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Cocoa prices spiked to an all-time high right before Valentine's Day

As Valentine's Day approaches, the price of cocoa has never been higher.

The cost of the key ingredient in chocolate has been grinding upward for over two years. In the past year, it has more than doubled. This month, it broke the all-time record from 1977, the year before Hershey introduced Reese's Pieces.

"Quite honestly, all of our chocolates have increased in price," says Ginger Park, who has run a chocolate shop named Chocolate Chocolate in Washington, D.C., for 40 years. "We try not to raise the prices on our customers. But, you know, there are times when we have to — we have no choice."

Park's store is a constellation of handcrafted bonbons and nostalgic heart-shaped boxes, shiny chocolate domes and sea salt-studded pillows, with flavors like green tea and shiso-lime, espresso and cardamom. The sweets arrive here from Switzerland, Belgium, Vermont and Kansas City, Mo.

Everywhere, chocolate-makers are feeling the price crunch.

"Pre-pandemic, our Belgian chocolates were around $65 a pound, and they're now $85 a pound," Park says. "So it has really gone up. And the same with artisanal."

Why is cocoa so expensive?

Cocoa's troubles stem from extreme weather in West Africa, where farmers grow the majority of the world's cacao beans.

"There were massive rains, and then there was a massive dry spell coupled with wind," says CoBank senior analyst Billy Roberts. "It led to some pretty harsh growing conditions for cocoa," including pests and disease.

Now, cocoa harvests are coming up short for the third year in a row. Regulators in the top-producing Ivory Coast at one point stopped selling contracts for cocoa exports altogether because of uncertainty over new crops.

Every day, Roberts would check on cocoa futures — which is how investors trade in cocoa — and their price would leap closer to that 47-year-old record. Last week, it jumped over the record and kept going. Already this year, cocoa has recorded one of the biggest price gains of all commodities traded in the United States.

Stores charge more, but shoppers can't stop, won't stop

Major candy manufacturers, including Nestlé and Cadbury, have been raising prices to offset the higher costs — of mainly cocoa, but also sugar and wages. They've signaled more price hikes could come later this year.

Chocolate lovers won't see a sudden price spike this week for Valentine's Day. That's because costs have already risen steadily for months. With a new crop not coming for months, Roberts says, Easter and especially Halloween could see the worst of it.

"Given where cocoa prices are, we will be using every tool in our toolbox, including pricing, as a way to manage the business," Hershey CEO Michele Buck said during an earnings call on Thursday.

Surveys and data show that some shoppers have started to switch to cheaper chocolate or buy a bit less. Sweets included, retailers are still forecasting that each shopper on average will spend more on this Valentine's Day than they did in the past five years.

"Honestly, we have not felt the effects from our customers," says Park. "And I don't know if it's because they know everything has gone up and they understand — or they're just chocoholics like us."

After all, chocolate is a special kind of spending — a treat that delivers a boost of happiness, Park adds. Can you really put a price on that? [Copyright 2024 NPR]

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