By Colleen Cross
Brad Churchill is not afraid to get in your face about chocolate.
Brad Churchill is not afraid to get in your face about chocolate.
|The shop's mainstays are molded chocolate bars. Photos by Brad Churchill
Describing himself both as an “upstart nobody” on Canada’s foodie scene and the “bad boy” of the industry, he won’t rest until he has educated his customers about how their favourite indulgence should taste – and he has freed them from preconceived notions.
A software engineer and dot-com developer by profession, Churchill, owner of Choklat, became obsessed with making high-quality chocolate from scratch in 2005 after learning an expensive box of chocolates he’d purchased was not made by the seller as advertised. What he saw as a dearth of freshly made chocolate in the market (and a lack of integrity in marketing), sparked both a business model and a passion.
He started making chocolate in his kitchen, using friends as test subjects. When he came up with a product they agreed was good, he decided to take it retail. It took three years and some 3,000 hours of research, reading and experimenting to develop his product and his approach, but, in 2008, he opened his first shop in Calgary. A second store soon followed in that city and a third opened in Edmonton this year.
He asks a lot of questions. For example, he wonders, ‘Why can’t the chocolate market be more like the coffee market, which has exploded in recent years with a wealth of options?’ According to Churchill, chocolate is going the way of coffee in that consumers demand it be customized.
EDUCATING PEOPLE AND PALATES
The nuances are processed out in most chocolate, contends Churchill. He has made it his mission to create chocolate that celebrates the cocoa bean like great wine celebrates the grape. His goal is to educate customers about differences in the quality of the chocolate.
“We make single-origin, and in some cases single-plantation, chocolate. The difference is so drastic it’s startling,” reads a quote on the company’s web site, which is full of chocolate facts.
Churchill says that when asked what kind of chocolate they prefer, many people state a preference for dark chocolate. However, it should not be chalky and bitter. The chalkiness comes from astringency.
“We’ve been encouraged to accept these characteristics,” he says, adding that he believes most people want the perceived benefits of dark chocolate along with the taste of milk chocolate.
THE CHOKLAT EXPERIENCE
Chocklat’s mainstays are moulded chocolate bars, and hand-rolled and molded truffles, complemented by fruit and nut bars, cupcakes, brownies, hot chocolate and gift baskets.
|Hand-rolled and molded truffles.|
In the store or on the website, chocolate lovers are faced with an abundance of choice. When ordering a truffle, for example, they’re asked to choose from 25 fillings, among them Espresso Buttercream, Pumpkin Spice and spicy Hot Diggity. That centre will then be dipped in either 70 per cent Dark Choklat or 48 per cent Milk Choklat. It may then be set off with toppings like sprinkles, toasted coconut or Skor toffee bits.
Churchill, who did extensive research before opening, says his modus operandi is to watch customers everywhere he goes to determine what they like and what they actually buy. This helps him choose flavour combinations. For example, he has noticed people gravitate to comfort foods and coffee flavours.
Before opening, he did much testing and provided samples to thousands of people to get their feedback. Although there are no samples in his shops now, he has hit upon a creative and profitable way to take his chocolate to the public. Believing word-of-mouth to be the most powerful form of advertising, Churchill launched a series of tasting events called “Choklat Snobbery 101.”
The idea was to establish himself as a “trusted source” of chocolate expertise by hosting events where customers could sample the wares and up their chocolate IQ. The tastings run as often as four nights a week and can accommodate 10 to 12 people at a cost of $40 each. They have proven popular for special occasions, particularly bachelorette parties.
These sell-out events, which include chocolate education and wine pairings, also provide a way to donate to charity. Churchill can present an event’s worth of tickets to local charities, which then auction off tickets.
“So now it’s a win-win,” says Churchill. “The $400 to $600 would be donated to a non-profit and I get an audience of 10 or 12 captive for two hours. Suddenly that works out a whole lot better than a silent auction item or gift basket.”
He has offered a few workshops, but the logistics of running them from a 1,500-sq.ft. kitchen, as well as food safety considerations, prompted him to put them on hold. He hopes to expand and is designing a new facility with lab and event areas where he can hold chocolate-making, confection-making, caramel and truffle workshops.
Churchill designed his business to be managed hands-off. He set up the roasting, enrobing and other processes, then trains staff to operate them independently.
It’s all about efficiency. He wrote the software system that runs most aspects of his business, including inventory tracking, point-of-sale and credit-card payment functions. The software also helps identify trends. Products are broken down by ingredient; for example, he can see exactly how much amaretto chocolate is required. That helps him streamline his processes and reduce his food waste.
The system is built into a website, which provides employees and customers with user-friendly access. Most of the year, there are one or two employees in each of the three locations, but in the weeks leading up to Christmas and Valentine’s Day, this number may rise to 20 people.
Staff masters the processes quickly and learn to use the equipment easily. But, Churchill says, customer service is the toughest skill to teach. It’s important to relate to and educate customers, and surprisingly few people have those skills.
RAMPING IT UP
His current challenge is finding money to build a larger factory he is designing to house larger processing equipment. The goal is to sell into grocery stores.
“That step is over a million dollars,” he says. As someone who has raised money for a dot-com company in the past, Churchill knows there are significant challenges to raising that amount.
“Buying into a retail venture, such as chocolate, that is very cyclical in nature is not something that is easily sold to investors,” he says. “Even to people who’ve invested in the food industry in the past. They say, ‘If your chocolate is so good, let’s ramp it up and sell it to restaurants wholesale.’ But then you’re making pennies on the pound and that’s far riskier than doing a retail deal. Many investors don’t understand that.”
With so many irons in the fire, Churchill still manages to feel passionate about his products and the comforting experience they offer people.
“My daughter really summed it up when she said, ‘The fancy confections are fine, but when you do a chew-and-show it all looks the same,’” he reflects. “So just focus on taste. And that is so true. The bottom line is a person will buy with their eyes once, but if that product doesn’t live up to their expectations, they will never buy it again!”