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A Chocolate Experience

With culturally inspired chocolates and focus on going green,Entrepreneur's Woman of the Year is taking taste to a new level.

The inspiration to create an entirely new chocolate experience struck Katrina Markoff one day while she was working in her kitchen and experimenting with unusual flavor combinations. Mixing chocolate with coconut milk and curry, she created a batch of decadent truffles that were so delicious she decided to launch a business, Vosges-Haut Chocolat. It's that kind of creativity, along with solid business acumen and a passion for her community, that led Markoff to win the 2007 OPEN from American Express and Entrepreneur magazine Woman of the Year contest.

Markoff launched her specialty gourmet chocolate company from her Chicago apartment in 1998, but her journey started long before. With a zeal for cooking, she attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Markoff found her passion was actually in trying new blends. A cooking mentor advised her to take time to travel the world so she could learn and expand her flavor imagination. "I traveled for the next nine months, studying street food in Southeast Asia and Australia," says Markoff, 34. "There is a much closer connection [between] food and people and land in Third World countries than there is in the U.S."

That connection to people and community is at the heart of Vosges-Haut Chocolat. By using exotic ingredients--from wasabi to anise to ancho chili powder--in her specialty chocolate truffles and other desserts, Markoff enables her customers to taste and experience different parts of the world. "It got to be about much more than just doing interesting flavors with chocolate," she says. "It's about telling a story of a different culture, artist, movement or religion through the medium of chocolate."

When Markoff launched, she pitched her chocolate to a buyer at Neiman Marcus. Despite a lukewarm response, she left some samples with him. The next day, he called and asked for more. He put them in the break room and they were devoured--colleagues excitedly asked where he got them and pressed to have them sold in the store. "That was our first wholesale account out of my apartment," recalls Markoff. Two months later, she opened her first retail store in Chicago's Buck-town neighborhood. Soon after that, she launched a mail order catalog and a website, and the brand really took off.

In 2007, company sales hit almost $12 million. Now Markoff says her challenge is taking the company to the next level. With chocolate boutiques in Chicago, Las Vegas and New York, she recently went global by launching in Japan and is considering opening locations in London.

Locally, however, Markoff is thinking green and focuses on creating a sustainable luxury brand. She already runs her headquarters with 100 percent renewable energies. "But we're shooting for LEED platinum-level certification, which means we'll basically have no waste and be almost 70 percent off the grid," explains Markoff. She's even building a chocolate "temple"--a manufacturing facility that will offer tours and feature an exhibition space for art, an organic rooftop garden and a yoga studio.

All those special touches are de rigueur for the approximately 50 employees of Vosges, who already enjoy a weekly yoga class at the office. "It's really important to have that in a company," says Markoff of those benefits designed to foster an atmosphere of creativity and innovation as well as calm and relaxation. "It says this isn't all about money; there's a lifestyle component to this business."

Making life better is central to Markoff's mission. A passionate traveler, she was moved by stories she read of the unjust treatment of women in Afghanistan. In 2001, she partnered with V-Day, a movement to stop violence against women. Since sponsoring V-Day, Vosges has created special truffle collections and donates 25 percent of their sales to improving conditions for women in Afghanistan, Mexico and even New Orleans.

Honored by being named Woman of the Year, Markoff hopes her company will be a role model to others for sustainability. At the end of the day, though, she credits her team with her company's success. "I have a very strong management team that embraces the need for change," she says. "[Staying] innovative and cutting edge is definitely challenging, but it's exciting at the same time. That's why a lot of people want to work here--because it's a very exciting place, and every individual here has the ability to make change."

This article was originally published in the January 2008 edition of Entrepreneur magazine.

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