Life in the kitchen is tough, and if 17 years in the culinary industry has taught chef-turned-chocolatier Uzma Sharif anything, it’s that being even tougher is key.
It shows. Sharif herself is pragmatic and knows what she wants and how to get it. It’s all reflected in her store, too. Chocolat Uzma Sharif, located in a converted gallery space in the Chicago Arts District, is designed to showcase Sharif’s point of pride: her packaging.
Natural sunlight fills the space. It’s simple, clean, comfortably open and mostly decorated with wood and dark walls so the chartreuse boxes on the shelves really pop. Sharif’s packaging is a big winner with her clients, she says. “We try to make it colorful, inviting, yet easy for the eyes.”
But the packaging isn’t the only thing that helps Chocolat Uzma Sharif stand out.
“I differentiate myself by using what I grew up with,” she says. In her case, it’s her South Asian culture. As a first-generation American whose family is from Pakistan, her heritage is a big part of Sharif’s life.
“You’re still entrenched, immersed in your culture because of your family,” she says, and she infuses those South Asian influences into her work.
The floral designs on her boxes and in her store are all South Asian, and she likes to add her own twist on chocolate recipes by using ingredients and flavors found in South Asian food: chai, jasmine, mint, coriander, cilantro, pink salt, black salt, rose.
Sharif’s own style of turtles are made with black salt from the Himalayan mountains. “It gives it a nice, almost sulfuric acid-level taste,” she explains.
When Sharif first opened in June 2012 in a district that isn’t known for its retail, she knew the first three years would be the hardest, working 15 or 16 hours a day to build a customer base. But years in the business had prepped her for that.
“I started cooking when I was right out of high school,” she says. “I never did anything else.”
She went to culinary school in Colorado and eventually got the opportunity to be an adjunct faculty member at Chicago’s Triton College’s hospitality department.
“I’m a natural teacher,” says Sharif, who taught for seven years and continues to offer “Chocolate 101” classes in-shop. “It really keeps you on your toes.”
But more than that, she’s always been around cooking. Her grandfather was a pastry chef, working for the Europeans in Pakistan.
“He has seven daughters and all of them always baked,” says Sharif. Even to this day, there’s always something in the oven when she visits her aunts. “So it’s in the genes.”
Knowing the hard work that goes into running a kitchen is no small advantage. Now, almost three years in, Sharif has streamlined her business to focus on what works best and cut her hours down to what she calls “more human hours,” being open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
It’s still not easy. Her business is sustained primarily by walk-in customers, mostly local or from downtown or the South Loop. It means she puts a lot of effort into reaching out to the folks in the area, doing marketing and PR.
“So it’s just God and me,” Sharif jokes. But she’s got a good system going, using social media, having a few key wholesale accounts, taking advantage of the district’s month-long art walk and holding chocolate-making classes.
Her BYOB classes take up to eight people, and they’re fun, but with education thrown in.
“I teach them how to make chocolates at home, and I teach them more of the professional way we do it here,” she says. During the holiday season, she does a lot of corporate, team-building classes as well.
“So that’s word of mouth,” she adds.
But when it comes down to it, Sharif just likes to do things for her customers. When she first started, Chocolat Uzma Sharif didn’t sell coffee or beverages. Now, they offer multiple kinds of coffee and sipping chocolate, made from two wonderfully blended types of chocolate.
“We do three right now,” she says of the sipping chocolate. “We do the Original Sin, and an espresso one to get the caffeine lovers, and the third one is Indian chili, which is Saigon cinnamon and red Indian chili so it’s got a bit of a kick to it.”
She also sells chocolate Legos-style blocks for the children who come in with their parents. “I just wanted to make something that was for the kids,” she says.
But mostly, Sharif responds to customers’ requests. She doesn’t come up with many new flavors each year, but if she gets enough requests, she has to make it.
“We don’t make this stuff for ourselves, you know!” She says. “We make it for the customers who walk in here, so whatever they want is what we do.”
Right now, she’s developing a chocolate bar with lavender because she’s heard it’s popular right now. The process takes a while — she’ll start working on something and then let it sit for a few weeks before revisiting it — but it’s still got her classic South Asian twist to it. “It’s going to be lavender with a hint of star anise,” she says.
And she tries to make everything affordable. The sipping chocolate, she says, is below the market price at $2.85 a cup. Her individual pieces of chocolate sell for $1.25 to $2.25, while gift boxes range from $5 to $48. And with larger 12- or 24-piece boxes, customers can bring them back for a refill at a discounted price.
It’s an easy way to keep her brand in people’s homes. “And it’s eco,” says Sharif. “You’re not throwing away a box. We get a lot of folks who bring that box back in.”
As for the business itself, Sharif thinks it’s been going well. At her estimate, her shop sells more than 100,000 pieces of chocolate a year. She wants to keep moving that amount up though, and to continue growing her business and bringing in retail traffic.
It’s been tough, but so far nothing bad, only good.
“I don’t want to have any regrets in life,” says Sharif, which is why she opened the shop in the first place. “You get the greatest lessons in life with experience, right?”