Woman gives up lucrative banking job to seek ‘world chocolate domination’
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.
Choquette owner Sarah Dwyer fills moulds with chocolate from a pastry bag at the kitchen she rents in Montgomery County, Md.