(This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
When you think of Iceland, chocolate probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Yet as soon as you arrive in Reykjavík, you can’t help but notice the bountiful displays of chocolate bars with their colorful printed packaging and geometric logo. They belong to Omnom Chocolate, Iceland’s premier bean-to-bar company, which is making fans of both international visitors and locals alike. With its unique approach to ingredients, Omnom is adding new flare and flavor to the bean-to-bar scene and making Iceland a new destination for chocolate lovers.
Omnom is the brainchild of childhood friends chef Kjartan Gíslason and businessman Óskar Þórðarson. Gíslason had been toying with the idea of opening a pastry shop, but it was his mention of making chocolates that struck them both as the most interesting aspect. “I was noticing a lot of these kinds of small bean-to-bar companies starting in the U.S.,” explains Gíslason and it made him think, “If they can do it on such a small scale, why couldn’t we do it?” After some Google searches, they stumbled upon Chocolate Alchemy based in Oregon, ordered some machines and began months of tinkering in a small apartment. By 2013, the pair converted an old gas station into a factory and Omnom was official.
The goal of the company, much like many other bean-to-bar brands, is to make small-batch chocolate using the finest sourced beans from around the world, controlling the process from roasting all the way through packaging. They use single-origin cocoa beans from Madagascar, Tanzania and Nicaragua, and though they didn’t set out to necessarily be a sustainable brand, it came with the territory. They believe in direct trade to promote traceability and ethical sourcing, and that transparency goes hand-in-hand with environmental and economic sustainability.
What sets Omnom apart from others is their distinctly Nordic flare. The packaging mixes minimalist, pop and surrealist elements, each bar wrapper uniquely designed thanks to a local graphic designer. The bars themselves are also distinct, stamped with a geometrical pattern that creates chocolate shards rather than traditional rectangular pieces. And then there’s the ingredients. From the creamy Icelandic milk powder in the base recipes to sprinkles of Icelandic sea salt, infusions of licorice root and barley from a local brewery, the land is a source of constant inspiration.
Their other unique approach? While many brands focus solely on dark chocolate, Gíslason finds more creativity in white chocolate. “You basically have a kind of canvas in front of you that you can just decide what you want,” he notes. “You have a little bit more liberty to play with it because you aren’t using the classic cocoa flavor.” And despite a tendency for many to disregard something labeled white chocolate as not actually chocolate, Omnom often fools the eyes and the palate. Their popular Coffee + Milk bar, for instance, uses Brazilian coffee along with Icelandic milk that impart so much flavor, that “you could be fooled that this is milk chocolate with coffee” rather than cocoa butter only. Several of their Krunch malt ball flavors follow suit, with the creaminess and appearance of a light milk chocolate despite not containing any.
Omnom found success both in their more traditional single origin bars and their unique combinations and expanded to their current location in 2016. Þórðarson helps balance Gíslason’s passion for new flavors by focusing on business strategy. “You have to put your limits on it both for the strategy of the product and the portfolio but also for the factory.” They both acknowledge it also takes a little bit of luck to succeed. While Covid-19 pandemic closed the borders and shops to tourists, Omnom still found success through online channels with a little boost from an unlikely source, actor Zac Efron. Down to Earth with Zac Efron began streaming on Netflix in July 2020, and from a mere four-minute appearance in the first episode, Omnom online sales skyrocketed. “That kind of just blew up,” Þórðarson recalls, “And like full stop, everywhere, from our distributor here to everywhere in the world, we sold out.”
“We’re starting to learn that timing is everything,” Þórðarson notes. But as tourism and the economy begin to normalize after the pandemic, the partners at Omnom are looking forward to the future. Gíslason found success by adding a small ice cream shop in the front of the factory, and Þórðarson looks to strategically increase the brand imprint. Each new flavor, market and customer gives them an opportunity to grow, and they continue to prove their unique bean-to-bar approach is as sweet as their chocolate.