Denis Ring, SOM ’84, was introduced as the “Willy Wonka of organic candy” during his talk with Yale SOM students on September 28, 2016. He founded OCHO Candy after observing that grocery stores sold organic alternatives to almost every packaged product, from milk to tortilla chips, but a more healthy alternative had not yet been introduced to the chocolate bar aisle. With extensive experience in organic brands (he founded 365, which became Whole Foods’ in-house brand, and the O Organic line at Safeway, which are each billion-dollar brands), Denis began working to create the organic version of a Snickers Bar. Since OCHO’s founding in 2011, the company has grown dramatically and remains the only organic candy bar producer in the market.
OCHO does not advertise itself as a social enterprise. Its core principles are that OCHO is delicious, fun, affordable, and organic. Its brand is flashy and colorful, unlike many other organic options found in the market today, and its name does not convey any clear social or environmental mission. As Denis said, “people may buy something once because it is organic, but they return because it is delicious.” This type of branding and product development is something that students at SOM spend a lot of time thinking about. For the many students who hope to work for a business that also benefits people and the planet, it is helpful and sometimes difficult to recognize that social or environmental impact may sometimes be core elements of the business without being core to the brand.
In part thanks to his years at SOM, where he regularly hosted dinners with friends, Denis brings to OCHO the understanding that food is intrinsically linked to community. This awareness influenced how he has built the OCHO brand into a fun, playful community with which people aspire to be connected; but Denis also ensures that he operates the business with an eye to what is responsible for the stakeholders involved. Several ingredients, including cocoa, are fair trade certified in addition to organic. OCHO pays above minimum wage ($15 in its home state of California) to all of its employees, and provides health insurance.
The responsibility of being an employer became extremely clear when OCHO opened its headquarters in West Oakland, a community that has struggled in the face of high poverty and crime rates. “When we started the company, we didn’t think much about social values,” said Denis. “But when we moved to West Oakland, our eyes were opened.” OCHO received many more resumes than there were job opportunities, and so Denis and his team decided to focus on hiring people from the West Oakland community. In addition to providing a living wage and health insurance, Denis strives to create a sense of community for his team members, with celebrations every Friday and communication from management in both Spanish and English. As unanticipated challenges arise, such as someone’s paycheck being stolen on the way home from work or someone not being able to pay a security deposit for a home, OCHO steps in to help. The additional support that OCHO provides may not be immediately profitable, but Denis believes that when “things come up that you can’t possibly anticipate, there is really only one right thing to do.”
- Tess Hart, MBA/MEM ‘17