As the creator of a chocolate empire, which exceeds sales of $35 million a year, is there a moment in your childhood you can say foreshadowed your success as an innovator?
Yeah, I think so. We lived on the side of a really busy highway so we would have garage sales all the time. When I was only 6 I would run the garage sale and make cakes for it. That was my first enterprising moment where I liked the power of selling and customer service and experience. I had a cake business in high school for two years which was more official but stopped when I went to college.
So once your luxury chocolates were mastered in the kitchen the business side came naturally?
I had a single mom who was an entrepreneur and a big influence. Now I think about that all the time, like, “How the heck could I do that today? That is crazy.” She would always take us to her office while she did work on the weekends and we would help her add up the receipts. She was a pretty irreverent business person. She was working in janitorial supplies and hazardous waste, it was a very male-dominated industry and she had this female energy that I think brought this new energy to the space. She used her femininity to such an advantage and I saw that. She was always telling me that I could do anything I wanted, and, “I can’t do it for you but you can do anything you want.” I think those are powerful words. It just breeds confidence that you can do it and maybe you don’t need the perfect formal training but it’s something that you have in you to not fail, to keep going and being unstoppable no matter what. If you really truly believe in your vision you can be unstoppable.
Biggest mistake you’ve made along the way?
I love mistakes. Some are more hurtful than others. One mistake in the beginning was getting into business with someone because we were friends not because we were strategically aligned or because this person had a certain skill-set that they brought to the company. I think it’s really important to have division of work so it’s very clear what you own. I think my partner wasn’t an entrepreneur at heart so she was always afraid of risk which made it really tense and negative in a way. Finding a good yin to your yang is really, really important. Right now I’m working with a woman as a consultant and I love working with her. She is straight-forward, direct, can say things and get it out. There’s no passive-aggression. I just really click with this woman. We have fun, she’s super whip-smart and does things that I can’t do, yet we’re aligned. It’s a chemistry that’s magical. I would actually trust being a parter with her and I never would have said that before.
Do you keep in touch with your ex-business partner?
No. The friendship is done. It was probably 12 years ago, because I started 16 years ago, so it was awhile ago and it was sad because it was my best friend from grade school.
You started with a tiny store in Chicago and now have boutiques nationwide. What do you consider your big break?
I think probably the big break we had was when Food & Wine ran this huge article on us the day we opened our storefront in Bucktown. The title was like, “This is the new wave of chocolate,” referring to our wasabi chocolate. It’s so interesting looking back because it was such a different marketplace then, at the time there was no flavor innovation with chocolate. I had good timing I guess.
Is there an ingredient you won’t use with chocolate?
Cumin. I just can’t get it to work. Cumin is sort of off-limits. It’s my favorite cooking ingredient though, which is interesting. But I can’t get it to not feel heavy, like mexican in chocolate.
After studying psychology and chemistry at Vanderbilt you got on a plane and headed to Paris to pursue your cooking passion at Le Cordon Bleu. Was packing up to go to culinary school decided on a whim?
Cooking is something I love and so I applied and got in. Three days after graduating I moved there and I fell in love with Paris because it’s such a dreamy place to live, I love it. It’s very bohemian, has a café culture and is beautiful. You just can’t help but be inspired by walking down the streets. In finding the cafés and the fashion and vibe on the streets of Paris I felt unlocked and unleashed.
Did you feel any nervousness or were you confident that you had the skills to become a professional chef?
No, I was nervous. I’m really not a very clean and tidy chef which is typically the way you need to be in the restaurant world, it’s very methodical and I’m extremely grey in my thinking . I was nervous because as I started staging in the different restaurants I was realizing that I’m really not cut out to be a chef. I worked at some amazing places [like El Bulli with Ferran and Albert Adria] and it was kind of a hard reality to come to. I began realizing that I really didn’t have the sort of foundational chemistry as a person to be a strong chef and to be super disciplined. But you have to just honor your path so I thought, “I know that’s not it but I know that there’s something else there.”
When did you realize chocolate was your path?
I moved to Dallas and my uncle had left Neiman Marcus to start a mail-order business and I was helping him a lot with buying product and copywriting. He wanted some great food for fourth quarter to put on the website and I had found that chocolate was a category that was not innovative. There wasn’t anything I would want to eat; tons of preservatives, not natural, no story, no interesting ingredients, just awful. That’s when I came home and I had this necklace on from the Nagaland tribes in India. I don’t know what happened to me but I needed to tell a story about the Nagaland people and I made a curry and coconut milk chocolate truffle. That was the moment that it occurred to use chocolate as a medium for storytelling. That component gives the soul of the product because it’s not just for flavor sake. It’s really a personal experience they had that’s translated into chocolate and I think that’s the soulfulness of the brand that hopefully comes through when you read the stories.
Beyond your career you’re also a wife and mother. How did you meet your husband?
I am married with two kids [a 1-year-old and 4-year-old]! I just don’t always wear rings because I’m always washing my hands and it’s like chocolate, messiness. I met him on the street in Chicago, he’s from New York. He was building out the Cosi restaurant that was here and I was looking for a contractor for our store in The Shops at North Bridge. I walked in and asked, “Are you a contractor?” and he said no. Anyways, we met and we were gonna have him work with us when I was with my partner but it was awkward because it was like too close for comfort. It wasn’t a good relationship so I never called him back. I never talked to him for 3.5 years. One day he called me out of the blue, he was here for the restaurant show or something and we connected.
Why was he the one?
Because he’s like a hero. And I love a hero. I guess I really value the hero trait and I don’t know if that’s the fairy tale girl in me or what but he’s got a very heroic nature. He knows how to get things done in emergency situations and against all odds. I really love that quality. When push comes to shove he really shows up.
Would we ever find you eating chocolate from the drugstore?
No. I really can’t. I can not eat a Hershey’s bar because it’s like sour milk. Way back in the day if I were to pick a chocolate bar to eat it would always be a Mars bar. I will say I appreciate the really crispy wafer of a Kit-Kat. Have you ever had these hazelnut wafer candies from Austria? It’s like a really clean wafer version of a Kit-Kat but with hazelnut, it’s very good.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Oh, that’s so good. I would probably say two people. I would say Erykah Badu and I would say Alexis Swanson Traina. She is a friend from San Francisco and she’s just a free bohemian spirit. It’s great to have a girlfriend like that where you can just cuddle up in a corner and drink fabulous cocktails and have different colored shoes on and it’s all good.
Follow along on Instagram with our friends at Brugal USA for more stories over Brugal Daiquiris as we continue to share a glimpse of Katrina’s life in Chicago.
KIRSTEN MICCOLI /A DRINK WITH at drumBAR
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