You’d think that the best part about working in chocolate is, well, the chocolate. But in fact, it’s the people.
I first met Lauren Adler in 2009. I was in Seattle for the inaugural International Food Bloggers Conference and she was on a panel at the conference. The panel may have been about specialty food products; honestly, I can’t remember.
With some people, you have to get used to each other. And with others, you just click. Well, Lauren and I clicked, and since then, we have tasted much chocolate together, traded industry tidbits and laughed at the antics of her dog Toby.
I make a point of stopping by her store each time I’m in Seattle, and not just because I enjoy her company. Chocolopolis has a great chocolate selection and wonderful staff, and they make a mean drinking chocolate. Sidle up to the bar with one and watch the world go by. I’d go so far as to say that Chocolopolis’s drinking chocolate makes Seattle’s wet winters tolerable.
Also: Chocolopolis has a Kickstarter project! Help them raise money to amp up their packaging so they can take over the world with their chocolatey awesomeness.
Without further ado, here’s a look at my conversation with Lauren from the 2012 Northwest Chocolate Festival.
What is Chocolopolis known for?
We’re a chocolate retail store in Seattle, and also have an online store at www.chocolopolis.com. We help customers discover a world of chocolate. We have a very large collection of artisan, craft bean-to-bar chocolate, arranged by cacao origin. We also do confections, both our own and from other chocolatiers from around the country, and we make drinking chocolate by the cup.
We help customers find wonderful chocolate and educate them, help them understand a number of things. One, why they’re paying so much more for really good chocolate. Two, to help them find chocolate. And three, to help develop their palates. We do a lot of events that are educational. For us, our mission really is to educate people and change their palates for good chocolate.
What’s your role at Chocolopolis?
I’m the chief chocophile. It was originally chief chocoholic but I thought, “wait a minute. It’s about quality, not quantity.” My own palate has changed so much. I was a Hershey’s milk chocolate eater my whole life, I admit it, and I didn’t think I liked dark chocolate. And then I had a bar of Bonnat Madagascar and was absolutely blown away. I don’t like bitter tastes, I don’t drink coffee, I don’t tend to like heavy roasting and I think the dark chocolate I had was your classic, bitter, heavy-roast chocolate that just was not pleasing to me.
When I found that Bonnat Madagascar bar with the red fruit and citrus notes, the smooth creaminess, I just loved it. So I started eating good dark chocolate, but I still also ate a lot of good milk chocolate and I thought, “I don’t know if I’m ever going to like dark chocolate as much as milk chocolate.”
I think the really interesting part for me is that I quickly evolved. Over the last four years since opening the store, I will still eat milk chocolate but honestly, I prefer dark. I eat mostly dark chocolate and I never thought I’d say that, so that’s been pretty cool.
How did you come to chocolate?
In kind of a roundabout way. I love specialty food and I love chocolate, and I actually love the business of retail and I love education. So I think maybe chocolate found me.
I wanted to open a specialty food retail store. I have a business background and chocolate was one of the things I was considering and I thought well, “I should research this.” I started reading books; I read Mort Rosenblum’s book, I read Chloe [Doutre-Roussel]’s book. I read The True History of Chocolate twice. That’s a tome and I’m very proud of that fact.
I think it came together when I found that I had this palate that loved dark chocolate. I really loved the history, farming, agriculture, production, education pieces of it. I think in some respect I’m a frustrated teacher. I really like thinking about how to organize information in a way that’s meaningful to people.
Along those lines I thought, “people will walk in the store and they’re not going to know what this chocolate is and why they’re paying $8-9 for it.” So we help them understand why, and we do it by arranging the bars by origin. We have our Madagascar section; there are French, American and Italian chocolate makers in it, but in those bars they’re all using cacao from Madagascar.
And of course we make sure our team is really, really well trained because I don’t want to be like the wine industry. Honestly, [the wine industry] is very intimidating. I don’t want chocolate to be intimidating. I don’t think it should be. I think it should be fun. But I do want people to understand it and take it more seriously. So you can walk into our store and maybe it’s a bit intimidating at first, but hopefully my team tries to help people find something and make it more approachable. When customers learn what they like, then it’s no longer intimidating and we’ve made it simpler for them.
Over the four years we’ve been open it’s been really fun. We’ve gotten a lot of regulars and we’ve started to see people’s palates change. And actually, some of the bars we brought in originally, which are very nice bars of chocolate—not as interesting but at a lower price point—we’re now realizing we can sort of get rid of those, because no one’s buying them anymore. It’s been really fun to watch people’s tastes evolve.
What’s the best part of your job?
Eating the chocolate! [laughs] I think it’s every part of it. I mean, I love coming to events like this [the Northwest Chocolate Festival] and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association because I really love the people that I get to meet.
There are so many interesting people in the world of chocolate. There are so many chocolate makers who are in it because they’re passionate. If they’re in it to make money, they’re not going to. [laughs] They might, but you don’t get into it for the money, you get into it for the passion. I feel like there’s a lot of people in it because they’re passionate about it too, and it’s really fun to come and meet all of them and geek out about it.
I love teaching the customers, I love tasting the chocolate, I love my team. I love managing a team and just having a business that feels like a family. So it really is every piece of it that I love.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
It’s really hard running a small business. It’s been four years and it’s been very hard. It’s like you love this business you’re in and you’re doing so many things that you love, and yet there’s the stress financially but also of doing everything yourself.
I’m doing bookkeeping and accounting, the ordering, the tasting classes, you know, it’s everything. I do everything. I have a great team but everything else they’re not working on, I’m working on. I think one of the biggest challenges is that we have a great product and experience to offer customers, but it’s really hard to get the word out because you don’t have the finances to get a PR company. You’re sitting there doing everything, including the social media, and that’s great when you have time. When you don’t have time, you’re not always on social media, you’re not blogging as often as you should be. I think it’s frustrating because you want everybody to love your store and come running in, and when you have limited resources it’s really hard to get that.
What would you do if you weren’t in chocolate?
You know, if you’d asked me that question 10 years ago, what I would do if I wasn’t in whatever I was doing, I probably could have thought of five other things. But right now, I can’t think of anything else because I love this. And I hope I can be in it for a long time because hopefully when the store is a great success, I can go travel to all these cacao-producing countries. I’ve met so many interesting people I can go visit.[Chocolate has] the politics and international affairs and all that…I grew up in Washington, DC, and I find that stuff fascinating. It’s got the whole genetics thing. There’s so many things to get your head around and then the relationships [with other in the industry]. I can’t imagine being in anything else and I hope I’m always able to be in chocolate.