Creating a ‘Chocolate Kingdom’: One man's quest to build a chocolate museum in the U.S.
The Schaked father-and-son team refused to give up on their dream. As such, thousands of visitors can now walk away from their chocolate tour better informed.
Editor's note: Editor-in-Chief Bernie Pacyniak recently went on a trip to Florida, visiting three candy companies while there. "Despite the obvious differences between the companies, all three entities have been fueled by dreams. Norman Love dreamed of opening his own business. Bernie and Edgar Schaked, of the Chocolate Kingdom, had always wanted to provide an educational experience about their one passion: chocolate. And the owners of Grimaldi Candies saw the potential to take Grimaldi Candies beyond retail and into a national wholesaling arena.
What’s more important is that all three have and are realizing their dreams. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how they achieved their goals. Each confectioner offers insights into the business of making and selling chocolates and confections. And each one continues to build upon that success. May all our road trips be so fulfilling."
Upon arriving at the Chocolate Kingdom in Kissimmee, Fla., co-owner Bernie Schaked immediately asked the visitor if he liked the columns. “They’re painted to look like chocolate pretzels,” he explains answering his own question before the guest could respond.
There’s no doubt that Schaked is proud of what he, his son, Edgar, and his daughter-in-law, Aileen, have created in the backyard of Disney World. Ten years in the making, Chocolate Kingdom opened on Jan. 1, 2013 as “the most unique chocolate attraction in the world.”
It’s frothy and heady stuff for the owners of Schakolad Chocolate Factory, a franchising organization that operates 25 chocolate retail shops in the United States and three in Israel. Nonetheless, this 15,000-sq.-ft. museum, entertainment center and working micro-batch chocolate factory had put up some impressive numbers during its first full year of operation: 25,000 visitors.
Moreover, all signs point to attendance doubling this year to 50,000. What’s drawing people to this venue, aside from the ability to purchase some good chocolate? Only by taking a tour does one understand the depth and breadth of this experience, which may be the most detailed, yet easily digestable, explanation of theobroma in the nation.
Vacationers (and there are many of them in the Orlando area) as well as locals have an opportunity to see live cacao trees in a miniature greenhouse, get introduced to an overview of cacao and chocolate in a film, get a personally guided tour of chocolate’s deep history, hurl marshmallows at a five-foot dragon with a miniature catapult, and see bean-to-bar processing equipment.
During this 45-minute reverie, which is cleverly supported by a series of video clips featuring an animated Prince George (the Good Looking) and his sidekick dragon, MeToo, visitors sample candied cocoa nibs, sipping chocolate, milk chocolate-enrobed marshmallows, and dark, white and milk miniature chocolate slippers. Oh yes, those that pay an additional $5 fee, can also create their own chocolate bar, choosing from 16 different inclusions, everything from standard components, such as caramel and peanut butter, to more unusual elements, such as bacon bits and cayenne pepper.
Throw in a 7-ft. chocolate castle, a flowing chocolate river and an in-depth dissertation on where chocolate comes from and how it’s made — it takes 300 cocoa beans to make one lb. of chocolate — and participants come out of this experience more knowledgeable about theobrama than many Food Network hosts and emcees.
There was a time, however, when it looked like the Schakeds were not going to realize their dream. Having purchased land near the existing Chocolate Kingdom in 2004, the father-and-son team began planning a 30,000-sq.ft. tribute to chocolate.
“We were to begin construction in 2008, having finished the plans and received approvals for all the necessary permits,” Edgar explains. “We were just waiting for the bank to finalize the loan.”
And that’s when, as Bernie says, the bank “sniffed” the pending recession coming. The loan was put on hold and the project was delayed. In hindsight, Edgar says the move was fortuitous since such an investment could have been disastrous.
The dream did not, however, die; it merely fermented, developing a deeper resonance and raison d’etre. It was during this time that Edgar and Aileen — accompanied by their two children — took the opportunity to visit existing chocolate museums in Europe, which helped fine-tune their vision of what a chocolate educational experience should be like.
“I remember being at the Chocolate Museum in Cologne, which is huge,” he says. “By the time I reached the second floor, I was exhausted, and I’m the one interested in creating a meaningful chocolate experience.”
The European tour convinced Edgar and Aileen that their Chocolate Kingdom needed to be entertaining as well as informative. That led to the idea of a guided tour as well as the creation of an animated film using characters such as Princess Chocolina, Prince George and MeToo.
As a former Disney producer and entertainment specialist, Aileen has more than a few connections amongst animators.
“My wife came up with the script, using our children, Max and Sophia, as role models for Princess Chocolina and Prince George,” he explains. “I tweaked the script here and there for certain technical aspects.”
The captivating story line begins with suitors looking to win the Princess Chocolina’s hand as she’s about to turn 21. Princes far and wide come bearing gifts, but Prince George feels confident his chocolate shoes will win the day. Unfortunately, MeToo’s sneeze comes with a fiery exhale, which melts the shoes. Only by learning how chocolate is made can the prince recreate his clever gift. The happy ending not only results in miniature chocolate shoes for everyone on the tour, but a new appreciation of where chocolate comes from and how it’s made.
As Bernie explains, “People are amazed about the history and the process. They come up to me and tell me how fascinating the story of chocolate is, and how they never knew how involved making chocolate is.”
Naturally, once the tour is over, visitors have an opportunity to sample a chocolate drink and purchase a broad range of chocolate items, everything from truffles to barks to the candied cocoa nibs that are part of the tour.
“They’ve become quite a hit,” says Bernie, referring to the candied chocolate nibs. The 72-year-old entrepreneur confesses he consumes five beans every morning, which energizes him for the remainder of the day.
Currently using beans from Ghana, the ever-resourceful chocolatier looks to further “familiarize” the Chocolate Kingdom experience by sourcing cocoa beans from Hawaii.
And he has a new product concept that he believes will connect with the thousands of visitors that experience the Chocolate Kingdom: 4All-American.
“When I see what kind of inclusions people put into the chocolate bars that we produce for them at the end of the tour, it comes down to four key ingredients: peanut butter, marshmallows, caramel and pretzels,” Bernie says. “So, I’ve come up with a chocolate bar that includes all four of them.”
It’s important to remember that while the Schakeds are running the Chocolate Kingdom tours, they’re also supervising and supplying their 28 franchisees with chocolate components and support. Using a prototype that Bernie developed when he opened his first chocolate shop in Miami Beach in 1986, each Schakalod Chocolate Factory follows a successful protocol that combines presentation, theatre and freshly made chocolates into a winning formula.
As Bernie emphasizes, it’s not the number of franchisees that’s important. Rather, he stresses the commitment behind the concept, which is to deliver a premium, quality product to the customer. In doing so, Bernie drives home the need for every franchisee to be efficient, which is critical to profitability.
Currently, the company plans to open three franchises this year: Boca Raton, Fla., Brooklyn, N.Y. and Cadillac, Mich. But as both Schakeds affirm, the primary goal revolves around providing consumers with good chocolate and not necessarily selling more franchises.
Moreover, it thrills Bernie to no end when, after 10 years of being part of the Schakolad Factory family, a franchisee determines that he or she wants to go at it on their own.
“That’s part of our agreement, and I’m really proud that I’ve been able to contribute to their success,” says Bernie.
That same kind of satisfaction also comes from operating the Chocolate Kingdom, Edgar asserts.
“It’s really rewarding to see children and adults come away from the tours informed and even more infatuated with chocolate.”
The educational aspect of the tour hasn’t gone unnoticed by school administrators, adds Edgar. Recently he met with the district’s superintendent to discuss how to tailor the tours to meet certain grade levels. As he points out, “We touch so many areas with our tour: agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, history, geography, even physics.”
But it’s not just about reaching kids; the tours are also finding a new niche within the business sector, Edgar says.
“We just received a call about hosting a team-building tour for a company who will be holding their meeting in Orlando,” he says. “They have some free time and thought it would be good for their employees to take the tour and then do some team building using our enrobing machine. We’ll have people feeding product into the enrober on one end, and others will be packaging those items on the other end. It should be a learning and fun experience for all.”
Even magical. How else can one turn concrete columns into chocolate-covered pretzels?