It’s hard to go anywhere in the Pacific Northwest without running into Fran’s Chocolates and their insanely addictive salted caramels. The company is named after founder Fran Bigelow, who started the Seattle company in 1982, far before fine chocolate had made its mark on North America. I caught up with Fran at the 2012 Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle.
What is Fran’s Chocolates known for?
We now have three retail shops, we sell by mail order and we also sell across the country in some wholesale venues.
What we have available in our retail shops are our very fresh truffles, our very perishable items. We make about 26 different bonbons. And we also sell caramels in many venues because they have a longer shelf life than very fresh chocolate truffles. We also do chocolate-covered nuts, and fruits. Right now we have Blenheim apricots from California, which are whole apricots that are pitted, and organic orange peel, and figs which we stuff and dip in chocolate.
There’s a whole range of things. We’re trying to provide that perfect gift for the person who comes in, but also that special treat that responds to that individual for something they can eat on a daily basis. As well as the treats and confections, we also sell bars that are high-percentage cacao.
What’s your role at Fran’s chocolates?
My role right now is president of Fran’s Chocolates. I’m still keeping a lot of things together. My son and daughter both joined the company, 12 and 5 years ago, and that’s been wonderful. They have kept the company growing and so there’s always something more to do. I keep trying to pass along all the things I was doing but the company keeps growing so fast that I’m still involved, day to day and week to week.
At this point it’s just very exciting to see the company getting ready to be passed to the next generation. Their ideas keep us inspiring and keep us innovating with the chocolate. As I look back on it, it’s what we need to keep things moving forward. My belief always was that chocolate should be the featured statement and the flavour that comes through, so you’re doing everything to enhance the chocolate that you’re working with.
Chocolate has evolved so much in the 30 years I’ve been in the business, so you’re constantly looking for these new chocolates and for what they’re doing with these incredible beans because we now have available so many finer blends of chocolate or single-origin or whatever. It’s exciting to be here and in that.
How did you come to chocolate?
Many, many years ago, in 1970, I walked into a chocolate salon in Paris. The smell and the magic just overwhelmed me. It was really something that at that point, I’d never experienced in the United States. I didn’t know chocolate could be like that. [The United States was] a country that tended to use sweetness over the real flavour of chocolate.
I started out trying different recipes because I wanted to bring back that experience and that real pleasure of chocolate. Finally I ended up going through all these recipe books and working with a pastry chef and opening Fran’s in 1982, and that’s always been the goal, is to highlight the true flavour of chocolate.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part is really researching the chocolate, trying recipes, the innovations and all that. I think that’s what’s kept me going all these years. It is finding and tasting all these new chocolates. It’s really exciting.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part is, just as the best part of it is working with my children in the business, it can also be the most challenging. [laughs] Living up to their expectations. It’s a close family business but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It keeps you on your toes. I realize that they’re close to taking everything on and doing things their way. We all have our own opinions but we go in and work it out. It’s a great thing.
What do you do when you’re not making chocolates?
What do I do? I visit my granddaughter, I support my family. I love doing family dinners. I love cooking of all sorts, gardening and flowers. Those kinds of things that have to do with bringing family and friends together and enjoying life.