Starting as a late-night experiment, Om Nom is an Icelandic success story
Imagine an abandoned gas station office. A few things might spring to mind. An empty room with peeling walls, seen only by kids who’ve snuck in to smoke a joint. A dark, dusty old shack you could set a horror movie in. Of the various mental images the phrase “abandoned gas station office” might conjure, “small chocolate factory” surely isn’t one.
But, reality is often stranger than fiction, and out on the Seltjarnarnes peninsula, a small chocolate factory inside an abandoned gas station office is exactly what you’ll find. Behind a pair of now-automated pink petrol pumps, the windows of a wind-whipped former mini-mart are brightly lit; the door bears a simple, distinctive logo that’s becoming very familiar to Iceland’s chocolate lovers. The logo spells out the words Om Nom. Indeed.
Right place, right time
At the gas station office-cum-chocolate factory, we’re met by the boundlessly enthusiastic Kjartan Gíslason—the man in charge of Om Nom’s chocolate-making process—dressed in a white chef’s outfit and apron. Behind him, bars of chocolate are being hand-wrapped and stacked in the hundreds; through a large window, we can observe the inner room, where a collection of apparatuses does the various tasks necessary to create all that chocolate.
How did this operation end up in a petrol station office? “We heard a pastry chef that ran a small business here was moving out and eager to sell,” smiles Kjartan, “so it was just a case of being at the right place at the right time. We constantly help tourists with the pumps, and give them directions to Geysir and Gullfoss.”
We pass a colourful display showing the nine varieties that form Om Nom’s current range. The air is thick with the delicious smell of cacao beans. “Our beans are sourced through an agent,” explains Kjartan, guiding us through the glass door and between the brightly coloured, noisy machines. “He works directly with farmers in Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Belize and the Dominican Republic—all organic and fair trade certified.”
He reaches into a sack of beans at the back of the packed room, letting them run through his fingers. “After the bean is harvested, it’s fermented, and then dried at the plantation,” he continues. “We then carefully roast our beans in different ways according to what chocolate we are making. For instance, milk chocolate tends to get a heavier roast, while our dark has a custom light roast to retain all the characteristics that really set our chocolate apart.”
Kjartan hands us some of the rough brown roasted shells, and shows us how to crack them open. Inside is the bitter, crumbly, dark brown bean that lies at the start of the chocolate-making process. “These are called nibs, the inner core of the bean, that is really chocolate in its purest form,” says Kjartan. “After the process of winnowing, or removing and blowing away the shells, we grind these nibs into a fine paste, before adding sugar, and any extra ingredients, such as milk powder for milk chocolate. For example, our biggest seller is the lakkrís and sea salt flavour—we use a raw liquorice root powder that really gives it pungent aftertaste, and sea salt from Saltverk in the Westfjörds.”
Further down the rabbit hole
After the grinding, Kjartan demonstrates how the chocolate is churned and tempered, set into moulds, the excess scraped off and any extras such as crushed nuts added, before being placed in large refrigerators to solidify. The whole process from bean to bar takes around five working days.
It’s a fascinating whirlwind tour of the chocolate-making process. “Being a chef I have a just healthy amount of curiosity about how things are made,” Kjartan says. “I felt compelled to master it. It was just one of those ideas that gained more momentum the further we went down the rabbit hole. I was roasting beans in my oven every day for six months, and hand-grinding. My place smelled like brownies all the time, and my neighbours thought I was obsessed with night-baking.”
But his experiments led to some heartening success. “My first real batch was made with beans that came from Venezuela,” Kjartan says. “It was a dark 70% recipe and it really was the best chocolate I’d ever tasted. It gave me the confidence boost to carry on—it was a great moment, and a feeling of achievement. At that time I didn’t have the machinery that we use now, especially the winnower, so all the beans had to be de-shelled by hand, which was a bittersweet experience. I watched the ‘Mad Men’ series in its entirety, whilst de-shelling nibs until my fingers were blistered. But it was worth it.”
A calling, its reward
Seeing the reaction of the lucky few who got to try his early batches, it became apparent that Kjartan was onto something. Drawn to both the flavour and the business potential, the Om Nom team started to form. “Me and my childhood friend Óskar Þórðarsson started talking about it, which led to us experimenting with different types of beans and roasting,” Kjartan recalls. “We asked André Úlfur Visage to do illustrations for the packaging. His great work really brought the product to life, and inspired us to keep investing time and effort until we were happy with our chocolate. During this time, we also brought in a fellow culinary team member to help the development, pastry chef and baker Karl Viggó Vigfússon.”
It’s clear to see that Kjartan has found his calling in the Om Nom operation. He discusses every detail of the beans, the process, his subtly differing batches, added flavours and future experiments with a fervent passion. As the tour winds up, we get to taste each recipe, and each flavour is spine-tinglingly good. “The Madagascar bean has this really wonderful red berry taste, and a nice finish of citrus fruit acidity,” Kjartan says, smiling at the delight on our faces. “It really is one of our favourite beans, so fruity and jammy. The Papua New Guinea beans have a strong contrast with the Madagascar. The main reason we use it is the intense smokiness of the beans—the natives in Papa New Guinea have a tradition of smoking the beans in order to accelerate the drying process. So it also carries hints of oak, leather, pipe tobacco and whiskey. It kind of reminds me of going on a horseback ride in Iceland.”
With overseas demand growing, two new festive flavours coming out for the Christmas holidays, and some exciting expansions to their current range in the works, it seems like Om Nom is a company that will continue to flourish in the coming year. “Here at Om Nom we don’t really feel like we are making a luxury product, but rather a fine chocolate that’s as good as it gets,” Kjartan says, as we say goodbye.
“We are really passionate about our work. Everybody here feels very fortunate working with such a great ingredient, and its the most rewarding thing I have done in my life.”