Innovator at heart
Since opening up a small retail chocolate shop in 1998, Vosges Haut Chocolate’s Katrina Markoff continues to infuse the premium chocolate category with a zest for creativity and flavor.
Call it Katrina Markoff’s chocolate epiphany. Despite popular belief, the woman who convinced the world that exotic ingredients — everything ranging from sweet Indian curry and Ansom Mills grits to dried Kalamata olives and bacon — work well with chocolate, Markoff was not a chocoholic from birth. She actually didn’t become sure of her calling until she bit into truffle beignets at the Place des Vosges in Paris while completing her studies at Le Cordon Bleu.
As she explains in her how-to-make-truffle beignets video, using her Guinness Beer truffles, of course, the combination of fried beignet batter and molten chocolate was simply… “ooah!” It also proved to be the catalyst for her global journey through chocolate.
Since then, Markoff has been one of the leading artisan chocolatiers, trailblazing new flavor experiences in chocolate. By sharing her culinary and travel experiences — in addition to apprenticing with Ferran and Albert Adria at the famed El Bulli restaurant, Markoff spent nine months traveling the globe studying food — she’s revolutionized how consumers and chocolatiers view chocolate making.
It’s essentially “experiential storytelling through chocolate,” she explains. The oft recognized and lauded chocolatier and entrepreneur continues to push her company and herself forward.
On the agenda for 2012: the launch of Wild Ophelia, a new line of chocolate bars meant to bridge the gap between boutique stores and grocery stores; the opening of a new 50,000-sq.-ft., Leed-certified manufacturing, headquarters and chocolate showplace; the harvesting of the first crop of criollo beans planted on 3,000 acres in Belize as part of a long-term Root to Bar initiative; and the completion of a management team charged with helping Markoff take the company to the “next level.”
Any one project could easily overwhelm an ordinary mortal. But for the wildly creative, energetic and inspirational Markoff, it’s part of the wheel of creativity and life.
“Wild Ophelia came about as a response to larger chain stores wanting to carry our line,” explains Markoff. “I didn’t want to put the Vosges brand into those stores because I didn’t believe the consumer was educated enough to pay $7.50 for our bars. I thought those retailers needed to work more on educating the consumer within the premium chocolate category before we do something with them. It did, however, prompt me into thinking about innovating within the premium chocolate category.”
As she points out, aside from the big three — Lindt, Ghirardelli, Godiva — there wasn’t much out there offering a value premium chocolate. It was important to preserve Vosges’ integrity as “a globally minded, artisanal and sensorial brand,” Markoff adds.
At the same time, she saw an opportunity for connecting consumers with the growing sustainable agriculture movement, a way of bridging local farmers with chocolate.
“I wanted to use America as the focus of the brand, exposing consumers to this agricultural movement by introducing them to different seeds, different varietals, different craft processes and different farmers, Markoff says.
Thus, the Wild Ophelia line features all-natural and organic ingredients sourced from small farms and artisans. The flavors are typically Markoffian and uniquely American: Peanut Butter Banana, BBQ Potato Chip, Beef Jerky, Sweet Cherry Pecan, Southern Hibiscus Peach, New Orleans Chili and Hickory Smoked Almond.
Stories of the farmers and purveyors are recounted on the back of each bar. For example, the Southern Hibiscus Peach bar uses Angelus peaches, which are grown in Denair, Calif. “These fragrant, tangy peaches and puckering, tart hibiscus flowers mingle in the Southern tradition of tart and sweet,” is how Wild Ophelia describes the flavor profile.
Even the brand, which is represented by the character Wild Ophelia, conveys a personal connotation for Markoff.
“You don’t really see any brands in chocolate with a female face,” she says. “I was looking for a strong role model for women. Wild Ophelia is a younger, wilder sister of Vosges, of me, who’s louder and more activist about sustainable agriculture. “
The company plans to promote Wild Ophelia this summer using a classic Airstream travel trailer that will be visiting various food and music fairs in the Midwest. The aim is to familiarize consumers with the brand’s values through sampling. Next year, the company looks to realize an animation series featuring Wild Ophelia.
“It’s still evolving, but it’s fun since it’s still in the creative stage and we’re engaged in the process of bringing the pieces together,” Markoff says.
Another project that’s evolving is the recently purchased facility being repurposed on the near Northwest Side of Chicago. Located in a former bakery, the nearly 50,000-sq.-ft. site will quadruple the company’s production capacity. It will also house an exhibition space “focused on the creation process,” a retail space, a restaurant a la “a dark chocolate gastro pub,” an event space, a “lovely garden” and company offices. Naturally, the company will also conduct tours open to the public, whereby consumers will be able to see the chocolate making process.
“We still do a lot of handwork, such as cold infusing tarragon into cream, dehydrating Mandarin oranges to make our Mandarin orange powder or hand painting our mushroom truffles with red dots,” she explains. “Of course, where it doesn’t make sense for us to do handwork, such as wrapping of chocolate bars, we automate.”
Vosges will also install a small cocoa bean processing area in the facility, a first step in gradually shifting toward using its own beans from the company’s 3,000-acre plantation. This year, the company was able to cull its first harvest from earlier planted seedlings. Within three to five years, Markoff hopes to increase that total significantly, eventually supplying the company with a good amount of “home-grown” cocoa beans. These will then be processed in Chicago.
“It’s something I wanted to do for a long time,” Markoff says. As for the bean-to-bar process, she admits, it’s still on a small scale. “But you have to dip your toe into the water, start small. But it’s a start.”
Those initiatives, and there are others, can’t continue, however, without having the right management team in place. Here, too, Markoff’s efforts are a work in progress. Having secured the right individuals to oversee finance and operations, Markoff now looks to solidify sales and marketing posts.
She’s also getting support in research and development from pastry chef Hayley Evans, who manages Vosges’ Beverly Hills’ boutique, which also includes a dedicated lab.
“In California, there’s just an abundance of amazing product,” she says. “There are daily farmer’s markets with fresh ingredients. So we use the lab to play around, dehydrating ingredients, making vegan recipes.”
Although Markoff still continues to create and inspire through recipe creation — “I love to do it and it comes naturally” — she admits it’s refreshing to “open up that umbrella to include others,” which allows brainstorming.
“I’ve been the one doing all the innovation; now we have a think tank,” she says.
Upon finalizing her management team, Markoff believes the company will be positioned to take that next step, which involves growing it from $30 million to $100 million in revenue.
“The actual number isn’t really that important,” she explains. “But I want growth. I want to hit certain targets, to build brand awareness, to be in certain accounts, all the while staying true to my values.”
Those values stress having a true sustainable chocolate operation. As Markoff explains, everything is either renewable, recyclable, organic or all natural. Currently, the company operates on 100% renewable energy. The new facility will boast Leeds certification. Excluding film used for wrapping chocolate bars and ribbons, everything that’s sourced is green, meaning it’s made from recyclable materials or is certified natural or organic. Markoff’s working on getting the film and ribbons green as well.
She sees clean sourcing as the coming trend, one that will eventually evolve into the growth of “patriotic products,” home-grown and processed, but in a high quality manner.
“Everybody’s moving toward quality,” Markoff asserts. “We’re not going back to what was 40 years ago.”
It’s no surprise that the chocolatier believes Vosges is a step ahead of the game. Wild Ophelia is simply one realization of that trend. Expect more.
And expect more flavor fusions, like a smoked bacon caramel bar or an orange carrot bar.
“We actually smoke bananas with mesquite in our smokehouse; the combination is great,” she says. “And I’ve been wanting to do a carrot bar for the last 10 years. I tried doing a gianduja with cumin, which didn’t work out. But this carrot confit in orange juice is great. It’s dehydrated to make it crunchy. Think of carrot cake.”
Think of a true innovator.