Josef Zotter is one of the inventors of hand-scooped chocolate, which he sells worldwide in 500 flavours created from 400 different organic ingredients. The successful entrepreneur from Styria produces exclusively in organic and fair quality. At the same time, the multi-talent embodies the impresario of his chocolate shop theatre, where all the cycles of chocolate production can be experienced – including tastings. Transparency is also the motto of the “Edible Zoo”, where visitors can experience organic agriculture on 27 hectares. In total, the “different-maker” and visionary farms 90 hectares as a farmer.
An e-mobile pioneer
Josef Zotter’s first electric car was a Citroën Saxo électrique, which he bought in 1999. At that time, it still took him two days to get from Carinthia to his home. Charging infrastructure: a foreign word back then. Josef Zotter is happy to pass on his personal experience of driving electrically to his employees.
Since this time as an e-pioneer, the Zotter e-fleet has also grown continuously with his personal experiences. It now includes an e-motorbike, an e-moped, an e-scooter and a brand mix of eleven electric cars. Two e-bikes complete the potpourri of environmentally friendly vehicles. For this, 10 charging stations are available for company cars (for own use only), as well as two public, chargeable chargers and two charging stations for e-bikes.
Typical “Sepp”, as Josef Zotter likes to be called by his employees: “it is important that the boss drives the smallest car in the fleet”. Consequently, the small “Saxo” was already in the “one car park” in 1999, surrounded by larger employee vehicles. A statement. Since 2012, this space has been occupied by an Opel Ampera. Zotter likes to tell a little “anecdote” about this electric model with “range extender”: Once a year, when he takes his ageing Ampera with a mileage of over 400,000 km to the workshop, the mechanics say: “Look, here comes the Zotter again, on which we earn nothing, nothing is broken again anyway”. Josef Zotter, on the other hand, appreciates this aspect of the service-friendliness of e-cars… His attitude towards e-mobility is also manifested in his statement that he does not want to go for a drive in electric two-and-a-half-ton vehicles. This would be too much of a contradiction to his holistic, ecological approach.
In the meantime, the female employees as well as the family members are convinced by the “electric cars” and know for which purpose the respective vehicles are predestined. Range anxiety is a thing of the past. And while Josef Zotter is busy talking, a young employee comes in with the finest bacon on a tray and Sepp comments: “Look, that’s our “ham online”. A real Zotter as he lives and breathes.
We continue to listen to him with joyful anticipation. So that you can share in it, hear for yourself what “Sepp”, the “farm romantic”, as he characterises himself, knows how to tell.
Green power generation as a logical consequence of the sustainability claim
Already 64% of the entire energy consumption, including the charging current for the e-fleet, comes from the company’s own electricity generation. The installation of a photovoltaic system with 108 modules and an output of 76.5 kWp (yield: 99,000 kWh/year) has already initiated the first energy efficiency measures. In 2015 and 2018, the share of own electricity increased through the commissioning of further photovoltaic areas, and in 2021, further photovoltaic modules with an output of 199 kWp will be commissioned in the agricultural area. The agriculture and gastronomy in the “Edible Zoo” are self-sufficient in energy thanks to the photovoltaic system. The remaining 36% of the total electricity demand is provided by purchasing certified green electricity. This means that the energy supply at Zotter is based on 100% “green electricity”.
In his private life, Josef Zotter lives in the middle of a small “special class eco-paradise”, as he calls his refuge. Everything is allowed to grow there on four hectares, except for a small track around the house, which he has mown in ten minutes.
Typical Styrian favourite dishes
The “Andersmacher” lists his favourite dishes since childhood. As before, it is the Styrian fried chicken and the beetle bean salad. He adds that the beetle beans are now also known as “Styrian olives” and are among the products that have been included in the EU register of protected designations of origin. Pickled in oil, vinegar and herbs, a delicacy of a special kind. And of course enriched with the famous Styrian pumpkin seed oil.
One of his first daring chocolate creations was a pumpkin-marzipan chocolate 30 years ago. Daring at the time, and certainly something special. Then came the cheese chocolate, which was already polarising, followed immediately by the hemp chocolate for the younger ones. The “Zotterei” took its course.
We have now made the reference to childhood, but has anything changed in eating behaviour, in his attitude to agriculture or to food production in general?
Now The “Sepp” is truly in his element. How could it be otherwise, he sees himself as a “vegetarian away from home”. He uses this term to describe the fact that he knows what goes on his plate at home: everything is 100% organic, 100% fairly traded, 100% green electricity. A clear attitude, no mishmash of da a bisserl Bio, da a bisserl Ökostrom. The Zotters don’t need an external agency to create an eco-image. He attributes the steady growth in turnover, among other things, to the fact that the buyers of Zotter products trust their quality and the promise of sustainability. The result: despite the Corona-related decline of more than 100,000 visitors to the Zotter Erlebniswelt, turnover increased in 2020.
And while we take a piece of the “ham online line”, Josef Zotter points to the sparse piece of woodland beyond the small valley of his 90 ha property. “Look at the pigs over there”. We don’t see any wild ones, but we do see sows roaming freely, the original “Mangaliza” breed. Small and large ones scurry through the forest floor. Pure animal welfare. Directly adjacent to Zotter’s “animal oasis”, a conventional farmer “produces” 3,000 pigs….
Zotter loves his animals. They are not only clean, but very intelligent. In contrast to intensive pig farming, he also only has to do “house cleaning” in the stables twice a year. And there follows another anecdote that is typical of the world of life at the “Zotterei”, his team and the joyful atmosphere in and around the world of experience at the Bergl. His current “praline maker”, 23 years young, had applied “in a different way” for a job as a chocolatier trainee at the “Sepp”. She turned up with a little pig on a leash for a spontaneous job interview on the fringes of an event. She looked Josef deep in the eye and said briefly and succinctly: “Mr. Zotter, I would like to apply for a job with you” and thus hit the bull’s eye with him. He hired her immediately. She had been “lucky” in the truest sense of the word.
Of course: social commitment
In passing, Josef Zotter notes that there is little sick leave and fluctuation in the business. Of course there would be free food for everyone, freshly cooked from the organic restaurant, the menu, breakfast and dinner, including drinks. In the interview we don’t often talk about numbers. The average sickness rate in Austria is about three percent, in his case about 1.6 percent, the multi-entrepreneur reports. All the good deeds and his commitment to his employees pay off in economic terms as well, as a matter of course.
That the “Sepp” also knows how to deal creatively with living space in his adventure room is explained when we ask about possible overnight accommodation in this idyll. No, not that, says the chocolatier, different-maker and farm romantic, but he keeps three temporarily inhabited “flats” for artist friends. Now, however, during the holiday season, the flats are used as a kindergarten, a care station, so to speak, for the children of the women who work in the Zotter Erlebniswelt. Partly, these accommodations in the middle of the Zotter Paradise provide living space for refugees.
Now we have been sitting together for far more than the planned 30 minutes. And we’re not left high and dry, because in parallel to his stories and anecdotes, he orders a glass of Styrian Sauvignon for us from Adam, the young waiter, “but please pour a quarter of a millimetre less than usual, the gentlemen still have to drive on”. Every other sentence by Josef Zotter is punctuated with a wink. The mood remains joyful. One bon mot gives the other. But we hold the line.
A unique feature in the Zotter experience space, next to the famous “Erlebnis-Schokolaterie” in the enclosed area of the Zotter empire, is the “edible zoo” in the outdoor area. It is not a zoo in the true sense with exotic animals, but here live domestic farm animals that are kept in a species-appropriate way on large pastures.
In the beginning it was not sure whether the concept would be a total flop or a sustainable success story. At first it was the teachers who didn’t quite know how to explain an “edible zoo” to the children while the children were allowed to pet and feed the animals. Transparency was finally the solution word. Talking about what goes on before the food gets to the plate. Zotter even wanted to start a petition that would oblige every animal farmer, meat producer who accepts public subsidies, to create three, freely accessible, parking spaces in front of his farm, in order to be able to look into the barn from there through a large window. So it is not surprising that his farm is excluded from all farmers’ organisations.
The idea has worked, with the entire chocolate and animal experience attracting over 200 000 visitors a year. And it makes an essential contribution to the conscious, qualitative and less-consuming consumption of animal food, as the animals are visibly more highly valued here than in factory farms. In short, Zotter wants to sensitise people to the value of what is later found on their plates. People immediately recognise that good work has gone into all “products”, because transparency of the individual work steps creates a sensorium for the respect of our food.
Art and culture also find their place in Zotter’s worlds of experience.
Josef Zotter became a successful chocolate maker and organic farmer thanks, as is so often the case in generational conflicts, to his desire to prove to his father that he knew how to shape his own future. His father was a “hardcore farmer” who always used the latest artificial fertilisers and sprays available from the agrochemical industry. Quite the opposite of the “different” farmer, who was on the lookout for the latest methods of organic farming. So at the age of 15, Josef Zotter wanted to get away from the toxic spraying scenario as quickly as possible. However, after ten years, shortly before his death, Sepp’s father became an admirer of his son and enjoyed observing his son’s work and his work. Culminating in the statement: “you’re probably right after all”.
After Zotter had made his experiences with several coffee house start-ups in Graz, becoming more and more aware of global climate change and its causes, he started his chocolate shop in the former cowshed of his father’s farm; his father had refused him the inheritance of the farmland for the time being. To young people who come to him and ask about how to become successful and what his business plan was, he answers categorically: “forget it. if you have a good idea, you don’t need money, a cellar, a garage is enough.” Start small and if the idea is not simple, it is not good. Proof of Concept by Josef Zotter. He and his wife have always been guided by these key messages.
The couple finds a balance to their full-time job in the “Zotter world” in the midst of their 5-ha farm, for example, by watering the garden in the morning at 5 am. Afterwards, over a cup of coffee, there is a feeling of gratitude for what has been achieved. In this muse mood, Zotter develops sentences like these: “we must apologise to the young, for we have already lived wildly”.
We chatted away wittily. an hour and a half instead of the planned 30 minutes. We would have wanted to spend hours in this environment of serenity, the authenticity of this man and the cheerful mood that spread like background noise through all of Josef Zotter’s sentences.
Text and film: Elmar Thomassek
Pictures: Lead story: Lutz Dürichen
Picture 1: Citroen
Picture 2 and 3, vehicles: Zotter
Picture 4 Ham online: Lutz Dürichen
Picture 5 and 6, Fried chicken, beetle beans: Styria Tourism
Picture 7, Pigs: Arche Austria/Czerny
Picture 8, “At the cattle theatre”: Lutz Dürichen
Picture 9, Solar plant: Zotter