Interview with Lauren Adler, Chocolopolis Founder Part II

March 18, 2011

This is the second part of an interview with Chocolopolis' founder, Lauren Adler. View part one here

Asked where she sees the store going in the near future, Chocolopolis founder Lauren Adler is quick to respond.  “I don’t think of it as where I see the store going, but where the brand would go.  I’m building a brand, not just a store.”  The brand that Lauren Adler envisions is one of quality and community – an environment where people can not only be assured they will find the very best chocolates, but where they can also learn about fine chocolate in the same way that people go to their favorite wine store –and attend their tastings – so that they can learn more about wine. 

“There are many parallels between chocolate and wine,” she notes, “or scotch or coffee or any product that is classified by origin.”  She shows how the shelves at Chocolopolis are divided according to the origin of the chocolate – one shelf for chocolates from South America, another from West Africa, a third from her favorite region – the African island of Madagascar.  “We broke it up by origin, but it could have been by type.  But that would have been a very imperfect system because pretty much anything crossed between a Criollo and a Forastero is called Trinitario so that doesn’t tell you much.” 

And it’s that ease with which she rattles off the three principle types of cacao beans – Criollo, Forastero and Tribitario (a hybrid of the exquisite Criollo and the robust Forastero) – that shows she may well be on to something when it comes to educating people about chocolate.  “This [way of organizing the shelves] means something to people, they can relate to it. I really love figuring out how do you organize information for people to make it informative.  People who are really into wine, scotch, or coffee, can appreciate learning about chocolate in this same way.  People’s palates can be educated.”  And so, too, can their social sensibilities, she explains. 

Learning about chocolate, she points out, leads to learning about other cultures and countries. “It sparks conversation,” she says with excitement.  “And a lot of people don’t know that countries like Venezuela and Columbia don’t just produce oil, but they produce cacoa, too. When we get people in here from Venezuela or Columbia, they get really excited.  I mean, they know their countries produce cacoa, but they don’t find many people here who know that, so they’re excited to see their chocolate in our store.” 

But Chocolopolis is more than a store, as Ms. Adler embarks on her mission to educate our chocolate palates.  “I do a lot of private tasting events and before I begin, I see if people like dark or milk so that I have a feel for what they like.  I use mostly dark chocolate for tastings and maybe have only one milk chocolate.  So if they’re used to milk chocolates and haven’t tried many darks, I make sure they try some dark chocolate from Madagascar, because it’s more fruity.  Less bitter,” she explains, adding “I don’t like bitter.” 

What does she like?  Which of these two hundred plus bars is her favorite?  She doesn’t hesitate a moment, but jumps from her seat and points to the Venezuelan section.  The one she’s thinking of is no longer available, except in her private stock – like a wine connoisseur, she has held back the best.  But she points to its shabby sister, a 2008 Valrhona, at nearly ten dollars a bar.  “The Valhrona Chuao, 2002 vintage,” she prattles off the label as if it were a ’61 Chateau Margeaux.  “It has that bread, butter and jam flavor profile, with licoricey notes. One of my all time favorites.”  

Then she moves to the Malagasy section, and points to the Patric 70% bar from Madagascar as another one of her favorites.  “It’s really tart, citrusy, but usually too much for people just learning.”  

“And my favorite inclusion bar is the Valrhona Manjari Orange . . . . like an adult candy bar,” she explains, with just a touch of the naughty in her voice as she confesses to the guilty pleasures of – say what?  Candy?  Ah, yes.  But then she corrects herself and points to the Chocolopolis Fruit and Nut Bark – “No, this is my favorite inclusion bar,” she declares with the smile of a proud mother, holding the dark chocolate Chocolopolis bar rich with blueberries, cherries, hazelnuts and sea salt.  “We experiment and taste everything we make until we get it right, and this one is perfect.” 

Is there any food she loves more than chocolate?  She ponders the question, but only for a moment, before saying with conviction, “The thing I crave is baked goods.  And good smoked salmon on a boiled New York bagel.  With belly lox, not Nova.”  It looks like there will be plenty of belly lox in store for Lauren Adler, now that Chocolopolis is growing.  With requests for franchises all the way from Detroit to Mumbai, a vision, a niche and a passion, she has everything in place to do for chocolate what Howard Schultz did for coffee.  How does it feel to be living her passion, hanging out with chocolate makers and teaching people to be chocolate eaters? 

 “This is a lot of fun.  I’ve had a lot of jobs where I could work hard,” she says, commenting on her early days as an investment banker where she learned to take on a lot of responsibility at the last minute and to get things done.  But with the rising price of cacao, what does she foresee for the future of chocolate? 

 “The premium chocolate market has just been spiking up,” she concedes, “But this is the first time someone’s asked me this question and I haven’t known the answer.”  Still, she’s confident that the market for premium chocolate will grow.  “Quality is defined as $8.00 a pound and up, but quality is not just about price.  It’s about so much more than that, and I want to educate people about chocolate.” 

She just may be on to something – just as Schultz took Starbucks celestial in the early 90’s when the price for coffee was skyrocketing and wages were falling, now may be the perfect time for educating people about an affordable – and surprisingly healthy – luxury.  For the price of a glass of good wine, anyone can take home a premium chocolate bar – and with more and more people staying – and entertaining – at home, chocolate parties are all the rage.  And a demonstrated knowledge of chocolate is fast becoming a marker of a true connoisseur in the same way it once was for wine or single-malt scotch.  Chocolate, it turns out, is not just the poor man’s glamour food, but the rich woman’s as well. 

But behind the glamour of chocolate lies a lot of hard work. “There’s no such thing as a typical day,” Ms. Adler notes, pointing to the glass door with its handpainted Chocolopolis sign.  “Just yesterday I was painting that window,” and she rattles off a list of other things she does, from doing all her own social networking with blogging, Twitter and Facebook, to “finding new products, forecasting inventories, trying to do the buying, make sure we have the right thing at the right time,” she mumbles a few other tasks, “accounting, bookkeeping, dealing with solicitors,” and up to half a dozen requests for charitable contributions each day.  

How does all that hard work compare to banker’s hours?  “I’m having a ball!” she concludes, as she answers another call and readies the display cases for opening.  And clearly she is, and so too are all her customers who find that walking through the doors of Chocolopolis is part culinary adventure and part geo-political lesson.  But most of all, a visit to Chocolopolis feels like being a kid set free in a candy store.  Oops, scratch that, as Willy Wonka would say.  Chocolate store!  Where, as Willy Wonka did also say, you can eat almost anything . . .