There's No Business Like the Chocolate Business
Entrepreneur's New Year’s Guide
Chocolate makes us swoon. It arouses our passions and tempts our senses. But some people take this indulgence a step further, transforming their bittersweet enthusiasm into a money-making adventure.
These three very different entrepreneurs reimagined their futures, turning their chocolate-covered dreams into business realities. Here's a look at how they traded their corporate suits for sweet shops.
Ruthie Penn Carliner, 51, Baltimore, Md.
Then: CPA with a master's degree in taxation who spent more than 20 years in a family GMC truck dealership, eventually becoming one of the largest woman-owned dealerships on the East Coast. Sold the dealership after the market soured in 2007.
Now: Owner of The Velvet Chocolatier in Stevenson, Md.
How she got into chocolate: After selling her dealership, Carliner decided to go to culinary school, thinking she might become a dietician. "But I realized I hated hospitals, and I hated telling people what to eat," she says. Around the same time, she took a two-day chocolate making class taught by noted chocolatier Susan Notter, and that was it.
Her chocolate journey: In 2010, she rented a commercial kitchen at a retirement community for $50 a month to begin making her kosher chocolates. Last year, she opened her first stand-alone shop, and an appearance at the Fancy Foods Show in New York City introduced her chocolates to Oprah. Oprah selected Carliner's sea-salt-accented dark chocolate caramel cups as one of her "favorite things of 2011."
Her chocolate education: Additional private lessons from Notter, and classes with Jean-Pierre Wybauw and at the Culinary Institute of America.
Biggest challenge: Keeping perspective. "I had to keep reminding myself that this is chocolate, not cars," Carliner says. "The investment was much more reasonable, and thus the risk. Once I learned to relax, I could enjoy the business in a way that I never enjoyed the automobile business."
Advice for would-be chocolatiers: Start small and then build a demand before investing in a big commercial space or a lot of expensive equipment. "You need to put your resources where they're best spent," Carliner says. "By starting small, you can build your confidence, and it keeps your stress low. If you've put a lot of money in equipment or materials, then your second career that you're trying to make work becomes nothing but stress, and it doesn't work."
What she loves: "It's a happy product, and I love everything about it," Carliner says. "But I also like teaching my four part-time employees about chocolate. They're so much fun to work with, and they're great women."
What's popular: Her caramel cups. "If they're good enough for Oprah, they're good enough for everyone else," Carliner says.
What's next: Chocolate-dipped strawberries for Valentine's Day and a peanut butter sandwich truffle. She's also working on a new peppermint chocolate. "I want to do something like a peppermint patty, but I have to do some more research," she says.
Related: From Home Cooks to Gourmet Startups
Oscar Baile, 66, Newark, Calif.
Then: Civil engineer with a master's in engineering who spent nearly three decades designing hydroelectric plants in South America.
Now: Owner of Landru Chocolates.
How he got into chocolate: While building the third-largest hydroelectric plant in the world in Venezuela, Baile discovered the gourmet chocolates made by Carlos Colmenares. "I started to get interested in making chocolate, so my wife says 'Why don't you learn this?' So I went back to him and asked him 'Could you teach me the business of making chocolates?'" Baile says.
His chocolate journey: In 2003, Baile's last South American contract was cancelled. He didn't want to move from California back to his company's headquarters in Chicago, so he decided to turn his chocolate-making hobby into a business. In 2004, he started Landru Chocolates with the help of his wife, Delanie, and his son, Andrew. They tested each of their chocolates thoroughly, gaining traction in the market before they opened up their shop in 2008. "Carlos told me 'Don't build a store until you decide that you have your final recipe and that recipe is tested so that it will sell,'" Baile says.
In 2010 and 2011, Baile started entering his first chocolate competitions, winning several first- and second-place awards for traditional chocolates, caramels and toffees.
His chocolate education: Additional lessons from Colmenares, as well as chocolate and confectionery technology courses at University of California-Davis and chocolate-making and showpiece courses taught by Ewald Notter at the Notter School of Pastry Arts in Florida.
Biggest challenge: Marketing. When Baile started his business, consultants gave him basic advice to network and join the local chamber of commerce, but that didn't generate sales. So Baile did what any engineer would do: he analyzed his situation and his product. "I concluded that I needed to network with a more diverse group of people, and I needed to cover more territories to improve sales," Baile says. Entering -- and winning -- chocolate-making competitions helped increase his customer base and secure corporate accounts. "We haven't 'made it' yet, but we're on the brink," he says. "The lesson I learned is that nobody is better positioned to market your products than yourself.
Advice for would-be chocolatiers: Never give up. "I never quit," Baile says. "When I was an engineer, out in the field, and a problem came up, I couldn't go back to the office to ask for help. I had to be the solution. It's the same if you are an entrepreneur. If you have a problem, you can't just quit."
What he loves: "Interestingly, it's not the chocolate. It's the process of making it, and I am very passionate about the manufacturing," Baile says. "I also enjoy networking and going to events where I introduce others to my chocolate."
What's popular: Truffles, caramels, toffee and paté de fruits. "We really make a great paté de fruits," he says.
What's next: Concentrating on custom orders and corporate accounts. "Last year was a good year, and this year, I think we will be more successful," Baile says. "We already have a big client lined up, and we're working with another promotional company."
Related: Start a Business for Under $500
Gail Ambrosius, 52, Madison, Wisc.
Then: Mapmaker for the State of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for a decade.
Now: Owner of Gail Ambrosius Chocolates.
How she got into chocolate: One of 10 children growing up on a dairy farm in Seymour, Wisc., Ambrosius learned that the best way to get attention from her mother was to help her cook. "Chocolate was always something I wanted to do, ever since I was a kid, but everyone convinced me that 'Oh, you'll never make any money making chocolate. Why don't you get a stable job at the state?'" Ambrosius says.
Her chocolate journey: State budget cuts led to Ambrosius being laid off in 2003. "That was the kick in the pants I needed," she says. She spent the next year taking business classes and developing a business plan, and started making chocolates two days a week using a restaurant kitchen when the restaurant was closed. She took 10 boxes of her chocolate to stores around Madison. "Nine people said 'Yes, I'll try this,' so I had clients right out of the gate," Ambrosius says.
In 2005, she rented the smallest space she could afford -- 600 square feet -- but she outgrew it in 2007 and moved into a shop four times the size. Today, her chocolates are sold at gourmet shops and food cooperatives throughout the Midwest.
Her chocolate education: Classes at Valrhona Chocolate in Paris.
Biggest challenge: The whole undertaking was a challenge. "Each day was a challenge, and it was much hard work but I reminded myself each day that hard work pays off," Ambrosius says. "We are the only ones who can make things happen, nothing is handed to you. Working hard at the business each day and slowly seeing the rewards was extremely satisfying. Putting my son through school, seeing him flourish was the reward. Perseverance and trust in yourself and others is key."
Her advice to would-be chocolatiers: Make sure you have the stamina for the physical labor involved in making chocolates. The summer before Ambrosius started making chocolates, she took a job at a bakery. "I had worked in a lot of restaurants before college, but it had been over 20 years since I had been in the food industry," Ambrosius says. "I wanted to make sure I still had it in me and that I still enjoyed that fast pace. And boy, do I love it."
What she loves: Visiting the farmers who grow her cacao in Central and South America. "I've made some really good friends in Costa Rica, and a few years ago, I taught the wives of the farmers a workshop on how to make chocolate," Ambrosius says. "They've recently emailed me, and they want me to come back. That makes me proud and happy."
What's popular: Her once-a-month chocolate-tasting classes. And for Valentine's Day, she's doing a cherry bounce chocolate, made with hand-harvested cherries from a friend. "It's like a cherry cordial you get at the drugstore, only so much better," Ambrosius says.
What's next: Growing her business and expanding her distribution outside of the Midwest with her son, Isaac May. "I was a single parent, and my son was a teenager when I started," Ambrosius says. "One of my goals was that I wanted to make enough money to put my son through college. I'm proud to say he just graduated in December, and he came to me and said 'I would love to work with you and make this a family business.' I can't tell you how happy I am."
Read more: The Sweet Life After Layoff