The Upper Midwest in 1994. The nearest city a modest berg of less than 200,000 people. Cornfields as far as the eye could see.
Not exactly a prime location to open a gourmet chocolate shop-particularly 14 years ago when the idea of paying $20 for a 16-piece box of chocolates could immediately trigger the thought of “rip-off” to those used to buying Snickers three-for-$1.
But then Markus Candinas is not exactly conventional. The U.S.-born, Swiss-trained chocolatier built his operation in the then-nascent village of Verona, Wis., about 10 miles south of the heart of Madison, among what was at the time farmland.
He focused on one product: truffles with cream, caramel, ganache, etc., centers-no chocolate bars, no sugar candies, no gifts or novelties, nothing he didn’t make himself. He tossed aside conventional notions of packaging, eschewing the gold or silver foil that so many consumers associated with gourmet chocolate, for a matte finish, recycled box in which you could see “chunks of newsprint.”
Most importantly, he focused squarely on creating a product he wanted to eat, believing that if he liked the product, others would as well-a sort of “if you build it, they will eat” approach, made all the more apropos by the cornfield setting.
“That’s been the common thread through this whole business. When we worked out our initial designs for the first box, I can’t tell you how many people said, ‘Well, I think it’s really cool, but I don’t think anyone else is going to like it,’” says Candinas. “In the end, I just said, You know what? I like it.”
Turns out enough consumers liked it as well-or, more precisely, liked what was inside, which was after all Candinas’ main goal. Rather than lavish cash on slick marketing, glitzy promotions and a high-profile location, he directed his investment at ingredients and equipment.
“What it really came down to was, do I pay for the expensive address or do I go off the beaten path and focus more on the product? I knew that a big portion of my business was going to be mail order, whether I had a high profile address or not, and I just said, No, I’m going to put my money into the product,” says Candinas.
He was, from the beginning, taking a long-term view, not looking to get rich quick or capitalize on a chocolate fad. The goal has always been to sustain steady growth over the years, not fame or the top of the list of gourmet chocolate revenue generators.
“It’s not flashy, but it’s the kind of business model that you have if you want to be there for the long term,” says Candinas. “No matter what line of work you’re in-whether it’s galvanized nails or food or some sort or a service business-it really matters that you keep your customers happy. Not only will they come back, but they will send other people to you as well. ”
And they apparently will tell opinion makers. Candinas has repeatedly been cited in the media as, alternatively, “best-kept secret” (Consumers Digest, November/ December 1996), one of the top 10 artisanal chocolatiers in the country (USA Today, February 2002), and a “best buy” (from National Public Radio in February 2007 and Consumer Reports for the last three years). Publications from Madison Magazine to the Financial Times of London have hailed Candinas’ truffles as, in the words of Milwaukee Magazine, “world class culinary treasures.”
Much has changed since Candinas began the business: Subdivisions grew up in place of many of those cornfields, he redesigned his box after a successful run with the initial packaging, and he even opened a “proper” retail store across from the State Capitol in downtown Madison.
But a lot has stayed the same as well. The business is extremely focused. The company still only makes truffles (16 varieties), still offers them in five box sizes. The factory outlet and the store are shrines to minimalism, containing little more than a glass case with examples of the different box sizes and a single one opened to show what the product looks like.
It’s a textbook case of success gained through doing one thing well. One might read it as a reaction to Candinas’ first apprenticeship at “this hole in the wall place” in Interlaken, Switzerland, in 1990.
The opportunity was both a blessing and a curse. The business kept a close eye on costs, hiring three apprentices for only two experienced confectioners and giving those trainees much more responsibility than they would normally have at a better-funded confectionery. That meant a lot of opportunities, but also a lot of trial and error figuring things out for himself with little direction.
On top of that, “My boss was the kind of person who, if one person came in every day for one item and no one else cared about that item but that one lady, my boss would still make it,” said Candinas. “We made a lot of really obscure things.”
The problem was that it was impossible to make everything every-day.
“If you happened to buy it the day we made it, it was an amazing product, but after that day, they just weren’t as good,” says Candinas. “All those things helped me understand not only how to make things, but that ingredients and freshness are key.”
Candinas quickly rose through the ranks, becoming executive pastry chef at the oldest confectioner in Bern, Switzerland. But the job was all encompassing and he was looking to come back to the United States and start his own business. He needed time to plan and prepare, so he left for a more 9-to-5 position at another Bern confectioner and plotted his return to Verona.
The cusp of a movement
With so much background in and love for pastries, Candinas was tempted to go into baked goods back in the United States. He drew from the example set by an ambitious coffee house chain that was beginning to change the way people thought about a cup of java. It was the dawn of the Starbucks age and Americans’ tastebuds and views about food and drink were maturing.
“Instead of a 99-cent cup of coffee, people were shelling out for lattes and cappuccinos . . . and we really started to evolve [from a culinary standpoint],” he says.
Candinas saw a parallel for high-end food indulgences and chocolate, fortunately for his many devoted patrons, seemed like an easier sell than pastry.
“If we go back a couple decades to the early ’90s when I was opening up, what was chocolate then?” asks Candinas. “Those boxes you bought in a grocery store, they probably had been sitting there weeks or months. And people would take them home and keep them there for a few more weeks or months, and they’d be just the same. They’d be exactly what they were supposed to be.
“But really fine chocolate shouldn’t be sitting on a store shelf for months on end. Really fine chocolate is going to have a shorter shelf life . . . Once you start adding fresh cream and butter the shelf life just goes down.”
With really fine pastry, that shelf life is even lower. Getting consumers to buy fresh pastry and eat it quickly was just not going to happen, he says.
“Whereas chocolate, convincing people that they have to eat it within 10 days, it was a stretch but it seemed doable, certainly more so than convincing people that they had to eat these pastries the same day,” Candinas says.
In either case, it required some consumer education, getting people to change the way they think about food. Starbucks showed Candinas that he had a willing audience, but he had to do that convincing. He thought the best way was to let the product do the teaching.
“If you do eat [one of our truffles] right away, you’re going to notice there’s a different taste-and a different price, that’s true, but if you eat it right away and it’s done right, you’re going to notice where that extra money is going,” he says.
“The whole idea of food and what we eat is changing. People are willing to go into a small chocolate shop and pay more for fine chocolates now. Will they come back if the chocolates aren’t that fine? I say no . . . If you’re going to charge more and expect people to keep coming back, you’ve got to give them something more,” Candinas adds.
Not overdoing it
Candinas questions both the recent trend to throw everything and the kitchen sink into a fine chocolate (“Why? It might sound good to have this ingredient in there, but what does it do to taste?” he asks.) and attempts to capitalize on certain health aspects (“Is it new that chocolate has antioxidants? That’s not new,” he says.) as so much propaganda that distracts from the main point, which is simple, straightforward good tastes.
“We’re great marketers here in the U.S., but we do sometimes take things to extreme,” he says.
Too many food products have strayed from what they are supposed to be. Candinas gives the example of a crepe shop he recently visited in San Francisco. The restaurant stuffs the delicate pancakes with jam until it’s packed like a Chipotle burrito.
In European cities, you buy a crepe and it’s just the crepe, with maybe a thin layer of Nutella and a couple slices of banana, says Candinas.
“As you watch them make it, you feel like you’re getting cheated, but then when you eat it, you go, ‘Geez, a few simple flavors and I’m satiated.’ It’s so simple, but it’s so delicious,” he says.
His Web site takes a swipe at the all-flash, little-substance chocolatiers on the market today, emphasizing Candinas’ “dedication toward the finest confections . . . without resorting to artifice and gimmickry.”
“If I was coming back from Europe today, would I open a chocolate shop?” he asks. “No. Everybody and their dogs are opening chocolate shops.”
His next project might not even be in the chocolate realm but rather food products that have been buzzing around his head for the past two decades, products he says that aren’t even necessarily high-end: “Stuff people will eat everyday-not expensive, just done better,” he says.
What that will mean for the future of Candinas Chocolatier is unknown.
“I’m just happy to continue doing the product I like to do and continuing to grow the business,” he says.