“I started this business with $10,000,” says Pittsburg native Armon Demarco. His distribution company, operating in his adopted country of Panama, now does about $2 million worth of business a year.
Is he a serial entrepreneur? Not really. A business whiz? He doesn’t think so. And Armon doesn’t have any formal business training, either. After high school he went to the prestigious Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts.
For Armon, it all started in 2002 when he visited Panama for the first time. He made some friends in the Central American country’s burgeoning culinary scene: “I wanted to try a new adventure,” he remembers. When one of his friends told him he was starting a catering business in Panama, Armon decided to invest.
Though making empanadas and other local favorites was a good start, Armon wanted more of a challenge. He returned to the U.S. to mull over his next move.
“I thought it would be a good idea to learn proper Spanish and not just the kitchen slang I’d picked up,” says Armon. “I needed to be able to say more than carne molida (ground beef).”
And so it was that Armon enrolled in Spanish classes. “My teacher was the best ever,” he says. While he was getting fluent, an opportunity in the chocolate industry got him thinking about the lack of good chocolatiers in Panama.
Armon had discovered a niche that needed some filling…preferably of the bittersweet variety.
“There were few people doing chocolate here, and mostly on a small scale,” he says. “I found a wonderful chocolate factory in Orlando, Florida, called Farris and Foster’s and asked if I could work there for free in exchange for some know-how.”
The chocolate gurus let Armon apprentice for a month, teaching him how to do chocolate on a larger scale.
Once his apprenticeship was over, Armon returned to Panama. In a space of about 500 square feet, Chocolatisimo was born. His first client? A local Marriot hotel.
“I was contracted to make the turn-down chocolates,” he says. “I was producing, wrapping, delivering…everything. But soon I hired a student to help wrap the chocolates, then a young woman to help with production.”
As his reputation (and client list) grew, Armon started getting requests for products that could be used in hotel kitchens and the like. He hooked up with some bigger companies and started distributing chocolate chips, cocoa powder, dried fruit, nuts and more.
“There had been, for like the past 30 years, only one company distributing nuts here in Panama.” You could say there wasn’t much competition.
Armon says there’s no special formula for success. “We have good products and we haven’t gotten greedy…we keep the pricing reasonable,” he says. “I am dedicated to my clients and to my employees too.”
He’s particularly adept at networking and has gained an understanding of local language and culture that is more than skin-deep.
And the payoff, he says, has been undeniable. “I have been doing this for about five years now, and we grow 30% to 40% a year. Now I have 18 employees and a larger space to suit our needs,” says Armon.
Outside investors recently bought half the company—and Armon has his sights set on expanding north throughout Central America and south to Colombia. Today, the world is his oyster.
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