artisan chocolates

2020 in the rear view

2020 what can be said that isn’t already a cliche? Owning a small business brings challenges every year, but this year brought challenges on a scale no one could have imagined.

First thing though, I really want to say thank you. Thank you to everyone who stuck around, who purchased or commented on a post. I read a statistic someplace that one in five businesses have closed their doors for good. I am so thankful to not be part of that statistic and it is due to my customers completely.

2020 was going to be a year of change for my business regardless. I had hopes of moving into a brick and mortar (so glad that didn’t happen). Instead I ended up with a website. A persnickety pain in the ass, but a website. I am blessed with a consultant who can figure out all the minutiae so I can focus on chocolate. I really wanted to keep Square because my whole library is in there, why start completely from scratch? You know what, if you are in a business with lots of variables and choices like mine? Do it. Weebly is the hosting platform through square and it has been a continual fight. Just when one problem has been solved 10 more show up. It is lacking in flexibility and doesn’t allow for simple changes. When my subscription is up, I am out of there. So researching a hosting platform is task number one in 2021.

Working within multiple global supply systems has been trying at best. Packaging is always a nightmare, but getting imported supplies got worse as the year went on. Then let’s talk about the chocolate, again, global supply. Being a tiny business is already challenging, there are only a few distributors that allow for my needs, when they don’t have supplies, I don’t have supplies.

My business model has been wholesale and pop up events. When small shops are closed or minimally open, no one wants to take on a frivolous inventory. Working from home was definitely a blessing in this situation. The website allowed for sales to continue, but I am only one person, so deliveries were an added pain point. Evolve or perish indeed.

Without a single sale or restock in the summer, I was seriously considering closing the doors for good in September. I always struggle with the fact that chocolate is indeed a luxury item. No one needs what I do, not really. Then came a phone call from a local reporter along with a small article and then demand shot up. Who over said print is dead was dead wrong. I am incredibly grateful for that article and the interest that it has brought. So many people have reached out as a result, so many fascinating and sweet exchanges.

So what do I plan for 2021? I really just want to finish up this season as strongly as it started. Every small business, especially a home based business, is an intricate dance between business and home life. That has all changed for me. Divorce is the biggest one of all. Do I sell the house? It’s a seller’s market so that means buying at the top of the market, that sucks. If I sell I need to find a new work space, or close all together. Too many variable constantly spinning in my brain. I really just want to focus on the wins, the gratitude and the chocolate.

Tomorrow won’t magically fix everything. People are still dying, people are losing livelihoods and homes. There is so much uncertainty, globally. But, there is hope for better days ahead. Happy new year.

artisan chocolates

June

Goodness, I didn’t realize how long it has been since I checked in with everyone! In my defense, I have mentioned that once I am in production nothing else happens.

The 2019/2020 season was one for the (my) books. I was able to start earlier than normal and I broke records in sales at every production, even after the global pandemic hit. The changes have been the most consistent aspect of the season. I have been really lucky given that I am an introvert already working from home. The need to move away from pop up events was already pretty apparent, as well as relying heavily on wholesale accounts. The covid-19 event really forced my hand, evolve or perish indeed.

There comes a point in every single season that I wonder if I should keep going. This year it came more than once. To be honest, even with all the steps I am taking to grow my business, I am still wondering. The global pandemic, partnered with the global protests for racial justice has many of us wondering what we should be bringing with us into the future. Running a small business from your home is all encompassing. Whether you are an accountant or a creative it is really hard to find balance. A creative, labor intensive business sometimes feels like madness. Most moms I know already feel pulled in a million directions, not to mention the pressure and overwhelm just being a mom trying to raise decent humans. It is irrelevant the age of number of your children. I feel for all the people out there trying to do this with small children under stay at home mandates while dealing with sudden homeschooling. I really can’t complain, with college aged kids and older.

Coming in to 2020 I was constantly reading that it would be a transformative year, all the planets and numbers said so. I turned 50 in March, at the beginning of the quarantine period, a new year, a new decade. Birthdays are always a point of reflection for me, and this year it was just intensified. What do I want to bring with me into this new decade? Going through divorce at any point is awful, but going through it when there seems to be no stable ground, when nothing feels solid? It’s exhausting. The world is exhausting. I have to move, it isn’t just my family home, it is my business. Is it worth keeping alive? All of the dreams I had for this business 10 years ago, have yet to materialize. I have more reasons to walk away, not the least of which is financial. I just can’t while there is even incremental progress., so I am going to keep moving forward.

artisan chocolates

2019 in review

2019 was my best year in terms of sales, bar none. It was definitely a year of growth and change and constant rethinking. I don’t really spend too much time looking back, my auntie always said “don’t look back, you aren’t going that way.” I may have taken it a bit too literally.

My 2018/2019 season began and ended with injury, so it was definitely a season filled with anxiety. I generally carry a bit of that with me every season to be honest. I assume every season will be my last, but I also refuse to actually give it up. I am an enigma. Ending my season early due to a wrist injury really had me re-evaluating all summer. Evolve or perish is the rule, so how can what I do change, how can it grow given the constraints of my life? I have been going through divorce for a bit, which everyone knows is a lot regardless, but when you run a business from your house, it really adds to the chaos and the fear. I heard something about the Concorde Fallacy awhile back and it really stuck with me. Are we doing something that is viable on its own or for everything that we have already put into it? The more we put into something, the harder it is to let it go. 2019

2019/2020 season started injury free and the weather actually cooperated so I was able to start in mid October as well. I have noticed that more often than not, when I post about an event I immediately get messages asking about how to get chocolate without actually going to said event. Still working on a plan for this. A trial of releasing order forms was attempted. There were definitely some glitches, but overall it went pretty well, given it is just me. I am thinking about a way to build on this without too much more work for me.

I have successfully avoided the chocolate room since my last delivery on Christmas eve. Tomorrow it gets cleaned out, inventory taken and reordering will begin. It is time to start thinking about Valentine’s Day (it has exploded in every shop already!)

artisan chocolates

Mid January 2020

Restocking continues, Christmas generally wipes me out completely. I do have a few boxes kicking around because I had to reorder, but that is it.

I have been working on the Valentine’s Day menu for the entire week. The problem I am having is that it is January, but it feels like April. We had some signficant freezing in November that killed off most of my herbs, which I tend to use if available. It was over 70 the other day, my brain is saying have some chai and get cozy, but it feels like coconut weather. I’ve spent some time with past menus and wandered the grocery stores, but I am stuck. I did find some interesting teas while I was in DC over the weekend which I have been playing with, thankfully there is always tea. Even in mild Virginia there isn’t much growing. Spinach chocolates anyone?!

I started candying orange peels, it is still a bit too humid to set them out to cure. As soon as my chocolate shipment comes in I will start those. I know it is pretty logical to start with the longest shelf life first, I used to try to get every single thing done within 2 weeks of the pop up dates, it was stressful and exhausting. There is absolutely no reason for it either. Most non chocolate confections will be eaten before they go bad, so I really try to figure in extra time now. That falls under the “work smarter not harder” heading, as well as “duh” it just took me awhile to get there.

I was hoping to get a chocolate and bourbon pairing on the books before I am too deep into production, but I may have to wait until March. When not in production most other administrative type tasks get done, or started in the very least. I have been taking meetings about new pop up venues as well as actively looking for possible locations to move towards a brick and mortar storefront, it feels like the next logical step, but it is still scary.

artisan chocolates

Here I go again!

The first production of the season is in my rearview! Ok, so it was a small, seasonal collection, but it was so nice to get back to work and not stress about the weather!

I have chatted with people on social media about what flavors are quintessentially fall. Is there a smell or a taste that brings you right into a beautiful fall memory? I am a native Oregonian and my aunt had an apple orchard outside Lebanon. When I smell a golden delicious apple, I am transported to that orchard. Apples, pears, pumpkins and hazelnuts are the stuff of my childhood fall season, along with halloween masks made of plastic that made my face sweat and made seeing even more difficult. Ahhhh, childhood. Can you guess how old I am ? Taking a sharp left from childhood memory lane, I have been transplanted in Coastal Virginia. While apples, pears, pumpkins and hazelnuts still evoke fall for me, I have learned to appreciate peanuts and persimmons that are found in abundance here. Fall is also when I start craving spices, spices that instantly make everything feel cozy; cinnamon, cardamom and ginger.

My first production included hazelnuts, pumpkin, pomegranate, ginger and chai tea. The weather turned chilly and wonderful right on time. I did several batches of caramels and marshmallows as well, so it has been fairly busy. You’d think I would be better about organizing my work/life intersection by now, I mean it has been about a decade. But no, I still have laundry folded in baskets and dishes in the sink. I also need to order labels and boxes and ribbon (oh my). Running a business from home means that you are always, always at work. I am grateful that there are cottage laws here in the commonwealth, don’t get me wrong, the fault is mine and mine alone, well and the puppy. I am also trying to work through some growing pains and market shifts. Can I tackle local delivery in some way? Wholesale and pop ups are killing me, but I still haven’t won the lottery, so no storefront is in my immediate future. I am not really sure why banks don’t hand out cash to high risk “seasonal” businesses, you?

Now it is time for me to take some inventory on the chocolate in stock and see what I need to order. Busy season is upon me, thank goodness.

artisan chocolates

Experimenting, again.

It is crazy how chilly 70° feels after the crazy heat we have had, but it is perfect for hot chocolate. I am trying to see if the shape of a cup has any affect on the aroma and flavor of hot chocolate. I made a super aromatic version with cardamom, (are you surprised?!) cocoa nibs and brown sugar. 

My findings: I swear the shallow wide cup tastes sweeter.

Do you think it matters, or is it a comfort thing?

Here is the recipe (adapted from Alton Brown):

.5 oz cocoa nibs
2 cardamom pods, crushed
8 oz milk
3 oz 70% chocolate
1 oz brown sugar
1 oz water
Pinch of sea salt

Combine nibs, cardamom and milk in a microwaveable container or saucepan. Bring to a simmer and let steep for about half an hour (depends on your taste really).

Combine chocolate, brown sugar, water and salt; either in French press or vessel for immersion blender, or blender.

Reheat milk, strain nibs and pods. Add to chocolate and froth or blend. Super tasty!

artisan chocolates

It’s Fall!

Well, that is what the calendar says. Yesterday, the heat index was 101, so it definitely doesn’t feel like it. I have been gearing up for fall though; getting kinks out of new recipes and brushing off my notebooks of old recipes (I can never leave well enough alone, I am always tinkering.) 

I have been craving cardamom and anise, not together! Last week I spent a few days working on new marshmallow and caramel flavors. I am really lucky to have a few Danish friends locally, so whenever I work with typically Scandinavian flavors, I call on them. I was really excited for the brown butter experiment. Looking back, I am not really sure why I thought it would work, I should have known better. I think it would have to be burnt butter before it would be noticeable. 

This time of year also brings fall and winter weddings, I love the super organized people that are reaching out! Writing up wedding estimates has me back in packaging, which I hate. I would love to hand out chocolates in mason jars, but for some reason it won’t fly. My plan is to keep using what I have for now, hoping for the dream packaging to materialize.

The heat has me completely zapped and unmotivated. I keep tinkering with recipes (which I love to do) but I am not feeling super excited for this season. In fact, I am at the point where I am seriously questioning whether or not to keep doing this. I feel like it shouldn’t be so hard to sell chocolate! Is it the area, is it me? Would it be easier if I lived someplace else? For the first time since we moved back here in 2007, I don’t actually have to be here. Going through divorce, my baby just graduated, there is nothing holding me here. I am not sure what to do, but the apple cider caramels are about to boil over!


artisan chocolates

Hurricane Dorian

I knew the cool weather was too good to be true! At least I got the distillery order taken care of. Today was one of those weird days that had a lot going on. I got rid of cable, I had to have a dead tree taken down and I started prepping for the hurricane. There still seems to be an awful lot of uncertainty with regards to how this thing is tracking, which is unnerving.

Pumpkin spice everything is out already and Thanksgiving as well as Halloween decor has exploded, it’s crazy. I really don’t get a craving for anything pumpkin until Thanksgiving. My fall craving are always apple and pear; apple cake, apple cider, pear tarts, baked pears ( or apples) you could put either of them in just about anything and I am game. The last few years the heat has lasted so far into November that I haven’t really had much of a fall line, which makes me sad. There are so many cozy, warm flavors that pair well with chocolate. I have tried and tried to get a pear chocolate to work, I haven’t been able to accomplish what I imagine, yet. I have been quite successful with apple cider caramels, I am working on a marshmallow with apple cider and molasses right now and it smells divine. Fingers crossed.

I have been working on additional elements for bonbons I have been doing for awhile. I am in to crunchy things right now, so I have brainstorming on how to add a bit of crunch without coating everything. Gluten free products aren’t generally known for their fantastic texture, added to a ganache as a layer can be problematic when it absorbs any moisture. I am envisioning a light, crispy layer to divide flavors or maybe just at the bottom of the bonbon. Lots of chocolatiers are doing something like this, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but I do need to figure out the gluten free twist, in a way that people don’t even realize that it is gluten free.

Looks like a new hurricane update, I should probably get busy. I am guessing there is no water to be had at any of the grocery stores already.

artisan chocolates, chocolates, handcrafted chocolates, home based business, small business, women in business

A New Season

Well, technically not, but this break in the oppressive heat makes it feel like it.  It has been cool long enough to finish a restock for the distillery, which is nice. It is tough not being able to produce steady income in the summer.

I have been listening to so many podcasts in my down time, and reading tons of marketing books, big fun huh? Trying to become really clear on not just what I am doing, but the why. I hope it is normal for the why to change, or evolve.  Sometimes it doesn’t really feel like passion alone is enough. I started this micro business hot on the heals of a move back to the US from Germany. All my kids would be in school full time, so I thought it would be the perfect time to get started. I started really small on purpose. My husband was active duty military which means deployments, training and general uncertainty. I needed something for myself; a way to practive my craft and gain an audience, but be 100% available for my growing boys.  I didn’t dive right into a retail situation for a multitude of reasons: financial resources were unavailable, I wasn’t sure how long I would be here, I have never really loved this area. But, as the boys grew and we didn’t move, I sort of wondered if I missed the window.  When I was first starting the economy was tanking, restaurants were not taking on additional products and people were spending less in general on luxury items; so small it was.

As I kept growing my audience, I started thinking that maybe I could have a future with this. Not just for myself though. My oldest son has an autism spectrum disorder, anyone who knows about young adults on the spectrum knows how few options there are out there for these kids. I thought if I could move into a brick and mortar that I could create a safe space for these kids to get some training and job experience. My sone has helped in numerous ways throughout production. What I find tedious and mind numbing, he enjoys, sometimes. I know he isn’t the only one who needs a stepping stone like this.

Now, I can say with (mostly) confidence, I know what I am doing with chocolate. I am still learning, of course, but my systems and products are set. I can no longer meet demand, which is awesome but… I know I need to expand, machinery, help. I can’t do that from my tiny home based, department of agriculture inspected space. So, during this break I really started investigating what the next steps would need to look like. Let me just say, I had no idea. The business has really been a hobby, I haven’t grown it the way a bsuiness should grow with it’s own identity and credit. It payed for itself, I knew wholesale would never pay me, but I didn’t realize how little I actually knew. The same reasons I didn’t go brick and mortar from the start are still there, but now the economy is chugging right along high rent and all.

So now, I am at a crossroads. In the process of divorce, an adult child with autism with me and all of the fear that that entails. Do I move forward because it is viable, or do I move forward because of all the effort I have already put in to it? Can I actually build something to be of service, can it be here? So many questions in my brain on constant repeat. I don’t have any answers, but I do have some marshmallows to package.

artisan chocolates

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!