Husband and wife Steve and Mei Shuen Branham ran a small jewelry and gift store for years before founding their first Chocolate Monkey store in 2009. Mei Shuen had always had the desire to go into the food business, so along with Steve's brother and sister-in-law, John and Mary Branham, the four launched a family business in a predominantly tourist area of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.
High Aspirations Lead to Growth
The Chocolate Monkey currently has seven locations and offers monkey-themed plushies and gifts, homemade chocolate candies, ice cream, giant caramel apples and, of course, real butter and cream fudge. How do they explain this phenomenal growth, especially in such a destination area where they are competing against hundreds of other businesses?
"We were determined that whatever products we sold, we would always make it better than anybody else. It didn't take long after checking around to find out that Calico Cottage makes the best fudge mix," said Steve. So, they contacted Calico, learned how to make fudge, and it's been pivotal to their business ever since.
Fudge has allowed them to achieve significant growth, garnering over $500,000 in annual fudge sales at a margin greater than 50%. There are now seven Chocolate Monkey locations in eastern Tennessee. "Whenever we build a new store, it's positioned around the fudge," said Steve. "As people come in the door, you want it facing them. Fudge is the featured item."
Exceptional Employees = Excellent Customer Service
The Branhams discovered that creating a fun, family work environment was the best way to attract and retain excellent employees who would treat their customers well. "Exceptional customer service," said Steve. "That’s how we built our business."
"We want our employees to be able to come to work with a great attitude, knowing that it's going to be a fun place to work," said John. Talking to customers, learning where they're from, and carrying on a friendly conversation are essential if you want to work at the Chocolate Monkey.
Following Best Practices
Chocolate Monkey sells their fudge by the half-pound, with an upsell incentive of "Buy a pound, get a half-pound free." That, in addition to proactively sampling every customer who enters their stores, has resulted in 75 to 80% of their customers taking advantage of the upsell incentive. Steve admits that "giving away" free fudge as part of the upsell promotion was hard for him to digest in the beginning, but came around when he saw the impact on the Chocolate Monkey's total dollar sales. "It more than pays for itself," says Steve, of the upsell incentive. "You'd be foolish not to do it."
A Must-Visit Tourist Destination
Although tourists make up about 98% of Chocolate Monkey's business, many of these tourists end up becoming repeat customers after having such a positive experience.
"We have a number of customers who will come for a week or so, and they stop in in the beginning of their trip to get some treats for their stay there," said Mary. "And then on their way home, they stop in to get more to take home with them."
In addition to offering classic top-selling flavors, the Chocolate Monkey encourages their fudge makers to experiment with creating signature flavors that are popular to their region, like Banana Pudding.
A Like-Minded Partnership
The family agrees that the consistently excellent taste and quality of Calico's fudge is second to none. "We've compared the taste of other vendors' fudge to the taste of Calico's, and there's just no comparison," said Mary. "We haven't found anything that comes close," agrees Steve.
He also acknowledges the similarities between the Chocolate Monkey and Calico Cottage. "They're doing the same thing that we are," Steve said. "Calico is continually trying to improve their business, and by them improving their business, they're helping us improve our business. It seems like everybody goes above and beyond to make sure we get what we need."
The Branhams want their legacy to be a successful business that continues to grow. There's no doubt that they're on the right track.