SUCCESS IS SWEET, but how much sweeter when it comes from selling sweets? For many of us (at least, many of us here at Business Start-Ups), the ideal business would be one involving chocolate in any form. Bonbons . . . bars . . . slabs . . . chunks . . . huge, glistening vats of rich, creamy, delectable chocolate . . . .
Hmm? Oh--sorry. Where were we?
Ah, yes. On the following pages, you'll meet five entrepreneurs for whom chocolate is not just a source of lip-smacking joy, but a source of income as well. So grab a bar of your favorite brand (milk chocolate, semi-sweet, white or dark?), settle into a comfy chair and read on. Maybe you'll come up with a mouthwatering business idea of your own.
Anyone who has been on the receiving end of more than one box of mass-produced, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts from friends or relatives freshly returned from the Hawaiian islands might come to the conclusion that the last thing this tropical paradise needs is another chocolate producing company.
But it's precisely the desire to outclass the islands' confection factories that led Michael Cummins and Joe DiPaolis to start The Honolulu Chocolate Company. The two opened their first shop as an ordinary sweets-and-coffee cafe, deep in the Manoa Valley, near the University of Hawaii campus, during the summer of 1987.
As his skills as a chocolatier gained more renown, Cummins, who formerly ran bakeries and chocolate shops in San Francisco, pushed the company in a decidedly more fattening direction. Before long, the shop became known for its signature chocolate turtles and hand-dipped macadamia nuts.
"We really take time to make sure they don't look mass-produced," assures Cummins, 39. "You can tell when they come off a conveyor belt."
DiPaolis, 43, a longtime Hawaiian resident who handles the business end of things, wasn't sure what he was getting into at first.
"I thought a chocolate and coffee shop would be harmless," recalls the food-service veteran. "Little did I know, there's a lot involved."
At first, it involved long hours, no salary for more than a year and a tremendous amount of hard work. "We just put everything back into the business," explains Cummins, who adds that, though DiPaolis held on to a salaried position elsewhere, they took out of the chocolate company "only enough to pay our rent and feed ourselves. We knew we were building a business. I've seen too many times where people tried to draw a nice salary too quickly."
Their caution paid off; Cummins and DiPaolis now operate three island stores and 1994 sales topped $1.5 million. In addition to Cummins' own creations, the shops carry imported chocolates that customers request (as long as he deems them suitable for The Honolulu Chocolate Company's seal of approval).
The uphill battle over trying to keep the chocolate from melting in the sweltering Hawaiian heat notwithstanding, both Cummins and DiPaolis enjoy their business because it spreads so much joy. DiPaolis, especially, enjoys "dealing with happy customers all the time, making them feel good. It's an uplifting feeling."
Cummins concurs, adding that chocolate is often more appropriate than traditional wine-and-cheese gift baskets because it's something the whole family can enjoy. "If it's chocolate," he says, "you know it's going to be accepted by everyone."
First, you notice the intricate design. Then your eyes marvel at the delicacy of the lines on such a small surface. As you look closer--can it be true?--you realize that this mah-jongg-tile-sized representation of Elvis is actually made completely out of chocolate!
It all started four years ago as a post-honeymoon brainstorm by Ed and Cher Przelomski of Wilmington, Delaware. Kicking around various business ideas, the pair hit on the idea of doing custom illustration on chocolate--before they even knew whether such an undertaking was feasible.
After talking with both food and art experts and experimenting in laboratories with various formulas, the Przelomskis, now both 43, hit on a combination of screened dark chocolate illustrations on a canvas of white chocolate that, according to Ed, gives one the impression of looking at a scrimshaw rendering on ivory.
With a willing chocolatier on board and the process down (patents are pending), the Przelomskis started producing the treats as an offshoot of The Planning Factory, Cher's well-established corporate meeting and special-event company. She regarded the chocolates, emblazoned with corporate logos, as an intriguing alternative to the usual cap or T-shirt giveaways.
"We had absolutely zip as far as start-up capital," recalls Ed, a trained artist, sculptor and painter with little kitchen experience. But under The Planning Factory's wing, Chocolate Editions made and marketed its first product, a chocolate sampler featuring various historic Delaware sites.
By January of 1994, the Przelomskis had to make "major decisions" about the company's future, and Ed shut down his fine arts studio to devote himself to the project full time, put together a marketing plan and drum up new business.
In addition to the aforementioned Elvis collection_created for the Graceland gift shop (with poses of The King as he appeared in the 1950s, 60s and 70s)--Chocolate Editions collections are also sold at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. The couple is also planning to produce a line of congratulatory "It's a Boy!" and "It's a Girl!" chocolate bars "to replace," as Ed puts it, "that old cigar that everybody's been passing around for generations."
As the company has begun using candy brokers to help with product distribution, Cher expects Chocolate Editions to outpace the event planning side of the business, because of its ability to reach so many markets. The company's 1994 sales of $200,000 mushroomed into $700,000 by the end of 1995.
Pie In The Sky
A chocolate pizza? Sounds crazy, no? But for Beverly Hills, California, chocolatier Judi Kaufman, combining the versatility of a pizza pie with the irresistibility of chocolate seemed only natural.
"I tried to think of America's two favorite foods," explains Kaufman, 51, who in 1989 was looking for a way to expand her then-four-year-old gift basket business, "and chocolate and pizza had a real ring." Besides, she adds, "I wanted to make something with a lot of toppings."
But rest assured, the crew at Kaufman's Grand Chocolate Pizza Inc. is not in the habit of whipping up sausage, chocolate chip and anchovy creations, to be doused with fresh parmesan table-side. Theirs is a conceptual pizza, one with a brownie fudge crust as a base upon which to set a thick, sliceable choco-orgy.
And don't look to Kaufman, a former recipe tester, home economist and cooking-course instructor, to let you wallow in chocoholic guilt. Earlier in her life, Kaufman specialized in what was known as "low cal," which has evolved into today's mantra of "low fat." But before faithful weight-watchers label Kaufman a traitor, she is quick to point out that her switch to a choco-centric lifestyle has actually helped her stay lean and healthy.
"I've struggled with my weight since I was a child," admits Kaufman, who has changed her philosophy from deprivation to moderation and says her current approach--exercising, eating healthy foods and having a "sliver of something" when the mood strikes her (or when tasting is a business necessity), has allowed her to finally get a handle on her weight.
"Working with chocolate and pizza," explains Kaufman, "I never feel deprived."
Neither do Kaufman's contented customers, who bought close to 100,000 pies from her store (and via mail order) in 1995. Since September 1, 1994, even more chocolate lovers have had the chance to experience nirvana as Kaufman stopped making gift baskets and began shipping her chocolate confections to retail markets, high-end department stores, gourmet shops, Hallmark stores and university gift shops.
Grand Chocolate Pizza Inc.'s growth, according to Kaufman, has been "terrifying, but exhilarating." Now, with expandable production facilities in place, she's ready to take on whatever the market throws her way. "I love challenges," she says, "so for me, this has been one of the greatest learning experiences."
Karen Sulkis is a former staff writer for Entrepreneur.
For More Information...
Chocolate Editions Inc., 1704-A Marsh Rd., Wilmington, DE 19810, (302) 479-8406.
Grand Chocolate Pizza Inc., 400 S. Beverly Drive, #214, Beverly Hills, CA 90212,
The Honolulu Chocolate Company, Ward Center, 1200 Ala Moana, Honolulu, HI 96814,