Many of those who launch artisanal chocolate shops, including Mimi Wheeler, are inspired by a love for chocolate, not business. Wheeler left her 25-year career as a social worker to create Grocer’s Daughter, a shop in Empire, Mich. Customers come by regularly, some have turned into unpaid helpers and some joined her staff.
“I saw an immense spirit of helpfulness and generosity,” she says. She enlisted friends to join “tasting teams,” and one of them convinced her to paint the leased shop a brilliant green. Her friendships also helped her land her first wholesale account: Zingerman’s Delicatessen.
Her shop is open seven days a week, and sales increased 40% last year. Wheeler grows herbs there, which show up in the chocolates: lavender, basil, rosemary, and mint. Grocer’s Daughter employs some “very creative chocolatiers,” Wheeler says, including some teens who started visiting the shop and ended up working there. They’ve developed a chocolate chili rub meat marinade and started using teas in chocolate. “People come and say, ‘What’s new this week?’ says Wheeler.
Godiva hires hundreds of people to make and sell chocolates. But the hardest jobs to fill are sensory technologists, “people who can distinguish between really good and really great,” says Wayne Puglia, Godiva’s senior vice president of global research and quality. Such professionals need to read between the lines as they watch consumers take taste tests. They need to understand the reaction to a new chocolate’s appearance, ease of opening, how quickly it melts in the mouth. They also need to know regional preferences, says Puglia, noting that European chocolates must be richer, less sweet, and have more pronounced cocoa notes than American chocolates. “It requires a high degree of intuition,” he says. Godiva considers chocolate “a hybrid of food and fashion.”
Most cacao farmers work outside the U.S. in countries like the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Brazil, Ghana, and Malaysia. But over the past 15 years, a few cacao orchards have been springing up in Hawaii, and experts say they are viable in Puerto Rico, too. Cacao farming is a labor-intensive process, and the cacao pods must be harvested individually because they do not all ripen at once. Yet for someone who’s interested in chocolate, spending a few months at a “chocolate farm” could be an excellent career starter. The job brings people to the very beginnings of the chocolate-making process, and that can lead to opportunities elsewhere, veteran chocolatiers say.
Out of hunks of chocolate, they fashion Easter bunnies on the beach, beautiful white chocolate orchids, miniature houses, and skyscrapers. Their work graces wedding cakes, charity parties, and luxurious corporate events. Some chocolate artists have developed brands and reputations while others work in obscurity. Many of them work for pastry or chocolate shops. And because demand isn’t necessarily high for chocolate sculpture, many spend only a portion of their time sculpting. Yet the very best chocolate sculptors compete internationally, are flown in for major events, and carve out careers akin to celebrity chefs.
Typically, a sommelier assists diners in choosing the right wine to pair with their dinner. A chocolate sommelier matches chocolates to wines and to people’s tastes. Roxanne Browning (right) has served as a chocolate sommelier to the American Bar Association, at wineries on Long Island, and more.
Browning founded Exotic Chocolate Tasting on Long Island in 2010 in part because she hopes to help indigenous cacao farmers and stop rainforest erosion. She started the company after a career in advertising and a stint as mayor of a small town on Long Island. She works with 14 different chocolate companies from around the world. Right now, she’s a solo act, but as the business expands, she’s starting to look for another person who knows wine and chocolate to work with her. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had,” says Browning.
A handful of professionals spend their days tracing the 4,000 years of chocolate history. Chocolate historian Mark Sciscenti (right) shares old-school cocoa’s taste with his lecture audiences, who sip hot chocolate the way it was made by Mayans during the Mesoamerican era. The drink contains 100% cacao chocolate, water, herbs, several flowers, spices, nuts, and a little honey.
Sciscenti has researched the drinks and hopes to begin producing a chocolate bar for sale that would be similar to the early cocoa. He works as a freelance chocolate historian, speaking to groups and museums, and doing private tastings and history lessons at conferences. Sciscenti also teaches chocolate history and basic cooking methods at Santa Fe Community College and works part-time as an Apple computer technician. Sciscenti often ties the history to current events, particularly around the connections between the slave trade and chocolate. “There’s an unbelievable amount of information. I could talk for hours,” he says.
Chocolatier is a catchall job title that could mean many things, from the head person who creates recipes and directs plans for production, to the assistant who chops fruits and measures raw chocolate and other ingredients. Some work as part of a team of pastry chefs in a hotel or major restaurant, others work for small shops. At multinational Cargill Cocoa & Chocolates, the chocolatier develops new recipes, teaches classes to clients, including business owners, and troubleshoots with customers, which include major food makers. A Cargill chocolatier may also oversee demonstrations at trade shows and events, a spokeswoman says.
The tour guide
From Barcelona and Paris to Boston and San Francisco, chocolate shops abound. This offers a ripe opportunity for chocolate tour companies. Some are walking tours, but Dallas by Chocolate offers stretch limousine tours for $75 a person. Most of Dallas by Chocolate tours, though, cost $30 to $45, and guests travel on a small bus to shops carefully selected by owner Jeanine Stevens. She started the business in the summer of 2011.
Stevens’s first tour, for some of her sorority sisters, gave her encouragement, though “it was 107 [degrees] that day,” she recalls. The business has grown but not without some sour moments. Sometimes it’s difficult to convince independent chocolate shops to give away samples. Yet often, almost everyone on the chocolate tours buys sweets before they leave, and, she says, they return to the shops later.
“People love to eat, and they love to escape,” says Stevens. She’s added two new tour guides and a line of food tours including one based on bacon. She calls that part of her business Dallas Bites. Yet chocolate is her mainstay. “How can you go wrong with chocolates?”