Local entrepreneurs Valerie Sicotte and Mark Wittenberg had always envisioned Whistler Chocolate would be a thriving and successful business, but they never imagined their chocolate would one day be soaring among the stars - literally.
The pair are about to make history on Wednesday (Dec. 19) when a few cases of their organic milk chocolate bar will be launched into space and dock at the International Space Station, along with eleven other selected snacks.
It all started in December of 2011 when Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield began preparing for his upcoming mission to the International Space Station this month. He met with National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA) and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) nutritionists to determine his onboard menu and together they reviewed his personal preferences and nutritional requirements. That's when they came up with the idea of giving Canadians a chance to contribute to Hadfield's space menu.
In April 2011 the Canadian Space Agency invited Canadians to nominate their favorite regional foods as part of the "Canadian Snacks for Space" contest. It was at this time that Wittenberg and Sicotte received an email from a friend in Quebec, alerting them of the contest.
"Our friends back East actually discovered the contest and they started nominating us and recruiting others to do the same. Before I knew it, all of our close friends started their own little campaign to get our chocolate in space. We were so flattered but we never thought it would actually be chosen to be shipped to the stars on a rocket."
There were 150 nominations that came in from participants across Canada and from those ballots, twelve Canadian food companies were chosen.
"We got an email from the Canadian Space Agency last spring, asking us to ship over a couple of our bars to Houston Texas for testing with NASA. A couple of months later we got a phone call saying our chocolate had been chosen. We were shocked," exclaimed Sicotte.
Before being selected for space travel, the chocolate went through a rigorous testing phase with a panel of CSA judges appraising the entries. They used an evaluation grid based on colour, taste, smell, packaging and ease of consumption in orbit. A short list of snacks was then proposed to Hadfield and his astronaut crewmates. The Operational Space Medicine group did one last review of the items to confirm the final list.
Hadfield's Canadian snacks include Whistler Chocolate's Pocket Chocolate, candied wild smoked salmon, smoked salmon paté, cranberry buffalo stix, cereal, dried apple chucks, fruit bars, green tea cookies with orange zest, maple syrup cookies, honey drops, chocolate bars and maple syrup.
"I think part of the reason why we were chosen was not only because our chocolate is delicious but, also because it comes in a compostable wrapper," said Sicotte. "We adopted the wrapper in 2009, we were the first Canada company to use the wrapper and possibly the first in North America. Mark and I have always been interested in organic and environmentally-friendly products so when we set out creating chocolate with the smallest footprint possible."
Before committing full-time to Whistler Chocolate, Sicotte was working in environmental management and Wittenberg was a biologist. Both were very successful in their respective careers, but were encouraged when their organic chocolate business started taking off. In 2009 they decided to give up their day jobs and commit to making the most environmentally-friendly chocolate product possible.
Hadfield is already on the space station, having launched on Dec. 5. As part of his mission, he will become the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station, a milestone for Canadian space exploration. In the meantime, he is likely eagerly awaiting his treats to keep him fueled up during daily life in orbit.