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Chocolate Society

Today is the innaugural meeting of the Coastal Virginia Chocolate Society (still working on a hashtag). This has been on my to do list for a few years. Why did it take so long? What was I waiting for? I don’t know, industry authority, respect, feeling like I had the knowledge base to share, like I was good enough?

Here’s the thing: I know chocolate. I have worked with it, lived with it, researched it, read about it for 14 years and I have loved it even longer. Part of my unease is that I am so absorbed in what I am doing with chocolate, that I may not be verbalizing what I know. I am alone 80% of the time. My dogs certainly don’t care about chocolate and my boys are over it!  I field so many questions about chocolate and I love to chat with people who are passionate and curious. I know people want to know more and I am happy to facilitate that.

As with any industry, competition is inherent. I don’t do competiton. I believe there is enough business for everyone. I want to collaborate, I want a community. I find there to be little boxes put around people in the chocolate industry; you are either a bean to bar maker, a chocolatier or a pastry chef. There  also seems to be a hierarchy which puts the bean to bar makers as the purest, highest form of chocolate. The chocolatier seems to be the lowest on the chocolate totem pole. We don’t make our own chocolate, we are “just  melters” using other people’s products as an ingredient. Pastry chefs are of course well versed in many, many ingredients, techniques and have a vast knowledge base. There are also chocolate educators, bloggers and “sommeliers.” (in quotes because there is no actual certification or designation for a chocolate sommelier, though I do not doubt their knowldge base.) I am really hopeful that change is coming with the number of women in the chocolate industry.

Regardless of my fear to start this project, start I will. I feel that educating my population about fine chocolate is as important, actually maybe even more important, than the products I make. I also know that I have to meet them where they are at. My philosophy and personal feelings about chocolate may not align with everyone that participates, yet. My plan is for this to be a member driven organization, I really just want to facilitate it and be a resource. When production ramps up it will be a challenge to keep up with , maybe one of the members will step up? Regardless, meeting one will be a meet and greet, plan for the future and eating chocolate. Step one, favorite grocery store chocolate bars and we’ll see where it goes!

 

 

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Grocery store chocolate bar challenge…..

I am a firm believer in meeting people where they’re at. A large portion of my audience asks about readily available chocolate, especially during the summer when I am not in production. Grocery stores are always adding new brands of chocolate, so it is always an interesting experiment.

There is one thing that I should say before I go any further. I hate tasting notes. I hate them, wine, chocolate, coffee, it doesn’t matter. Now, I do understand that they can be helpful when you are looking for something really specific, and some people choose their product by them (or the label). Here is why I am not a fan: some people will say that they taste whatever is printed and some will feel really bad that they taste something different.  Palates are different, people taste things differently and that is pretty amazing, there are no wrong answers when asked what you taste.

So my rating scale tops out at 5, my categories are taste, texture and appearance (I am only talking about the chocolate bar itself).  Very basic stuff, I tend to make things much harder than they need to be; but not tasting a bar for enjoyment. Much like movie ratings and everything else, it is all relative. Like I mentioned above, people taste things differently. I generally taste every bar 3 different times. I tend to do my tastings first thing in the morning (and that comes pretty early with a puppy in the house!).

Up first is the Jelinachocolatier sea salt: 

Taste: 2/5 Texture 1/5 Appearance: 5/5

Note: too salty for my taste and I prefer thin bars, this has pretty hefty chunks. No imperfections in moulding, temper is good no storage issues such as bloom or melting.

AlterEco Sea Salt:

Taste: 4/5 Texture 3/5 Appearance 5/5

Note: the salt is well balanced. No imperfections in moulding, temper is good no storage issues such as bloom or melting.

 

Brooklyn Born 72%:

Taste 3/5 Texture 3/5 Appearance 5/5

Note: pretty bar, No imperfections in moulding, temper is good no storage issues such as bloom or melting. It was a little sweet for me, while I may not eat out of hand, I would bake with it.

Perugina 70%:

Taste 2/5 Texture 3/5 Appearance 5/5

Note: the first flavor is an off note for me. No imperfections in moulding, temper is good no storage issues such as bloom or melting. I made brownies with the rest of the bar.

 

Now I need some protein,

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Summertime blues

I really hate the heat and the humidity. I feel like a cartoon character thermometer about to explode. I have now been away from the PNW longer than I actually lived there, I guess you can take the girl out of Oregon but…

I feel like I have at least a million things happening even without production. I am trying to be mindful of self care, so I don’t crash early in the season again. I have a fantastic physical therapist for my l shoulder/r wrist issues, so at least I will start my season healthy.

One of the biggest challenges for me this summer is getting a handle on actual branding and marketing. This is really a foreign concept to me because all I want to do in my business is make chocolates and other decadent confections, eat really good chocolate, share my passion for all that chocolate is and eat some more chocolate. I thought my product was the business and the business my brand. Yes I make my product by hand, but the quality and integrity of my product is what matters, not cool tone lighting in a photo and whether or not someone I have never met (and who has never tasted my creation) “likes” it.

I guess I came to social media in more of a journalistic way. Fact based, here is what I am making and where you can get it. Cocoa Nouveau is a micro business. Do i want it to grow? Of course and I am at a place where it needs to grow, for my expanding customer base and because going through a divorce means I need to take care of myself and my boys. But, how is authenticity maintained in this digital environment? I am trying to get a system in place that is easy to maintain once production is in full swing, but since I am not in production, I don’t have much to post about. My time is being spent listening to podcasts about upping my authority in my industry, how to scale a business and find funding, how to get over crippling imposter syndrome and reading about how to survive midlife divorce. I did rescue a new puppy, but I am fairly certain I am not allowed to post about the pup all the time!

Naptime is over for miss Ellie, the housebreaking struggles are real and I am too old for this!

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Something new

I have been debating (with myself of course) starting a chocolate society. All the cool kids are doing it, in all the cool places, so why not here? Logistically, it is problematic as I am still homebased and my neighbors really aren’t keen on 20 extra people turning up on my street.

One of the sessions I attended during the Fine Chocolate Industry Association event in NYC a few weeks ago was about understanding fine chocolate flavor,  I was sitting next to the guru behind the Pacific Northwest Chocolate Society and mentioned that I had been thinking about starting one locally. She said “do it.” I tend to make everything far more complicated than it needs to be, I am always in my head about everything.  Logistics are one thing, but do I actually know enough about chocolate to take this on?

Yesterday I went to a networking event in the new coworking space Gather, then I got my 10,000 steps in wandering between buildings at city hall, registering Coastal Virginia Chocolate Society!  5000 more things to do before I actually think about the first meeting, but it is a start.

 

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After Action…

I never realized how much military jargon took root in my brain, though, after being a military spouse for over two decades I guess it would be expected.  Every year I sit down with my spiral notebook and take note of what worked and what didn’t, whether it is a flavor or a production tweak or recipe change. This year was crazy from the start; I started my season with a fractured left wrist ( a friendly neighborhood bulldog knocked me down), I am right handed thankfully. Unfortunately, not using my left hand meant over use before Christmas in the right.  There were plenty of negatives due to my unhappy hands, but having to back out of a charity event and then ending my season earlier than anticipated were the top of the list.

Packaging continues to be an issue. I just hate it. Having two different lines of packaging (for wholesale and retail). I don’t order large enough quantities to get great prices as is, doing customized packaging  to eliminate stickers and such is even more cost prohibitive.  Because the flavors change seasonally, I am still typing up and printing ingredient labels and that is time consuming. I was hope to start bring your own packaging system, but apparently that health department frowns on this.

The other big pain point is the pop up model. Traveling with all the chocolate is always problematic for many reasons, the weather not the least of them. In some locations the pop ups remain well attended, but I get a lot of people requesting individual deliveries. Finding a place that would make everyone happy is part of the reason I have stuck with the pop up model for so long.

I have had a hard time meeting demand the past few years, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is definitely time to evolve or perish. Expand or pivot.  At times it feels as though I have made every single flavor combination possible, and I wonder if it is time to close up shop. Then I get the sweetest note in my inbox and I am reinvigorated.

Summer is time for experimenting , continuing education as well as all the administrative things I never seem to get a handle on. This year my summer includes quite a bit of physical therapy too! I try to get to the Fine Chocolate Industry Association events as well as trying to do as many chocolate educational events as possible. One of the reasons I want a brick and mortar is to do more chocolate education as well as elevating chocolate culture in the area. That is hard to do as a home based operation. My wonderful graphic designer came up with the tagline “Experience Decadence” which I see very differently now. I used to only see it in relation to eating chocolate and decadence, but now I see the experience emphasized.

I really hate having to end my season early due to injury, but I am really thankful to not be stressing out about this  crazy hot weather here in Coastal Virginia. I am working through a few old recipes for chocolate gelato, I will share as soon as I get the best one nailed down.

Protect your chocolate people, it’s hot out there!

 

 

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March 2019

Immediately after Valentine’s Day production I got hooked into a possible new product line. Looking at a new line combined a few of my favorite things: experimenting and research. I love getting completely absorbed in learning something new. I ignored basic restocking and chocolate room clean up!

Next thing I knew, it was March. I was still tinkering with new products and contemplating my spring line up. I spend way too much time researching new packaging, too much time because it comes to nothing.

I have been debating taking on a coach, or closing up shop. I am at a good place, business wise. I can’t keep up with demand, within the current constraints of my business. I need to expand, I need to automate, I need help. But, will the demand meet all those costs? I need to move it out of my house! I fall asleep at night on this hamster wheel.

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Post Valentine’s Day

I am really bad at keeping up with this. I keep putting it on my to do list, but it is easy to dismiss.

Valentine’s Day was a week ago and I have had some time to go over the production and planning to see what lessons there are to learn, still.  First and foremost, it was my most successful Valentine’s to date. I have growing interest, interaction and sales, positive. The flip side is that it was super stressful, I didn’t order enough packaging and it is still just me.

As a homebased wholesaler, pop up events allow me to connect with my customer base, but it requires being organized.  I try to factor in about 20% increase from year to year, but the last two years exceeded that. Something in my make up won’t allow me to think it will be better two years in a row.

Rught now I am restocking the chocolate room and prepping for my next production. So many people give up chocolate for Lent that I do a much smaller run. I may do something small for Spring, and I will keep filling restock order for caramels and the special orders for the distillery.

Packaging is still a nightmare. I need to keep clear for wholesale clients. Their customers want to know what they are buying. I don’t love plastic.  I don’t love packaging. I don’t have the space to order a huge volume of specialy packaging, or the funds really. I wish it didn’t matter, the packaging and branding, but it does.

i have some bourbon marshmallows to cut.