I come from a long line of business owners – my mother and father each had their own business; my maternal grandfather was a blacksmith and my grandmother owned a health food store; my paternal grandfather was a farmer. Due to this entrepreneurial family spirit, I’ve long felt that I needed to do something on my own. I suspect this was more for the independence than anything else – I have a bit of a problem with authority.
In the past few years, the urge to start something became more acute. I didn’t want to wait so long that I would no longer have the energy to create a new business. It was vital that the new venture be something that my wife, Marlene, and I could participate in equally. I tried consulting and tossed around a few other ideas like furniture making but none of these provided meaningful work for Marlene.
Marlene has always enjoyed chocolate. During my travels, I would seek out chocolate shops in order to bring home something new or interesting. Some of the chocolate was terrible but several German and French makers were very well received at home. As I often flew through Paris, I knew that I could count on La Maison du Chocolat.
The idea of making chocolate sprang from a visit to Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, Missouri. We had tried Askinosie chocolate previously when our son, Ben, provided us a bar as a present. We were excited when Ben suggested that we visit their chocolate factory. As an engineer, I enjoy seeing factories and learning how things are made.
We were surprised by what we witnessed. The shop is located in an old commercial district of downtown Springfield. Upon entering the shop, the aroma of fresh chocolate hit us immediately. The exposed brick and rough textures surfaces tell you that this is not a typical factory. As you peer through the shop, you notice large, antique machines slowly spinning. The whole shop gives off a “stepped back in time” vibe. We sampled a variety of chocolate bars and purchased a few to take home.
Over the next few days, I could not stop thinking about chocolate. I began to wonder if I too could make chocolate. A quick internet search showed that craft chocolate was indeed a valid opportunity. I casually suggested to Marlene that perhaps we should make chocolate as our new venture. She didn’t pause before replying, “Yes!” This was August 2013.
From that moment on, we have spent nearly every waking hour working on chocolate. Marlene and I met with other chocolate makers, sampled many different chocolates and enrolled in Ecole Chocolat’s Bean-to-Bar chocolate making course. We purchased used equipment from Potomac Chocolate in D.C., ordered beans online and went to work.
We worked out of our home for about 10 months: roasting in our kitchen oven, winnowing and grinding in the basement, tempering by hand on our countertop. We shared our results with our friends and neighbors. The response was extremely positive and we started actively pursuing a location – Findlay Market.
Findlay Market is known as the foodie headquarters of the Greater Cincinnati area. It was our first choice for a storefront. We approached Findlay Market in September 2013. The Market was rehabbing three storefronts on the South side of the Market. It was explained that the demand for the storefronts was high so we would have to compete for the space. Of the three spaces, our preference was 131 W. Elder as it was largest and had a full concrete floor basement. 129 W. Elder was significantly smaller and only had a dirt basement while 133 W. Elder was given to Eli’s Barbeque.
We prepared our business plan with the aid of the Small Business Association office at Northern Kentucky University. The business, marketing and employment plans were submitted to the Market in October. Then we waited, and waited. Marlene and I started to get nervous. Finally, in early December, the Market invited us to come in to talk with them about “alternative plans”. We feared the worst. The meeting started with Marlene and I being presented a lease for 129 W. Elder. Marlene and I were in shock! We had been expecting a rejection with the possibility of a space a few years down the road. Marlene and I looked at each with a “I guess this means ‘Yes’ look”. We signed the lease a few weeks later and started work on finishing out the space.
Up next: How to Build a Chocolate Factory – Our Story Pt. 2.