By Luis Davila
As with many good ideas, the decision to launch a small-batch chocolate company started over a cup of coffee.
Alexander Burlingame, a philosophy student at VCU, was working at Lamplighter Roasting Company and was intrigued by the coffee-making process. In particular, he was drawn to the uniqueness in each roast and the origin of each bean. While enjoying a cup of coffee with Alex Brito, a computer scientist, and discussing how to tease out the nuanced flavors of coffee beans, the conversation quickly turned to the niche chocolate industry.
That evening they purchased a chocolate-making machine. Upchurch Chocolate Company was born.
Shortly after deciding to pursue their chocolate venture (as a side project), Burlingame and Brito applied to a 15-week, pre-accelerator program through a unique partnership between Lighthouse Labs, VCU Innovation Gateway, and VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. This would help them gain plenty of knowledge about business set up requirements as well as how to successfully start turning their small venture into a bigger, more profitable one. Not only that, networking with the top leaders in business can prove beneficial to them in the long run as well.
“I remember shadowing a chocolate maker in D.C. and suddenly I get an email on my phone from the co-director of Lighthouse, Todd Nuckols, saying that Upchurch was accepted into the accelerator program,” recalls Burlingame. “I couldn’t believe it. That’s when I knew that what we were doing with Upchurch was real and could be a fulltime business.”
As part of the program, the duo gained access to mentors, investors, and a variety of resources, so that they can learn about new ways and techniques to make their business a success. For instance, through gaining access to mentors and consulting them, they happened to gain knowledge about the Hoshin Kanri template that can assist with creating strategic goals, managing resources, and driving meaningful KPIs.
Besides this, with the support of the accelerator team, Burlingame and Brito began to focus on scalability. While they wrestled with the best way to estimate supply and demand at first, the new business owners used their startup training to perfect the Upchurch business model while having fun practising their craft.
Soon Upchurch realized its first successes. Burlingame and Brito landed their first account, For the Love of Chocolate, and launched an e-commerce site. They began fulfilling corporate orders for Capital One and a handful of retailers. Along the way, the philosopher and computer scientist transitioned into artisans and entrepreneurs serious about crafting an amazing product from a sustainable supply chain.
Today, Upchurch is continuing to grow. Describing themselves as “Willy Wonka, but hip and local,” Burlingame and Brito sell their craft chocolate at Lamplighter, Ellwood Thompson’s, Growlers to Go, Libbie Market, Little House Green Grocery, Saison Market, Shields Market, Union Market, Outpost Richmond, and more. Their product line of bean-to-bar chocolates ranges from The Hype Bar (which uses Lamplighter coffee beans to taste like Oreos, s’mores, and a dark stout) to The Sassy Bar (with hints of lemonade and raspberries).
The company has seen 300 percent growth and the founders believe the future of the Richmond entrepreneurship ecosystem as a whole looks promising. “Richmond is what inspired Upchurch Chocolate,” says Burlingame. “There are a ton of great resources and Lighthouse is just one example of that. We can’t imagine pursuing Upchuch anywhere else.”