I come from a family of craftsmen. We like to make things with our hands. Better than the pleasure of making money is the pleasure of making the product and saying, “Wow. I did that.” I couldn’t see myself doing anything other than making good things to eat. But when I was nearing 40, I began to think, “What do I want to do for the next 20 years?”
I decided on a chocolate business. I love the history of chocolate and making it, and the fact that people of any gender, age, and race enjoy it. I found a space in Brooklyn that had not been used in 30 years. Then I talked to an investor who wanted more than 50 percent of the business. I’d worked for other people my whole life and wanted to make my own mistakes, so I said, “No, thank you.”
Since I didn’t have much money, I negotiated with the building owner to give me the space rent-free for a year and a half. Then, I met with an architect who wanted $600,000 to renovate it. My budget was $150,000. I thought I was out of business before I had even started. But a chef friend who also works as a contractor offered to help. We worked every day for three months–putting in new floors, walls, windows, and a drop ceiling. I used what was left to buy a few pieces of equipment.
I wrote a business plan, which I never looked at afterward. I knew all the restaurant managers and chefs in New York City, so I thought I would just wholesale to them. But then [food writer] Florence Fabricant called from The New York Times that December and asked, “When is the store going to be ready?” I heard myself say, “By Christmas!” She said, “Great! I’m going to write about you on December 20.” I called my contractor friend and said, “I need a store in 10 days.” He said, “Are you crazy?” I hadn’t even started making the chocolates, but I knew this was my chance.
We built a counter for the store, and then two days before the opening, Ken Goto and I started making chocolates. I had ordered boxes, but the manufacturer said they were going to be delayed until January. I had no time to get new ones, so I decided to make boxes–out of chocolate. Meanwhile, the Times piece ran, and we had a line of customers the next day. Ken and I made chocolates around the clock. We slept at the shop. That first season, I invested $6,000 in product and made more than that in one week.
My chocolate is special because it’s real. My pistachios are from Italy, and the almonds are from Spain. We make our own marzipan. If I sell a product that says “raspberry,” it’s real raspberry. My plan was to make the best product possible and be the least expensive of the best chocolate makers. That’s still our position.
Ken and I did a lot of the work ourselves in the early days. My food and labor costs were minimal, and I wasn’t paying rent. I knew if I didn’t make it, then I was an idiot. Still, when the money started coming in, Ken and I didn’t pay ourselves for another year. Instead, we bought more equipment and expanded next door.
I started making pastries, pain au chocolat, and croissants on the weekends. I was waking up at 4 a.m. to bake. Then, one night in 2001, I woke up with chest pains and thought I was having a heart attack. My doctor put me on medication. I was pushing myself too hard. So we hired more people and tried to work more like a manufacturer, with a production schedule.
In 2004, we opened our first store in Manhattan. I installed a big window so people could see me making the chocolates. That store cost $1.8 million. It has a 45-foot-long chocolate counter and a hot chocolate bar made in Louis XVI style because that’s when chocolate arrived in Europe. We created a museum-like experience around chocolate. It became very popular very fast.
We anticipated the rush on Valentine’s Day by having bags made up for the husbands and boyfriends who double-park in front of the store and say, “I want to spend $20, $30, or $50.” We also learned to get a little bit risqué. One Valentine’s Day, I made big chocolate lollipops on dowels with the word Love on them. They were cute, but nobody was buying. So I told someone on my staff to reopen them and write Spank Me! on the other side. We sold so many that we emptied four Home Depots of their dowels. So we came up with playful names. One of our chocolates is the previous month’s three best-selling flavors mixed together, which we call Ménage à Trois.
Before long, we had a handful of stores, with two doing all the manufacturing, and I found it impossible to keep track of who was selling what, where, and how many. That’s why we decided to open our own factory in 2013, a 40,000-square-foot space in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The idea was to consolidate production and have a corporate office to oversee everything: the stores, supply, production, internet sales. We invested $2 million and borrowed an additional $1.4 million to build it, my dream chocolate factory.
We are at about 35 percent capacity now, which means I can easily open another 14 or 15 stores over the next five years. But I don’t want to go nationwide. I have friends who have multiple restaurants, and they’re always on a plane. They have no life, they go crazy, and they get divorces. I’d rather concentrate on New York, Boston, Philadelphia, D.C., and maybe a few stores in between. If I can accomplish that before I retire, I’ll be happy enough.
I’ve always been careful to make more money than I need to run my business. This is the first time I have a line of credit, and I most likely won’t use it. We pay all our bills and have no debt except this building. Is it smart? Some say yes, others say no, but I’m still here 15 years later. In that time, we’ve talked to people who want to buy the company, but I compare it to a tree. We are just starting to produce fruit. Why should I sell before I know what it will yield?
By Liz Welch | Inc.