Woman gives up lu­cra­tive bank­ing job to seek ‘world choco­late dom­i­na­tion’

The Prince George Citizen - - SPORTS -

Bar­ring an­other not-so-Great Re­ces­sion.”

Dwyer started the business in 2010 with $100,000 she socked away work­ing in bank­ing, where she earned more than $100,000 a year. (The start-up money was di­verted from a planned down pay­ment on a home – one of the costs of en­trepreneur­ship.) She has zero debt, grow­ing the business with most of the profit.

Dwyer grew up in An­napo­lis, Md. She gets her business chops from her fa­ther, “a bril­liant” elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer who ran his own com­pany. She gets her cre­ative/per­sonal side from her mother, a so­cial worker.

Dwyer quit the Univer­sity of Mary­land at Col­lege Park in 1992 af­ter her sopho­more year, fi­nally earn­ing her de­gree in man­age­ment stud­ies 20 years later. She worked for two fi­nan­cial firms for nine years, where she en­joyed suc­cess in train­ing and sales. She spent a year in pas­try school in Paris, then re­turned to the Wash­ing­ton area to be­come a cook.

Af­ter a cou­ple of weeks as an as­sis­tant pas­try chef at the late Citronelle, the ca­reer climb through the kitchen ap­peared steep. “I re­al­ized I should be my own boss,” she said. “I re­al­ized I wanted to be an en­tre­pre­neur.”

Chou­quette grew out of her mid­night ex­per­i­ments with choco­late recipes in the kitchen she shared with her sis­ter.

“I have al­ways loved eat­ing choco­lates,” she said, “get­ting into trou­ble by squish­ing choco­lates in un­marked boxes, try­ing to find choco­late-cov­ered caramels.”

Like all smart en­trepreneurs, she did her re­search, re­fin­ing and ex­pand­ing her recipe. She sam­pled 55 choco­lates at one trade show in At­lantic City. She ze­roed in on two strate­gies for build­ing a business – mak­ing qual­ity caramels and serv­ing the grow­ing de­mand for food gifts in up­scale Wash­ing­ton.

“I didn’t see any­one com­bin­ing in­no­va­tive de­sign with qual­ity caramels,” she said.

She sources her vanilla beans from Mada­gas­car. The sea salt comes from France. About $5,000 worth of choco­late ar­rives every other month from San Fran­cis­cobased Guit­tard.

She in­cor­po­rated the business and be­gan call­ing on stores. Bradley Food & Bev­er­age was her first cus­tomer.

“I walked in and said, ‘You want to try my choco­late?’ They said yes, but you should prob­a­bly fig­ure out how to do an in­voice so we can pay you.”

She grossed $15,000 her first year, and it went from there.

Her em­pha­sis now is grow­ing her brand name, which comes in small bites. The shoe-leather cold calls have been the hard­est part, with some prospects tak­ing years be­fore be­com­ing a reg­u­lar. A New York trade show last month brought in 35 new stores.

“We like them to start with a small or­der, give them lots of sam­ples to get cus­tomers a taste, and most of them have grown their sales with us,” she said.

She has 12 part-time em­ploy­ees and a di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing. The assem­bly line grows dur­ing the fall sea­son and in­creases by 50 per cent in the De­cem­ber party sea­son.

Her re­tail clients in­clude Peri­win­kle, Blue House and Hill’s Kitchen. She also sells per­son­al­ized sten­ciled pieces to cater­ers, non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions and pro­fes­sional busi­nesses in­clud­ing law firms and lob­by­ists. Her big­gest job was an $11,000 or­der for a cor­po­rate event.

There is no fleet of de­liv­ery trucks or trac­tor trail­ers pulling up to the load­ing dock. Em­ploy­ees use their own cars to drop off at lo­cal re­tail­ers and to cor­po­rate cus­tomers. And if some­thing is go­ing out of town, she said, “choco­lates might hitch a ride with my mom go­ing to Philly or my cousins go­ing to the beach.”

When you own a small business, you need to be re­source­ful and do what you’ve got to do. When I called her last Thurs­day with a ques­tion, Dwyer and her chief trou­bleshooter, Nora Barnes, were pack­ing or­ders and wrap­ping rib­bons around the choco­late boxes.

I am not sure which side of the brain was work­ing on that one.

Chou­quette projects up to $450,000 in sales this year, up from less than $300,000 in 2016.

WASH­ING­TON POST PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBIN­SON CHAVEZ

Cho­quette owner Sarah Dwyer fills moulds with choco­late from a pas­try bag at the kitchen she rents in Mont­gomery County, Md.

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