May 1, 2007
Ultra-premium Chocolate Headlines at Newsstand
Adam Smith sells chocolate as if it were fine wine, speaking of products in terms of their “fruit notes,” “complexity” and “flavor profiles.” He even describes members of his sales staff as “chocolate sommeliers.”
It’s pretty lofty talk for a newsstand proprietor. But then Smith’s magazine shop, Fog City News, is hardly a traditional newsstand. The eight-year-old establishment in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district is an unusual hybrid: part magazine shop, part purveyor of ultra-premium chocolate. Magazines and chocolate bars cohabit on elegant, custom-made oak shelving.
Fog City News sells 250 upscale chocolate bar brands. It’s a continually evolving assortment that Smith and his staff decide upon via an ongoing process of evaluating new offerings and entering assessments into a database. To date, he’s sampled and prepared tasting notes on more than 2,000 chocolate bars.
Given his passion for fine chocolate, it’s hard to believe that a decade or so ago, Smith’s palate was unrefined, and his business objective was simply to open a newsstand that was exceptionally well stocked with foreign and domestic magazines. Initially, he sold mainstream candy brands, along with some hard-to-find merchandise like French cigarettes and imported soft drinks.
Adding upscale, often imported chocolate bars to the mix came about in response to requests from the newsstand’s well-traveled clientele. Today Fog City News is a showcase for imported brands such as Valrhona, Amedei, and Coppeneur as well as for the creations of celebrated U.S. chocolate makers including Fran Bigelow, John Scharffenberger and Gary Guittard.
“People often say, ‘I can’t quite tell if you’re a chocolate store that sells magazines or a magazine store that sells chocolates,” notes Smith, 39, who worked in restaurant management before opening Fog City News. Chocolate accounts for about 45 percent of the retailer’s sales vs. the 5 percent candy represented in the newsstand’s early days. Bars aren’t labeled with prices; nor are shelf talkers used. Most bars are in the $4 to $6 price range, although they go as high as $13.95.
Smith continually pushes his newsstand patrons in the direction of new chocolate experiences. “I really discourage you from having a ‘favorite,’ anything,” Smith observes. “Once you’re locked into a concept, then you stop searching. There is no ‘best’ chocolate.”
To encourage store patrons to embrace his philosophy, Fog City News offers a frequent buyer card or “chocolate passport.” With the purchase of 10 different bars, the 11th one is free.
In addition to the incredible chocolate bar assortment, the shop stocks chocolate gift items for the holiday seasons. The offerings aren’t geared to early-bird shoppers. “Most don’t appear until literally two weeks before the holiday,” says Smith. “We have truffles from local makers with no preservatives and made with heavy cream with a shelf life of literally five days.”
But then Smith doesn’t have the traditional entrepreneurial mindset. Although his shop is profitable, and he is convinced that the world of ultra-premium chocolate is still in its infancy, he has no expansion plans. He’s content to stay focused on connecting one-on-one with both shoppers and chocolate makers.
Much as it is with fine chocolate, sometimes one truly top-notch offering is enough.
— By Mary Ellen Kuhn
— By Mary Ellen Kuhn