“I thought seaweed would work,” says Omnom co-founder and chef Kjartan Gíslason. “I thought it would work on top of chocolate, like sea salt. But something weird happens when you add seaweed to something sweet. It becomes kind of sticky. It was umami, but… I like fish sauce, but I don’t like the smell of fish sauce. And that’s kind of what it tasted like.”
If you’ve never thought about topping your chocolate with tiny bits of seaweed, but you’re strangely intrigued, know that you are not alone. It’s safe to say I left my 45-minute Google Hangout conversation with the chocolatier questioning the boundaries of my own taste buds, spending the next few days dreaming up my ideal chocolate bar. For me, this may have been a fleeting game. For Kjartan, it’s his job.
Along with his childhood best friend, entrepreneur Óskar Þórðarson, Kjartan has created Omnom, Iceland’s first bean-to-bar chocolate company—and it sounds like one of the coolest places you could possibly work. “A new flavor can happen in a day and it can take two or three years,” Kjartan says. “Sometimes it depends on my mood. We came up with the final plan for a bar two days ago, but we’ve actually been working on the recipe for the past three years. We just didn’t know where to put it.” The chocolate bars that come from Omnom are intricate, to say the least. Superchocoberrybarleynibblynuttylicious, Lakkrís + Raspberry, Black N’ Burnt Barley—these flavors take time. “Sometimes when you hear about bands being asked, ‘Why haven’t you put this song on a record yet? It’s existed for three or four years,” Kjartan says. “I resonate with that. I’ve been working with an idea and then it just doesn’t feel right for that moment. And then you come back to it and tweak it and suddenly it’s ready to go and you do it.” If you’re looking for a recommendation, Kjartan has two: “My favorite to snack on is the Sea Salted Almonds bar,” he says. “But my personal favorite is the Dark Milk of Tanzania. It’s a hybrid bar, like a single-origin dark chocolate, but it has a little bit of Icelandic milk powder in it just to give it a fudgy creaminess. For me, it has the perfect balance. I’m very proud of that bar.”
This patience and openness to try new things is refreshing, especially in a time when businesses are battling complications raised by COVID. But to truly understand how special Omnom is, you have to take a trip back to a small, converted gas station in 2013, a 20-minute walk from the company’s current factory on the Reykjavik harbor. “We found a space,” says Kjartan. “There was a guy who was selling cakes to supermarkets—he was making these old school cakes with whipped cream and fruits on the inside. He just had one style of cake.” This location came with one huge perk: The previous owner had already sorted out the health code regulations. “We didn’t have to think about it,” Kjartan continues. “We actually ended up buying his business. So, technically, Omnom started out as a little gas station cake business that didn’t make cakes.”
Slowly, the pair grew into the gas station, acquiring their first chocolate grinder, and then more machinery, and made the necessary electrical modifications needed to sustain their work. Before they knew it, they were producing 1,000 bars of chocolate every day, sometimes seven days a week. “It was basically a 24 hour operation, for me at least, for the first two years, at least,” says Kjartan. They stayed in the converted space from September 2013 through June 2016.
But Kjartan and Óskar’s friendship was rooted long before thoughts of a gas station confectionary. “We met when I was 14, Óskar was probably 13,” says Kjartan. “We went to school in a small town outside of Reykjavik. We quickly became best friends and always stayed in touch. Like me, he didn’t finish any kind of college. I went straight from high school to a kitchen and studying to become a chef. He was going to go to a college, but he just wanted to work. He was actually doing quite well until I came and pitched him this idea,” Kjartan laughs. “I wanted to open a pastry shop, kind of like a bakery, with themed chocolate bars. He didn’t like the pastry part, but he thought the chocolate was pretty cool.”
Today, the factory is hard to miss. The building is painted a bold black and yellow and has a minimalist shop—black walls, colorful murals, all focus on the beautifully packaged chocolate—to greet those who enter. Pre-COVID, guests were invited to tour the factory and even make their own chocolate bars. On the second floor of the factory, there were between 20 and 30 artists, some of which have contributed to the chocolate company’s own branding. The designer responsible for the brand’s long-lasting aesthetic, André Úlfur Visage, was also responsible for their first international sale. “He posted something on his website, sketches of the bars he was working on in June 2013,” says Kjartan. “Consequently, an Icelandic woman was opening a cafe in Brooklyn called Budin. When she saw the mock-ups that Andre posted, she wanted to place an order before we even had a product ready to go. The first product that was sold outside of Iceland was in Brooklyn, in March 2014.” While Budin is unfortunately no longer open, there are plenty of places to buy your own bars (I recommend buying directly from Omnom or checking out the options at Caputo’s Market in Salt Lake City).
Along with the rest of the world, Iceland’s economy has been hit quite hard by COVID-19. In July, the Iceland Monitor reported that tourist numbers were down 97 percent. With fewer visitors and strict travel restrictions, Icelanders were given a rare opportunity to experience their home country without the crowds. “Icelanders and people who live in Iceland did a lot of traveling this summer,” says Kjartan. “I traveled the whole Ring Road for the first time. It was nice in a way that it wasn’t as crowded—you could enjoy the sights in a different way.” After the country conquered its first wave of COVID-19 and stepped into the summer months, Omnom had another project in the works. “We started an ice cream shop,” he says. “Icelanders have a very special connection with ice cream shops. We will eat ice cream all day, all year around. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blizzard outside, we would say, ok it’s 9 p.m., let’s go get some ice cream. And it doesn’t matter when you open up an ice cream shop in Iceland, they will always come.” And he wasn’t wrong. They opened up the shop in their factory space on June 17th, Icelandic National Day, and 500 people showed up. The menu consists of five soft serve flavors topped with some of Kjartan’s creations, from chocolate sauce to macaroons. “It’s a fun outlet for me, personally. I can put out a new dish on a week’s notice. It’s been going great, all things considered.”
The company was recently highlighted in an episode of Zac Efron’s Netflix show, Down to Earth. The star paid a visit to the factory to talk about their process and make his own bar, which can only be described as Frankenstein-worthy. But when asked about his proudest moments at Omnom, Kjartan doesn’t recall instances like this. “We’ve had maybe 60 people work at Omnom since the start,” Kjartan says. “Having a place that I’m comfortable coming to and the people who work here are comfortable with their work and take pride in it... I love seeing it. I also do Friday staff lunches. I would love to do it every day, but we keep it a Friday tradition as an excuse to open up a bottle of wine.”