For Rebecca Grant, the path to success has been as smooth as one of her award-winning chocolates. Fresh out of business school, the Culinary Arts grad has molded her passion for artisanal chocolate into a small but thriving operation, winning national and international recognition for her inventive approach to combining sweet and savoury ingredients.
Now the 28-year-old entrepreneur has some stickier decisions to make, including how to capitalize on her success so far and potentially expand her popular business while maintaining the creative, small-batch approach that has made her one of the country’s most acclaimed chocolatiers.
The Violet Chocolate Company, a business Grant started while still in school, is just past its first full year of operation since she graduated – a year in which three of Grant’s hand-made-in-Edmonton bars won awards (a gold and two bronzes) at the prestigious International Chocolate Awards in London.
Grant’s company was one of only two Canadian businesses to win a gold medal at the awards, which attracted about 950 different products from around the world, all of which were already award winners in their own regional chocolate competitions.
“You look at the list of [winning] companies and they’re well-established European chocolatiers who have been around for years and really know what they’re doing – and you see your name in there and think, ‘That can’t be right,’” says Grant (Culinary Arts ’08, Management ’13, Marketing ’14).
“It really validates that I’m doing the right thing and have what it takes to make it a success,” she adds.
That Grant has the right stuff when it comes to chocolate was already evident from her showing at the Canadian chocolate awards last October, when 10 of the 12 chocolates she submitted won awards.
“It was unbelievable,” she says. “That was the most awards anyone in the competition won.”
Grant’s creative fervour is tempered by her business education – hence her plan to first test the market for a future retail space by setting up temporary, pop-up shops as a next step.
Currently, she sells at farmers markets, online and through other retailers such as gift, flower and specialty food shops. She also does custom orders for weddings and other occasions, makes diabetic chocolate and creates mint chocolate replicas of the Alberta Legislature building, sold in the legislature gift shop.
She’ll even sell by appointment from the southwest-Edmonton townhouse she uses as a commercial production facility.
“I do want to be realistic,” she says of her business plans. “Is Edmonton ready for another boutique chocolatier, stand-alone shop? I do want to have a retail space but I don’t want to push it if it doesn’t feel like it’s the right time.”
Jacek Chocolate Boutique and Sweet Lollapalooza, for example, are two popular local shops but each of those has found a slightly different niche, she says, with Jacek focusing more on elegant truffles and Sweet Lollapalooza offering chocolates and other confections.
"I’m not about mass-producing extravagant amounts of chocolate”
For now, Grant continues to make small-batch specialty chocolate, tempering it by hand on a big marble slab after melting it first on a double boiler.
A tempering machine would speed up the process and allow her to produce more chocolate, she acknowledges, but she wants to maintain her artisanal process.
“My philosophy is that anyone can buy a tempering machine, turn it on and pour chocolate into it and have perfectly tempered chocolate but then you’re losing the art of what being a real chocolatier is,” says Grant.
“I want to provide the freshest product I can. I’m not about mass-producing extravagant amounts of chocolate.”
Sure, it’s messier, and sometimes by day’s end she feels coated in a head-to-toe layer of greasy cocoa butter. But that, too, is part of the art, and the tactile pleasure. “I have fun making them and eating chocolate should make you happy, so I try to come up with stuff that’s going to increase that experience.”
Grant’s own chocolate experience began after graduating from Culinary Arts. She trained with a friend who worked for local chocolatier Kerstin Roos, then returned to NAIT to study business with an eye to opening her own shop.
But when Roos decided to sell the business and move to Germany, Grant knew the opportunity to buy her equipment and start her own chocolate company was too good to pass up, even though she was still in school.
The result was an on-the-job education like no other, mixing school assignments with real-life entrepreneurial lessons.
“My instructors were great because they all knew I was starting a business, so any project that could relate in any manner to what I was doing, they let me use my company for,” she says. “Each step I was in at school fit with where I was in the business so it really helped me create a stable foundation.”
Standing out in the small but growing artisanal chocolate market in Edmonton wasn’t difficult for Grant because of her unique – some might say weird – approach to flavours, she says.
Habanero peppers and candied hibiscus flowers, raspberry-pepper-lime, and berries with Pop Rocks are among the many combinations she’s used. Her Mediterranean chocolate bar includes candied Kalamata olives, sundried tomatoes and Italian seasoning; another dark chocolate bar is embedded with salt and vinegar chips.
Stranger still was her caramelized onion truffle, among a line of savoury truffles she produced last summer that included sweet potato and Saskatoon berry-tarragon.
Her international-award-winning chocolates included a honey-rosemary milk chocolate bar, a pumpkin-chai caramelized white chocolate bar and a rose-mint dark chocolate bar.
“I think my culinary background gives me the palate to be able to pull off the weirder flavours,” she says. “I like the challenge of finding a flavour that you don’t think would ever go with chocolate and making it work.” Lemon and dill, for example, is a flavour combination that required a fair bit of experimentation but resulted in a bar that won a Canadian chocolate award.
Certainly local chocolate lovers, whether at farmers markets or at high-end specialty shops, appreciate her attention to quality and flavour, she says.
“People realize one of my $5 chocolate bars is not me selling you a Snickers and just upping the price ridiculously high,” she says with a laugh.
“Edmonton’s come a long way in what people consider fine food and what they’re willing to spend money on foodwise. When I first started culinary school, I don’t know how receptive Edmonton would have been to specialty chocolate.”
Clayton Folkers (Cook ‘79), an internationally acclaimed pastry chef and instructor in NAIT’s Culinary Arts program, says the shift is part of a larger food trend, fuelled by people’s exposure to more and better products through travel and the Internet.
“It’s that whole rediscovery of good-quality product,” he says. “We had this huge shift away to industrial plants in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Now we’re seeing the resurgence of these smaller, niche-market items, whether it’s chocolates or breads or specialty pastry shops.”
Folkers says there’s no reason why a talented, small producer like Grant can’t compete with international heavyweights. “Creativity isn’t based on location,” he says.
Grant is also benefiting from a market interested in supporting local producers, and connecting with community, says JR Shaw School of Business marketing instructor Teresa Sturgess (Business Administration - Marketing ‘83), who taught Grant, and is one of her products’ many fans. “She has the ability to provide a really fabulous customer experience.”
“Creativity isn’t based on location”
But balancing an artisanal approach and small-batch production with the need to be profitable and potentially grow is not easy, she adds.
“You have to reach some point of scale; you still need some kind of volume to cover your fixed costs or it becomes just a subsidized hobby.”
In order to supply larger retailers, small producers like Grant need to increase capacity with controlled growth, says Sturgess, an approach Grant seems to have embraced.
She has already hired a part-time staffer to help with packaging and will likely bring in someone soon to help with production. Her chocolate offerings continue to expand, growing from her original line of 10 flavours to almost 20 now, plus a monthly special: a “Violet Edition” that is limited to 100 bars. A line of larger, 80-gram bars is in the works (her current bars are 36 grams) along with a new product, chocolate-covered nuts.
While she has no shortage of ideas for products, packaging and marketing, Grant is also realistic about how much she can take on, and how quickly. At her busiest, she can make 850 chocolate bars a day by herself but she knows that pace isn’t sustainable without help.
For now, she’s content to experiment as an artist and grow cautiously as a business person. “I’m just getting into my rhythm out of school with how much I can produce,” she says. “I think I’ll just see where the flow goes.”