Pana Barbounis jokes that he was nearly disowned by his parents when he started his vegan chocolate business eight years ago.
“At the time I was a vegetarian and looking at being vegan,” he says. “It’s a bit contradictory being Greek background and being vegetarian. Poor Mum, she said ‘I don’t know what to cook for you anymore’.”
Barbounis started Pana Chocolate after working for several years in the hospitality industry and spotting a gap in the market for organic vegan chocolate.
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Pana Chocolate ticks every food trend there is right now with research published by point of sale provider Impos last year finding the top food trends were health-conscious offerings, vegan and vegetarian and organic offerings.
However, Barbounis says he was just following his own tastes.
“I did feel there was something happening there, but it was really more about my personal lifestyle and I’m true to what I believe,” he says. “I think I needed to create something that was going to be true to what I believe and who I am.”
“I started looking at alternative ingredients that would work well and still provide our taste buds with creaminess and the consistency that we look for in food,” he says. “To me, because I play in that organic space and I’m really passionate about mother nature, it was also about not mixing it with anything that’s going to adulterate that or not allow it to be in its natural form.”
Starting from the back of a Vespa
Barbounis started his business with just under $100,000 in funds, delivering the first batches of chocolate to stores on the back of his Vespa.
Now Pana Chocolate turns over more than $10 million a year, has over 60 full-time employees and is sold in 25 countries around the world.
Social media has helped drive international sales and Pana Chocolate has more than 270,000 followers on Instagram.
“That really brought in a huge engagement globally,” says Barbounis. “Different markets really draw out on different platforms. Australia is really big on Instagram, especially in the food space, whereas in the UK there’s a lot more engagement on Twitter and other platforms. We do play across all those platforms.”
Selling in the supermarkets
Pana Chocolate is sold in close to 5000 outlets in Australia, however its debut on the shelves of Coles and Woolworths last year was met with some backlash from Pana Chocolate’s small independent stockists.
Barbounis defends the move into the supermarket giants.
“It’s a natural evolution of where the company’s gone,” Barbounis says. “The plan was to have as far a reach as we can across a lot of retailers and as the company grows and we need that next level of fulfilment as a company, we decided that it was time to enter. What that’s done as well is, it’s assisted with the pull-through and the brand awareness.”
Barbounis says while Pana Chocolate has grown significantly, some things haven’t changed including the hand-made and hand-wrapped chocolate.
“We’ve just got bigger space and more tables to wrap and make,” he says. “It’s really important that energy, that love goes into the product. When you pull out the chocolate that’s hand-wrapped and you can really, I believe, feel that energy that a human has actually wrapped that. As you open up the chocolate and unfold the foil you can really see the chocolate bar, that it’s a hand-made product.”
For Barbounis it all comes back to the appreciation for food that his parents gave him growing up.
“I come from a background of migrant parents and their love and their offering was always food and it always that gathering and that enjoyment,” he says. “It was really the passion for food that I had that took me to this journey.”