earned a fan following for their bold flavor combinations. Diane Pinder, founder and Chocolatier of Donna & Company, uses New Jersey honey in her popular honey caramels and has been favorably covered by The New York Times, the NBC Today Show, the Style Network, New Jersey Monthly, New Jersey Life, and numerous other media outlets. We were thrilled when Diane agreed to talk with us about her success and what the future holds for Donna & Company.
What led to the start of the company?
My company was started as a career switch. Originally I was trained as a Critical Care Nurse, then I worked in Medical Education for Pharmaceutical products. I came to a point in my life where I wanted to have my own business. I opened a store in my town at which I sold gift baskets and made my own chocolate. The chocolate became very popular so I focused on developing my chocolate-making skills. In 2010 I was named Local Food Artisan by Edible Communities/Jersey and was approached by a local Whole Foods to carry my product. Since then, I have been growing my wholesale business and sell to chains such as Whole Foods and to Chocolate Boutiques.
What role does honey play in your products?
In 2006 I went to the Tuscany region of Italy to learn about chocolate-making from the Italian Masters. There, I learned about the Slow Food movement and how Tuscan artisans used local natural ingredients in their chocolates and how to be bold in the flavor combinations. When I came home, I immediately joined Slow Food Northern Jersey and used my experience to create my Donna Toscana® line of Tuscan Style® chocolate which recreates and celebrates the flavors of Tuscany. In 2010, I created my CocoaBee® brand that imparts my Tuscan Style chocolate perspective to New Jersey ingredients. With several apiaries in New Jersey, honey is the important ingredient in my Honey Caramels. The State Department of Agriculture runs two programs: Jersey Fresh that focuses on produce grown in New Jersey, and Made with Jersey Fresh that includes products made with Jersey Fresh produce. My honey caramels are the first confectionery licensed by New Jersey to be labeled “Made with Jersey Fresh.”
What are the benefits of using natural ingredients such as honey?
I feel that locally sourced ingredients can impart a distinct flavor profile to the finished product.
What is your best selling item and why do you think that this item sells so well?
My CocoaBee Honey Caramels are popular. I think that my use of natural ingredients in all of my chocolates (including honey, fruit and such) achieves an authentic and “clean” taste. My customers often point to the fact that my chocolates are not overly sweet, that the flavors are balanced and the flavors come through in a natural way.
What is the most challenging aspect of your business?
Experimenting on new product ideas. I’ve got plenty of ideas for new flavor profiles and products but with the busy holiday season on the horizon, I know many of these new ideas will have to wait until the new year.
Where do you draw your inspiration for new flavors and products from?
I listen to my customers, I look at trends and I’m drawn to flavors that are more savory than sweet.
You use honey from New Jersey, what makes this type of honey unique?
I like the honey from New Jersey because it is how I support other New Jersey businesses and how I support the Jersey Fresh program. There are beautiful farms, landscapes and wonderful products in New Jersey that we reflect the real New Jersey rather than the “reality” TV shows like Jersey Shore. For me to be part of the Made with Jersey Fresh program and to sell my products around the Country helps me to illustrate how New Jersey continues to lead the way in high quality food products.
What’s next? Are there plans for more products that feature honey as an ingredient?
Yes! I am about to launch my CocoaBee Hazelnut & Bee Pollen Praline. These pralines are so yummy because they also incorporate honey and bee pollen from New Jersey. I combine roasted hazelnuts and organic brown rice cereal (which is certified gluten free) to give a surprising crunch, a wonderful texture and distinctive flavor.