FEAST invited some of the St. Louis region's most innovative entrepreneurs to discuss the current state of the culinary industry and its future.
After a roundtable discussion, we sat down individually with each Tastemaker to dive into how they approach building and broadening their businesses and find out what advice they have for others entering the food-business fray.
The following is our conversation with Brian Pelletier, owner and chief chocolatier of Kakao Chocolate:
FEAST: How did you get into the chocolate business?
Pelletier: I was in business marketing. I had been doing that for 20 years, and I realized that I wanted to switch careers. I knew that I wanted to create something with my hands, but I didn't know what. And so I just opened myself up to the universe. A friend of mine told me that she had some chocolate equipment, and I bought that from her. She taught me what she knew. I just immersed myself in the whole thing and found something that was a perfect fit for me.
F: Was it an instinctive decision?
P: As soon as she said chocolate equipment, that was all I needed to know.
F: Acting instinctively is difficult for a lot of people. How did you do it?
P: You have to put some parameters around it. ... If you make it really, really wide, then you'll go after everything. You'll chase stuff, and you'll never really be happy because there's this and there's this and there's that. If you make it too narrow, you'll never find it. You'll never find that perfect fit.
F: What was the learning process like for you?
P: It was a lot of fun. I mean, it's chocolate. A lot of what happens with chocolate happens in a molecular level. And I have just enough science background that that makes sense to me. A lot of it was experimentation. A lot of it was just reading about it and figuring out what would work. A lot of it was inspiration from different ingredients, finding something like Lapsang Souchong tea and saying, "Oh, that would be just amazing chocolate."
F: How does your marketing background help your company?
P: I've always known ... that it's not just about what you say; it's [about] what you do. You have to live it. We're not just selling a product. We're not just making people happy with the product. It's creating an experience.
F: You started out selling at farmers' markets. How did you decide on your first location (on Jefferson Ave.), and what has that decision meant for your business?
P: We had some space in a commercial kitchen. We were doing farmers' markets and a little bit of wholesale. ... As we were approaching the end of that lease, I knew that the next stage was to have our own [space]. ... We knew that the next thing we needed to do is open up a retail store so that we could create that experience. The store that we opened on Jefferson [Ave.] really spoke to me when I first saw it because it was painted our colors. Before we even looked at it, they had painted it with our colors. It's an old, old grocery store from the turn of the century that had been completely redone. We wanted a big, open space [so] that people could see all the way to the back. We wanted the tall ceilings. ... We're totally a destination. We wanted people to be able to see that we do it all by hand, that we don't have Lucille Ball machines in there. ... It's very funny that people will call, not having been here, [and] they say, "Do you give tours of your factory?" Yes, we do. Come in anytime that you want and watch us make chocolate.
F: What made you decide it was the right time to open a second location? And how did you choose Maplewood?
P: We choose Maplewood because we already had the experience of the farmers' market right around the corner. We knew we had a customer base in the neighborhood. The other things that had to do with [our choosing] Maplewood were how easy the city was to work with [and] how much they [city officials] went out of their way to invite us here and to make sure that it was an easy process.
F: How did you build your team?
P: Well, the simple answer is that we hire for attitude and train for skill. We can teach people how to do stuff, but you've gotta have somebody that [who] has the right attitude. ... It's more than just loving chocolate. It's more than just loving Kakao. ... You really have to have a passion for it. So the teams that I have in both shops are passionate about what we're doing. They understand the experience. They understand the flavor. They understand the creativity. That's incredibly important.
F: How do you brainstorm innovative ways to get customers to re-engage with a product and have a reason to come back?
P: I ask [my chocolatiers] regularly, "What's your next thing? What's the next thing that you're going to make that we've never made before?" I've done that enough that they're all always thinking about it. And, sometimes, they don't even need me to ask them. It's part of getting the right people.
F: How did you secure relationships with retailers like Straub's and Whole Foods Market?
P: The process with Whole Foods was really, really educational for me. They really helped me a lot. One of their buyers was a customer [of Kakao's], and she loved our product. She had been talking to me for a long time: "I'd love to get you in the store." And I said, "I'm not ready yet. I'm not there. We don't have the production capacity to do that." When I finally said, "OK, I'm ready to talk to you," ... they said, "OK, the packaging that you have is not going to work at all. It's too easy for customers to mess around with." ... We finally arrived at something that was going to work, and then we said, "OK, we're ready to go now." ... but for Whole Foods that meant ... "it's going to take a couple months for us to get ready." ... And so, during one of the busiest times of the year we said, "All right, let's make it happen."
F: What lessons have you learned?
P: I've talked to people ... and I tell them the Chinese proverb is if you chase two rabbits, you won't catch either of them. It's true. You have to commit. ... If you're doing something else, whatever that is, it's going to take away from the energy that you need. But that's OK. I love what I do. I have the best job in the world. I get to work with great people. I get to make people happy.