Pam Vieau and Marcy Goetz, mother-and-daughter owners of Chocolate Inspirations in Roselle, Illinois, didn’t originally intend to operate a chocolate business.
Vieau, studying to be a court reporter at the time, decided instead to pursue a confectionery career when she found her English toffee recipe had charmed family, friends and soon-to-be customers. Goetz, working as a hairstylist and part-time candy packager, later stepped up to handle sales and marketing for the business.
Their efforts, and their ability to work as a team, has paid off, earning them recognition and support from celebrities and local customers alike.
Goetz recently spoke with Candy Industry about the history of Chocolate Inspirations, creating vegan toffee and choosing to stay positive during the COVID-19 pandemic.
CI: What drew Pam to chocolate? How did she get started?
MG: Pam has always been a hobby cook. In her spare time, she would attend classes, from Italian food to cake decorating. She then took a chocolate class from Elaine Gonzalez. She was fascinated by all she could do with chocolate. After the class she was hooked, and she decided “this is for me.”
In (the early 90s) she took a trip to Paris and was absolutely fascinated by the wonderful chocolate and pastry shops. While in Paris she learned of the Cocoa Barry school in Pennsauken, N.J. — at the time it was the only place in the U.S. offering classes for artisan chocolates and pastries. Pam traveled back and forth for the next two years, taking every class available. Since then, she has always continued her chocolate and confection education with many artisan chefs from all over the world.
CI: When did Chocolate Inspirations officially open?
MG: I believe the official date was in October 1995. After Pam attended Elaine’s class, she came home, pulled out her English toffee recipe and made it for friends as holiday gifts. Soon her phone started ringing off the hook with requests to purchase her toffee. She became so busy with orders, the family and I stepped in to help.
After witnessing the incredible response to her toffee, we told her she should start her own business. At the time, Pam was in school for court reporting. After the holiday break she returned to school and gave her instructor a toffee gift. The instructor's response: “What are you doing here when you can do this?”
Pam withdrew from school, traded a batch of her homemade cookies for her first chocolate machine and Chocolate Inspirations was born. In 1999, Pam’s toffee was a finalist for Outstanding Confection at the Fancy Food Show, which gave us our first feature/rave review in Chocolatier Magazine.
CI: How did you (Marcy) get involved?
MG: When Pam’s phone started to ring off the hook with orders I helped her package, bow — anything BUT make the candy. I can barely work a microwave. I did not receive the cooking gene.
I used to cut hair. When Pam decided to open her own business, I had my own chair at a salon, and I had a few days with free daytime hours. I would help package or I would work on sales cold calls. When I introduced myself and said the word "chocolate," this would get someone’s attention.
When I requested an appointment and said I would bring samples, 9 out of 10 times they said yes. I really had no idea what I was doing. However, once they tasted the chocolate, they gave me an opportunity.
For example, one of our first corporate clients was a commercial property management company. I was invited to present to about 20 managers. The host had tasted our toffee and wanted to use a local company. After they sampled, they told me they HAD to give it to their clients. They sat me down, listed their needs, their issues, the variations they needed and asked if I could do it. Of course, I said yes! Pam and I worked on a few ideas, they loved it and each one ordered from us. Today 95 percent of the managers in the original meeting are still our clients today.
CI: What is it like to work as a mother-daughter team?
MG: 98 percent of the time it’s awesome! I am in awe of my mom’s talent. Of course, I’m proud of our chocolates and believe they’re the best. People love chocolate, and there is an expectation of delicious. However, when they taste mom’s chocolate, it takes them to a whole new level of happy. I never tire of watching the reaction — my mom did that!
We are also very good at bouncing ideas off one another and being honest if we don’t like something without someone being insulted. Don’t get me wrong, we can still have mother/daughter moments and get snippy at one another — that would be the 2 percent that can be difficult with our partnership. However, it doesn’t last long and we move on. She is my best friend, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My favorite thing about our partnership is we don’t lose it together. When things get crazy or stressful — for whatever reason, sometimes it’s overwhelming — if one of us begins to get a little off track the other is a calming force.
Pam Vieau: We are very fortunate to have complementing strengths. While I love to make the confections and develop new products, I also like to watch for trends in the artisan confection business and see what we can implement in our product line.
Marcy spearheads everything else. She transformed herself from a hairstylist to our marketing and sales guru. As with any small business, people need to wear multiple hats and Marcy wears most of them. Her creative ideas and packaging are instrumental in featuring our products at their best. The best thing we have is the ability to work off of one another — to recognize a good idea and be able to run with it, allowing both of us to work together to provide our customers with the best confections possible.
CI: Have other generations gotten involved in the business?
MG: There are three generations. Pam’s mom, my 92-year-old grandmother, Charlotte, also known as Grammies, packages for us. She can pack a candy box better than any 20-year-old. My cousin, Elise, also works with us – there are 21 years between us. Sometimes I forget she and I aren't the same generation. However, during busy times, the other Waters women show up – cousins, aunts, in-laws. They come in to package, dip toffee, deliver, make bows, whatever we need.
CI: How would you describe Pam’s role as an educator in the industry?
MG: Pam has a love of food and is always interested in what is new. She is thrilled when she is able to talk to anyone with a similar love and exchange thoughts and ideas. She developed the chocolate program for Triton College where she taught — and absolutely loved it. She was in her element, everyone wanted to learn how to make confections and chocolates and she loves to share.
CI: What are some of Chocolate Inspirations’ best sellers?
MG: Our English Toffee is still our No. 1 best seller in our traditional and vegan line. Our Chocolate Peanut Butter Pillows are vegan and are our second best seller for both lines. Our Cinnamon Toast Toffee and Sweet Buddies Caramel Bars are also strong sellers.
CI: How has the vegan toffee been received?
MG: In 2008, during a grand opening demo at a Whole Foods store, Pam was asked by a vegan chef if she would consider making any vegan products. So she started working on a vegan toffee, not realizing that the common thought was that it is impossible to make a vegan toffee.
She kept working on it until she had figured it out, then tested it on as many people (vegan and non-vegan) as she could. The vegan toffee was an instant hit. She has received rave reviews from vegans around the country including Alicia Silverstone, Orlando Bloom and VegNews, to name a few. She has since developed many vegan products but the Vegan English Toffee is still the best seller in the vegan line.
CI: Has Chocolate Inspirations introduced any new products lately you’d like to highlight?
MG: Yes - "BE" chocolates! A few weeks ago, when everything started to shut down, I had a day where I was drowning in worry. This is unusual for me, but the negativity was everywhere and I was scared about the business. I needed a distraction, started scrolling on LinkedIn and found an interview with former Chicago Bear Desmond Clark. He spoke about having a choice: you can choose to have a bad day or choose to find the positive.
I realized I also had a choice: stay worried or find a positive. I was too tired to soul-search for positive, so I went to bed. At 2 a.m., I woke up and had the words “Be Happy Be Thankful'' in my head, I wrote it down and drew a smiley face next to it and went right back to bed. I awoke again at 3:30 a.m. and wrote underneath: “you have everything you need at work,” then back to sleep. The next day, I created “BE” Chocolates. Little packages combining our chocolates with positive messages and colors that represent gratitude, happiness, strength and calm. They have been a hit.
We are also working on a new confection with Ruby chocolate, but right now we are keeping it a secret.
CI: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?
MG: We are fortunate enough to still be able to work since we are a food manufacturer. In order to stay "safe" it is mainly just the two of us. Believe it or not, it is also very easy to keep social distancing because we are working in different areas of the office or kitchen.
We have learned that people really enjoy having a treat, something comforting that lets them just stop and enjoy their chocolate for the moment. We are very grateful to have our customers keep us busy.
CI: Have you had to make any changes to retail or the production process?
MG: I immediately recognized the need to offer special shipping rates so people would be able to get their chocolates. Curbside pickup and local deliveries also go hand-in-hand with offering the best service possible. We want to do everything we can to promote positive, happy messages for everyone. Chocolate is happy, and we can all use a little happy.