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Pana Chocolate: Melbourne's exclusive, raw, organic, handmade delicacy

How Panagiotis Barbounis' vegan lifestyle and passion for global eco-preservation has made his brand a snack favourite all over the world

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31 January 2017

With more than 227,000 followers on Instagram alone, Pana Chocolate is arguably Australia's most famous gourmet dessert brand, sold in over 24 countries.

What makes it so special? It's vegan, raw, organic, gluten-free, soy and refined sugar-free. Pana Chocolate is handmade and as fresh as possible, using only the best ingredients for its products − there has never been a bad review. It's also certified kosher and halal, approved by Fairtrade Australia, reflecting Melbourne-based founder Pana Barbounis' life philosophy. As a sweet tooth trying to create treats that abide by his cruelty-free, vegan ethos and his passion for global eco-preservation, he managed to convince a few boutique retailers to stock his chocolates and test them out. The rest is history, or better − a success story of global calibre.

The vegan mastermind and founder took some time from his busy schedule to show us around their Richmond headquarters and answer our questions while making chocolate.

How did you go vegan? Is your family following your example?
It was a conscious effort, a reassessment of my life. I don't feel more worthy than any other being to take its life. I was vegetarian for many years prior to that. Not taking away animal life lifted a weight off my shoulders when I turned vegetarian. Since I turned vegan I feel like I'm floating on air. I researched the industry and didn't feel right. If it wasn't for the lamb and the feta that I was so used to growing up, I would have probably turned vegan earlier. It was a decision and it becomes stronger every day. Both physically and emotionally I feel much better, relieved and stressless.

When it comes to my wife and my children, however, I am conscious not to impose my life stance on them. Growing up Greek, as adorable and lovely as we are as people, we do have a tendency of force-feeding things to you. No doubt the influence is there. They do eat meat, not too often, but I will allow them to make their own decision when they are old enough.

How did you first go into the food business?
For me, it was just the passion for food; one of two passions that I had coming out of school. I love the smell and the feel of wood, and the other one was food which, having been brought up in a Greek household, played a major part in my life. When I finished high school the economy wasn't great and there weren't many opportunities in the wood industry, carpentry or the furniture market. I started washing dishes at the age of 16, and moved my way up in the food industry to being self-employed at only 21. I had cafés and catering businesses where I serviced Melbourne airport, hot food bakeries and sandwich shops. I've always been a passionate foodie, down the organic path, conscious about what we eat and where it comes from. This was something my father passed down, the need to always ensure we know what we put on our kitchen table, which is why he grew organic veggies. Even when I wasn't vegan I was all about slow-cooking the food, getting all the flavours out.

How was Pana Chocolate born?
To me, it was also something exhilarating and a natural gravitation, coming out of the first 10 years of being self-employed. I was working but not enjoying it as much. I always loved the artisanal trade and doing things by hand, and was especially interested in raw chocolate. I jumped on a plane to Belgium, did some training, went to the UK and came back. I locked myself up for six months, made lots of samples and started testing the ingredients. A part- time business I could play around with at first, it wasn't until I heard my children refer to it as a brand that I realised I had something good going on. In time it's been a great journey and keeps on growing. You still pinch yourself everyday but it was six to 12 months in that I though wow, this could potentially be bigger and better than what I originally set out to make it, exceeding my expectations every day. Pana Chocolate now counts over 100 employees, 2,500 stockists across Australia and affiliations with 25 countries. We are one of the first vegan organic chocolate companies so we have many exclusives. We are found in some of the best department stores around the world.

Pana Chocolate has been dubbed as the most flavoursome and soft chocolate by thousands world-wide. What is your secret?
Being raw is one reason for it being softer, but it is actually the kind of texture we were aiming for all along; for it to be more of a fudge-like product. To me it's really important, as it aids the explosion of flavours in the palate. I found that with infusing or tempering it too much at high temperatures we were losing a little bit of that, while with a softer texture flavours worked much better. Meanwhile, we use all natural ingredients, nothing that can spoil. Initially I was training the chocolate makers myself even though I'm self-taught, but now we have qualified chefs taking over this procedure. We've also taken on board people responsible for marketing and social media sales, professionals who are more experienced in those areas.

You are very concerned about the footprint we leave on our planet, thus you have taken a radical ecological approach as a brand.
We make sure everything comes from sustainable sources and fair trade and ticks all those boxes. Organic is the first point of call for us. There's no pesticides, there's no run off, there's nothing going into the lakes, or the seas or into the soil directly. Apart from that, we ensure that our packaging is eco-conscious using soy and vegetable based-ink to avoid causing any harm to the environment. Another thing we've done as a company for the last four years is plant trees through the Fifteen Trees initiative. This year we're aiming for 13,000 trees. We've done it mainly in Victoria and a little bit in New South Wales, but we are looking into expanding this to overseas. That's also a big passion of mine, trying to repair what we humans have done to the earth.

To find out more, visit www.panachocolate.com and follow @pana_chocolate on Instagram to get a better idea of the desserts Pana Barbounis and his team come up with daily.

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