Reiko Wada once sold a chocolate shoe for $500. What makes a chocolate shoe worth $500 you ask? In short, stripes on the heel.
It all started when a fellow e-mailed a picture of two of his fiancé’s shoes to Wada, the owner of Chocolatines, a premium chocolate shop based in Schaumburg, Ill. The man was inquiring about how much it would cost to create the two shoes out of chocolate.
One was a simple design, but the other was complex and featured black and white stripes on a very thin heel, which meant Wada would have to create interchanging layers of chocolate and white chocolate while avoiding both a mental and literal meltdown.
In hopes of swaying the potential customer to choose the simpler design, she priced that one at $150, and the striped heel shoe at $500. Her plan backfired when he chose the expensive one though.
“I spent three weeks in July in the cooling room,” she says, explaining how she had to wear special gloves and use a lot of ice to avoid melting the very thin layers. “That was painful. Now, if I don’t want to make it, I will say so up front.”
Of course, her collection of designs indicates she won’t be turning down projects any time soon.
As you walk up to her retail store, nestled in a nondescript business park in the Chicago suburbs, it would be easy to underestimate Chocolatines. And the tagline on Wada’s business cards — “Chocolate Perfections” — would seem like hyperbole, if not for her track record.
Wada specializes in mixing artistic expressions, her Japanese heritage, perfectionism and chocolate to create candy that can fly off the shelves at $55 for a nine-piece box.
Take her Jewel Collection, which features chocolate gems complete with an edible sugar diamond in the center of each one. The chocolates were featured in People magazine a few months ago, and Wada could barely keep up with demand after that.
Since opening her shop in Dec. 2006, her chocolates have been included in gift bags at the Grammy’s, the Oscars, the Emmys, the Golden Globes as well as the Cannes Film Festival. And her admirers include Katie Holmes, Demi Moore and Mark Zuckerberg. She also creates chocolates for hotels, airlines, corporate events, and weddings, as well as for charity events such as fashion shows.
Part of her success is no doubt a result of her ingredient list, which includes items inspired by her Japanese background as well as other international flavors, such as green tea, pink peppercorn, lemon grass and genmai bark, a type of brown rice.
“We always have to keep up with the new products,” she explains.
Her journey into the world of chocolate began in 2001, when she decided to transition from travel agent to chef. After graduating from the French Pastry School at Kendall College, she landed a teaching assistant position there for two terms, however it was an unpaid role.
So, she decided to start selling her own chocolates in 2004, first by making them at her friend’s restaurant in Chicago. She eventually opened up her own store in 2006.
Her plan was to make delicious chocolates that also held their own as works of art.
“Just making the chocolate to eat was not satisfying to me,” Wada explains.
From the looks of her creations, she has succeeded. The most literal example is the collection she did for a recent Oscars event.
Wada created brightly colored chocolates meant to resemble paint and they even included a chocolate easel. The flavors are as inspired as the bright, hand-painted chocolates — red is brandied cranberry, orange is apricot, yellow is honey saffron, light green is muscat wine, green is rosemary and sea salt, indigo is blueberry and violet is merlot.
A 16-piece box inspired by the Oscars collection sells for $45, while a nine-piece box is $26.
Of course, Wada’s chocolate shoes also are a work of art as well. While they don’t usually sell for $500, the starting price of $95 doesn’t exactly make them an impulse item.
No detail goes unnoticed. The colors are meticulously airbrushed or painted on and the candy — made from European chocolate — is delicious. The process requires Wada to pour three to six layers of chocolate for each shoe, with each layer taking about 40 minutes to cool.
The mould is shaped so that the chocolate is thick enough not to break, but thin enough to be realistic. So realistic in fact, that Wada once found herself trying to explain her creation to a health inspector who saw the rows of chocolate high heels in the cooler and accused her of keeping real shoes with the food.
In addition to her shoe collection, she also has created chocolate handbags and chocolate race cars.
Wada also makes chocolate-dipped bacon; chocolate-covered fruit; a selection of bark, including matcha green tea and sesame bark; and brandy cherries, made by soaking hand-picked cherries in brandy for more than eight months.
All her candy is made in her on-site kitchen connected to the retail shop. There, she and her six employees design the creations with help from enrobing machines, a Formech Chocolatier 300 XQ mould making machine and a large cooler.
But selling chocolates in the United States isn’t enough for Wada. Her next market is Japan, specifically the Isetan and Hankyu department stores.
Aside from the logistical nightmare of making chocolate in the United States and shipping it to Japan without it melting — Wada transports it in frozen containers that travel first by train to the West Coast and then by boat for 25 days to Japan — she also has to make nearly all of it for just one season. That means she’s planning to make 22,000 boxes for Valentine’s Day as well as the Japanese White Day celebrated a month later.
With her passion for perfection, Wada creates chocolates that truly have star power, exceeding everyone’s expectations.