Ten Years On, TC Chocolate Has a New Name, New CEO, and Really Big Plans
"After almost a decade of doing the things that you're supposed to do with pharmaceuticals and therapy—and never really getting better—I attempted suicide. It was after my third suicide attempt that I finally said, 'That's it. I'm not going to live my life this way.'"
Fifteen years ago, Kate LaBrosse was in a dark place. She was diagnosed in her early twenties with depression and later with Bipolar II disorder. The medication didn't work. She'd see progress, relapse, change dosages, rinse, and repeat. But it wasn't the end. Instead of giving up, her resolve to find a better way paid off, she says, after discovering a company offering a range of natural supplements designed for people with mood disorders. She was slowly eased off her prescriptions.
"Nine months, I was medication free – and that was almost fifteen years ago," she recalls.
Since then, she says she's been both medication and episode free.
The most surprising revelation? The unbreakable symbiosis between proper digestive health and healthy brain function. LaBrosse says she grew up as a "fast food kid," and holistic healing recommendations to change her gut health in order to relieve her struggles with mental illness seemed at first unlikely – but proved pivotal.
After besting her own demons, LaBrosse wrote a book, "This Is Me, Bipolar-Free," and began speaking and coaching. She changed career paths, first from animal care to natural foods and supplements and then four years ago launched a consultancy on brand development. Today, her story comes full circle as the new CEO and co-owner of Sted Foods, formerly TC Chocolate.
Now, she means to take what she's learned and bring healing to others.
It's a nondescript, 7,000-square-foot metal building on the east side of town. Nothing from the outside betrays the team of nearly 40 professionals inside working away to produce internationally-award-winning chocolate.
"You couldn't have had a chocolate product like that a decade ago because nobody was taking cocoa beans and making them into anything in the midwest," explains Josh Mohagen, company co-founder along with his wife, Kristin.
The new space—with its whirring of machines and piles of organic cacao beans—is a huge upgrade after almost nine years operating from two family basements.
The initial creative spark was Kristin, who had traveled extensively with her family as a child and came to know much about food and culture. An uncommon combination of artistic temperament and self discipline, she attended the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Arizona, where her talent was honed. In the years that followed, she watched with intrigue at what Josh calls a "baby movement" of discovery as chocolatiers around the country slowly awakened to the hidden potential of cacao beans – much like similar growth in winemaking or craft beers.
Her own moment of realization occurred during the couple's honeymoon to Napa, California. There they enjoyed wine and chocolate tours, returning home with a hunch for something bigger.
"It was a passion project for Kristin, and I hopped on board," Josh says. "I knew Kristin and her personality; that's the reason we have a company."
There were growing pains, and production shifted from the Mohagen's kitchen to the basement of Kristin's parents, Rod and Alice Spidahl. When the business needed new clients, in 2015, Rod hit the road for six months, drumming up accounts that to this day remain foundational for the company. Working across the two homes, the team grew from three to twenty, and the variety of flavors expanded as well – many striking Kristin when and wherever they may.
"They just kind of pop in creatively," Josh says. "We don't force them."
The business continued to expand. With an assortment of machines buzzing away twenty-four hours a day in his in-laws' basement, TC Chocolate needed a bigger home.
It was three years ago, then, that the Mohagens found themselves on LaBrosse's mailing list. A phone call later, they invited her to help advise their future plans. It wasn't long before TC Chocolate was one of the largest clients for LaBrosse's consultancy.
Around the same time, the group approached Greater Fergus Falls to aid their search for a new facility, nearly settling on a 2,500-square-foot space (roughly one-third the size of their building today) but halted by the advice that bigger might be better for a company which had already grown so fast. It was the right call in hindsight.
"We made a snap decision in October of that year to pursue Mike Thorson's Cornerstone Cabinet building," Josh recalls. "He made it a great situation for us."
The space was ideal, as the cabinetry had required many of the same temperature and humidity controls that the chocolate business necessitated. Moreover, he credits Greater Fergus Falls and the community itself for encouraging and cheerleading them along at every step, saying, "We feel like we're wanted here."
LaBrosse, meanwhile, was extended an offer to become CEO and partner in the business.
"It's not like we had a search for a CEO; it happened organically through our relationship consulting and her track record of really good advice at the right time," Josh says. "We loved the vision she had set. We loved her ability to lead. We loved how she got along with our team and [how] our team responded to her."
LaBrosse's new role coincides with a rebranding from Terroir Chocolate (which was already trademarked and often mispronounced) to Sted Foods, which LaBrosse explains better speaks to the couples' Norwegian heritage and the variety of products they want to offer going forward. What began with chocolate is expected to expand across a range of grocery products.
And there's one final announcement, a second brand, Happy Ship, arriving later this fall, which will focus on natural supplements that target key bodily systems in a holistic manner – digestive health, brain and mental health, and weight management, to name a few. Josh describes the flavor of the supplements as like that of a delicacy. LaBrosse, meanwhile, says that when people ask if a chocolate-based supplement could really aid in weight loss, her reply is an enthusiastic, "Yes, that is what I'm telling you!"
LaBrosse calls the second company a marrying of her background in naturopathic and holistic healing paired perfectly to Josh and Kristin's experience in top-shelf chocolate. She sees both brands becoming national names.
"As a small company, we need to concentrate our efforts and get the most bang for our [marketing] buck," she says, explaining how the team will develop new markets through a multi-pronged advertising approach. "People will see us at the grocery store, they'll see us at the little boutique, and then we'll pop up in their social feed... Doing it that way will make us look bigger than what we are."
Kristin, meanwhile, still maintains an interest in the business but is primarily focused on raising the couple's young family, having just welcomed their third child earlier this year. And Josh Mohagen will see his role shift, with greater focus on sales and attracting new accounts. He says one of his favorite experiences is introducing new people to their brand and that LaBrosse's clear vision means no more guessing at goals. Instead, he can focus on a personal strength while trusting the leadership to LaBrosse.
"I have clarity and clear things to apply myself towards," he says. "That comes with vision."
- R.C. Drews for Greater Fergus Falls
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