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Wicked Bold chocolate’s big break into Walmart was

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FLOWER MOUND — The automatic doors parted as father and son walked into the Walmart in Lewisville, blending in with shoppers on their way to pick up a new frying pan, a birthday present or the weekly groceries.

Right there by the entrance, in new “grab & go” convenience aisles, they saw it: Wicked Bold chocolate. Assertive, like dad. Vegan, like mom. Current, like their 13-year-old son.

It had been three years of hawking candy at farmers markets, dumping gritty, nasty chocolate into the kitchen trash, a decade of night and weekend side hustles, failed ideas and rejections from ABC’s Shark Tank.

Deric Cahill and his son Landon stood, having a proud, personal moment inside a vast, panoramic monument to American free enterprise.

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Wicked Bold’s bite-sized squares of 70% cocoa dark chocolate landed on the shelves of almost 800 Walmart stores in April. The Wicked Bold chocolates, in sea salt, cayenne, hazelnut and classic, convey the heft of Hershey and the confidence of Mars. Cahill got his first big break a year ago, supplying 14 stores in Dallas-Fort Worth. Now he is talking with Sprouts, Farmers Market, Target and H-E-B.

This achievement is difficult to calculate amid a backdrop of record new business applications of more than 5 million a year and their failure rate of 45% in the first five years. A lot of people see products on the shelves and think: “I could do that.” Wicked Bold was one of 13,000 new products pitched to Walmart last year.

Cahill’s chocolates reached grocery carts because he harnessed his determination as retail giants discovered the value in spotlighting mom-and-pop products. But it took luck, swagger and a financial near-death experience. After all of that, after lightning struck and the golden opportunity lay shimmering before him, well, that’s when things really got hard.

“Dude, look what we did,” Cahill said, putting his hands on Landon’s shoulders for a celebratory shake.

“Your name is on that chocolate,” he said to his son.

Wicked Bold packages in Walmart’s “grab & go” area in the front of the Lewisville store. Wicked Bold is in about 800 Walmart stores coast to coast. A two-ounce bag sells for $3.99. (Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

How they got here

Cahill, 34, was always going to create something. He was determined to build a company for his family: his wife, Brooklyn, 29, and their children ages 13, 6 and 17 months. It’s how he defines success. To him, it represents security, something he says his parents didn’t give him.

He tried and failed from one new idea to the next. A service company that taught new technology to older people, and another that offered automotive detailing on demand. He tried to make a living as a comedian with a podcast, which serves him well now as he makes irreverent social media posts about parenting to build a social media audience for his chocolates.

He’s not a chocolatier, he says. He’s a guy who makes chocolates. The chocolate has to be great, but for him, it’s a conduit.

A job promotion brought Deric and Brooklyn Cahill to Texas in June 2019. That’s how a lot of people get here. About 550,000 people moved to the state that year.

The Cahills left Fort Myers, Fla., for the 19-hour drive to their new home in Flower Mound, 28 miles northwest of Dallas, their Dodge Ram and stuffed U-Haul trailer in tow. Deric and Brooklyn met six years before the move to Texas at a birthday party for a friend of Landon’s, Deric’s son from a prior relationship.

With their two kids and a dog in the back seat, Deric and Brooklyn had lots of time to talk.

“You haven’t started something in a while,” Brooklyn said.

She was poking him, and he knew it.

Cahill was climbing the ladder at research and consulting firm Gartner, where he worked for more than three years and was promoted to vice president of sales supervising 23 people. He didn’t need a side hustle. He thought the Gartner job was everything he ever wanted. Except for one thing.

“I saw people that didn’t resonate with me, that I didn’t want to become.”

Cahill grew up with little attention from his parents. He got used to handling his own stuff as a young teenager in Lynn, Mass., a suburb of Boston.

“I didn’t come from a family where they sent you off to college and you got an airline ticket to come home for Thanksgiving.” His bachelor’s degree in business is from Western Governors University, an online college.

He was the middle child of three in a household that he said always felt out of control. He remembers being a small child in the back seat of the car in his pajamas at 1 a.m. His mother was driving around the bars looking for his father. After a car accident years later, she ended up hooked on OxyContin and spent his high school freshman year in bed. His parents moved the family to Florida when he was 16 looking for a fresh start. By the time his mother and then his father died from drug overdoses a year apart when he was in his 20s, Cahill said, he was estranged from them.

“My parents were generally good people, but they didn’t have the strength to be better,” he said.

He’s still figuring out how his upbringing pushed him to create a business, but at its crux, he said, it’s about control.

“Let’s do chocolate,” Brooklyn said on the drive to Texas. Years earlier, Brooklyn went dairy-free. They’d toyed with making vegan chocolate but gave up after a couple of disastrous tries.

They didn’t have a grinding machine, so it was gritty. Cahill made it worse when he put in coffee grounds, thinking that was fancy.

Somewhere on the road in Mississippi or Louisiana, Brooklyn pulled out her phone and searched Amazon for a melanger. She purchased the $200 machine that refines roasted cacao beans.

It was the first package to arrive at their doorstep in Flower Mound.

Trial and error

For the next four months, Deric and co-founder Brooklyn made batches of dark chocolate, bad ones that came out grainy, tasted awful or melted too fast. They had to figure out when to apply heat, when to cool it down and the precise moment to begin the molding process.

“It won’t set. It comes out floppy,” Deric said.

Chocolate is supposed to be smooth, but a bar has to snap when broken. Cahill was beginning to think he needed to go to culinary school.

Finally, in September 2019, after at least 30 batches, one came out of the refrigerator and snapped. That week, he registered the company as an LLC and bought the wickedbold.com website. Eight months later, he filed for a trademark.

The Cahills already had the name from their first try at making chocolate a few years earlier. Brooklyn was hanging family stockings on the fireplace before the holidays. Brooklyn, Ophelia, Landon and Deric spelled Bold. “Let’s call it Bold,” Brooklyn said.

“But everything is bold,” Deric said. “We need another word.”

“Wicked,” she said, “You call everything wicked.” It’s Boston’s favorite adjective.

“It’s wicked cold. It’s wicked hot. Our chocolate is wicked delicious.”

Wicked Bold, the side hustle, was born in 2019. The next year, Cahill started selling his vegan chocolate bites in brown bags with a homemade sticker label at a few local businesses and at the Dallas and Frisco farmers markets. The COVID-19 pandemic sent people home in March 2020, and healthy living was taking hold. Wicked Bold has no preservatives and just two ingredients: cacao nibs and cane sugar, both organic. Farmers markets became destinations as Americans felt safer congregating outdoors.

Sales were good, but Wicked Bold’s packaging screamed part-time mom-and-pop. The words Wicked Bold were on some clouds and a rocket ship was breaking through. There was confusion about what was inside.

Cahill found Studio B principal and chief creative director MJ Moreau on Google and filled out the email form on Studio B’s contact page in September 2020. He asked the Dallas-based firm for a design team. Moreau’s clients have included NEC, Nokia and Samsung, but she found a niche with restaurants and consumer brands such as Dallas-based Paciugo Gelato and Which Wich sandwich restaurant.

“He showed up to our first meeting with Brooklyn and the kids,” Moreau said. “He was scrappy and tenacious, and I knew he really wanted this.”

Moreau’s first design was perfect, Cahill said. Professionally photographed chocolate squares removed the confusion. She took him from amateur farmers market bags to FDA-approved, resealable pouches with chocolate cubes in an uplifting arrow-up formation. The barcode features a family of stick people waving out of it.

Their signatures are on the bottom of the packages. Cahill says baby Rowan, who was born more than a year later, is represented by the little R in the trademark circle.

In October 2020, Cahill quit his day job. It may have been too soon. At Gartner, he was making more than $200,000 leading a group that helped companies make IT decisions. After he quit, he racked up new credit card debt on existing balances before he found another job as a sales consultant.

By December 2020, the Cahills needed a better place to make chocolate besides their kitchen counter and some shared space at a local coffee house. They found a storefront with a kitchen in an old strip center near their home.

It takes Cahill about 34 hours to get from raw beans to cubes of packaged chocolate. Instead of buying a commercial-grade roaster used by coffee shops that can cost $40,000 or more, he improvised.

He noticed a chile pepper roaster at Whole Foods and found a company to make a barrel with a smaller screen so the beans wouldn’t fall out. It cost about $6,000 and sped up roasting time by a couple of hours. The roaster can process 40 pounds of beans at a time to make 250 2-ounce bags of chocolates.

Refining the beans is the longest part of the process. The nibs and the sugar spin for as long as 24 hours as they grind against granite wheels and stone bottom. That smooths the grit and produces silky chocolate. The chocolate reaches 120 degrees from friction alone.

Timing is key. The chocolate can get too thick to pour.

Deric Cahill pours the chocolate into trays to go into a refrigerator for just a few minutes to set into bite-sized pieces.
(Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

“We had no intention of opening a restaurant and then ideas came, and we thought we could have a little restaurant, too,” Cahill said. The restaurant opened in June 2021 with a menu of vegan food and non-alcoholic cocktails.

A few more independent retailers started selling Wicked Bold chocolates and Cahill was building a direct business online. He was ready for a bigger customer. He approached Whole Foods Market.

Around Thanksgiving 2021, Whole Foods merchant Perry Fink came to the restaurant. It was Fink’s first in-person business meeting since the pandemic started.

“He told me his story about how he grew up and talked about his kids and that he wanted to be a role model,” Fink said.

The packaging looked like Wicked Bold was a company “with millions of dollars behind it,” he said.

The concept of local products and people wanting to support businesses in their community grew during the pandemic, but it was also something Fink said he had lived by.

But the restaurant was burning through cash. Cahill filed for personal bankruptcy in December 2021. He owed $130,000 in mostly credit card debt and $13,000 in student loans. Rowan was born that same month. He closed the restaurant in January 2022.

In March 2022, Cahill self-published a book titled Zero to Side Hustle: The 0 – 90 Day Playbook for Entrepreneurs. He shares his “decade’s worth of failures, missteps, mistakes” and some of the questions he has asked himself along the way: “How could you possibly think you could just go start a restaurant? Why the hell did you quit Gartner?”

In multiple interviews since last July, Cahill repeated his favorite inspirational Steve Jobs quote, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

“For me, it means when I look at where my feet are today, I have to thank the decisions I’ve made in the past, and rather than trying to architect the future, I just make sure I’m taking steps I’m proud of today, because they’ll eventually become my future.”

His next step was to find the money to gear up for Whole Foods. He raised $161,500 in 2022 through the crowdfunding site Mainvest, an online investment platform for startups that pays back investors with interest after a business has found its footing. That paid for roasting and refining equipment, imported organic cocoa beans from Belize, organic cane sugar, packages and storefront rent.

Cahill makes the chocolates for North Texas Whole Foods stores in his 1,000-square-foot chocolate factory along Long Prairie Road next to a barbershop in Flower Mound.

Cahill just finished banging the finished trays on the counter and mounds of chocolate squares fall out. (Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

Forty-pound bags of beans are stacked on a palette. The roaster clangs like a bingo machine as the beans hit the metal drum. Cahill works on two stainless steel industrial tables. At one, he ladles chocolate into trays of little squares. They go into refrigerators for a short time. At the other table, he starts banging the trays and the perfect squares pop out.

Landon helps to fill the packages about once a week when it’s crunch time.

“Ughhhhhh. Come on man,” Landon says. “I was at school all day.”

On those days, Cahill explains why he needs his son’s help.

“This is for our family business,” Cahill tells him. “The next person to see this bag is going to be a customer. So make sure you’re paying close attention to what you’re doing.”

Landon started out asking to be paid $30 an hour, but they settled on $10 to $12. Cahill allowed the negotiation. It was a teaching moment for his son to learn his value.

By May 2022, Cahill was delivering to the 14 local Whole Foods stores. He’s not only the delivery guy, he’s the chief marketing officer and salesman. He has a rotating schedule for filling the shelves at the Whole Foods stores. There’s no company car, just his SUV.

He passes out free samples on Wednesday at Whole Foods. He posts snarky and expletive-laden TikToks and promotes a Wicked Bold swag contest coming this summer.

Walmart changed everything

Wicked Bold wasn’t yet on the shelf at Whole Foods when Cahill entered Walmart’s “open call” competition in March 2022. He was competing against 4,500 other companies pitching 13,000 products.

He found out he won last July.

Deric Cahill and his family at his chocolate factory in Flower Mound.The family posed last year for the Texas Food and Wine Alliance, which awarded Wicked Bold a $6,250 grant. (Deric Cahill / Courtesy )

He was about to find out what happens when your dream comes true, and all your good fortune nearly crushes you.

“I thought they would put us in 100 Texas stores, and I could figure out how to do that,” Cahill said. “I can do 2,500 bags a week now, and I thought we could expand.”

In November, Walmart offered him 800 stores. That’s 75,000 bags of chocolate in one month. He said no.

When the largest U.S. retailer asked again in December, Cahill said, yes.

“I just thought I could figure this out.”

He crowdfunded again and raised another $170,200. He found a chocolate co-packing manufacturer in California that would make his chocolate. Wicked Bold immediately became its biggest customer, and the company had to hire more people. Next, he had to find a trucking firm that could transport temperature-sensitive products and get the initial 24 shipments to 18 distribution centers nationwide for Walmart’s candy distributors — Westlake-based Coremark and Temple-based McLane.

As he was about to place an order for shipping boxes, he found out Coremark and McLane required different sizes. Numbers had been accidentally transposed on a shipper’s form. Over and over it was those kinds of nuances that could trip him up.

But he’d done it. The chocolate was on Walmart shelves, and he hadn’t gone broke. His contentment lasted about two weeks. Then came a second purchase order: 200,000 bags.

“Wow, do you want to know how stressful this is or how amazing it is?” Cahill said in April standing in the Lewsiville Walmart.

“I was like, it was like 11 o’clock at night. I’m calling my manufacturer. I’m calling my bag company. I’m like, what are we going to do?”

He wired cash so his manufacturer could meet payroll in early May. The second Walmart order ended up short $50,000 when the manufacturer went out of business. He flew to San Diego to pack up $100,000 of materials and take them to a new manufacturer in Washington state. Then he fronted 50% of the new contract to keep production going.

Deric Cahill poses for a portrait with Wicked Bold chocolates at Walmart on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, in Lewisville. He has listed the almost 800 Walmart stores with his product on Wicked Bold’s store locator. (Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

He doesn’t have a third purchase order from Walmart yet. “You never know if there’s going to be another purchase order,” Cahill said.

So far, the initial weeks of results are good. Sales are rising, though some Walmart store shelves aren’t yet stocked.

“If this is a win, I look like a genius. If I lose Walmart, I’m a textbook example of how not to grow too fast,” Cahill said. “I tried to say no, but when you’re working at it for three years and Walmart is giving you this opportunity? It’s easy to sit in a guard tower and say “don’t do it.”

Something else changed in the food business to allow Wicked Bold to be on the shelf next to Jolly Ranchers and Sour Patch Kids.

National retailers are courting local brands and small producers of specialty foods and beverages, from craft beers to barbeque rubs.

Walmart has an “open call,” H-E-B has a “Quest for Texas Best.” Whole Foods Market has formalized its searches with its local and emerging accelerator program.

The latest Shark Tank rejection came on April 10, and it was for Wicked Bold. It came almost a year after the first time Wicked Bold chocolates landed in a big box store in May 2022.

The whole family went together to see the product on the Whole Foods shelf for the first time.

“Wow,” Landon said, “we’re in a legit store.” They took photos.

Today, anytime they’re in a Whole Foods or Walmart, Landon says, “I’m going to check out our chocolate and straighten up the shelf.”

Brooklyn, who not so long ago said, “Let’s make chocolate,” still has to know when to encourage her husband’s ambition and when to rein it in.

In the middle of all this, he discovered in the garage a box of tiny shovels. And naturally, he launched a business on TikTok selling buried messages in tiny boxes with tiny shovels.

He made $5,000, quickly. But Brooklyn had to step in.

“Stop starting businesses,” she told him.

He did. At least, for now.

Twitter: @MariaHalkias

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