Ginger-Wasabi. Curry+Coconut. Sweet Paprika. These aren’t items on the dinner menu — they’re a sampling of Vosges Haut Chocolat’s decadent truffles. One could almost call a box the culinary equivalent of an around-the-world ticket, which is exactly how founder Katrina Markoff got her start. After stints at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and the famed Spanish restaurant El Bulli, Markoff skipped the traditional route of culinary apprenticeships and instead bought a plane ticket. From the floating markets of Bangkok to the crazed streets of Vietnam and beaches of Australia, she soaked up exotic flavors and traditional recipes.
But it wasn’t until she was back in the states, working for her uncle’s luxury home decor business, that those exotic flavors swirling around in her brain came into play. Her uncle wanted to include some chocolates in their offerings — could Markoff do some research? She was surprised to find nothing on the market that felt fresh or exciting. So one night she picked up supplies to make chocolate ganache and began playing with the spices, dried herbs, roots and flower petals she’d collected on her trip. Inspired by her travels, she began to stir things like curry powder and coconut into the chocolate.
“Finally, here was a chocolate I loved tasting,” she remembers. Markoff had her epiphany: What if she used chocolate as a medium to tell stories about her travels, the cultures she’d seen, the religions she’d learned about and all of the fantastic flavors she had experienced? She believed there was a market for innovative chocolate: Americans were just becoming interested in things like artisan wine, beer and coffee, and she was willing to bet that chocolate would be next.
Her bet was right on the mark. Sixteen years later, Vosges Haut Chocolat has revenues of more than $28 million each year, and stand-alone Vosges boutiques are mainstays on luxury shopping destinations around the world, from the Golden Mile in Chicago to Beverly Hills and Madison Avenue. In 2012, she launched Wild Ophelia, a chocolate line sold at a lower price point in big-box retailers like Target and Walgreens.
We talked to Markoff about what it takes to create a lasting luxury brand, and how she’s branching out into a new market.
Vosges Haut-Chocolat has always clearly been a luxury brand. Why is that, and would you suggest aspiring entrepreneurs go into the luxury market?
As I developed Vosges, one aspect was non-negotiable; I wanted it to be a luxury brand. While I was at Le Cordon Bleu, my mother and I visited renowned high-end Parisian haunts. From the original Chanel apartment on rue Cambon to the stunning stores of Louis Vuitton and Dior, we spent hours touching textiles and learning to appreciate the highest quality. The salespeople would tell you all about their product, explain how it was made and why it was worth the number on the price tag. And I was left with a deep reverence for beautiful, well-crafted items.
That’s what I wanted to bring to the chocolate market, and I still believe people are willing to be seduced by a luxury brand with a product that stands up to its promises. Think of Apple, for example — it’s a brand that doesn’t give in to the flash-sale phenomenon, but consistently delivers on its luxury promise. I think there’s room in any industry to create a brand that delivers special, remarkable results.
How do you keep a luxury business relevant over the years — and especially during economic hard times like the recession?
Yes, I create a luxury product — but it’s affordable luxury. A $10 candy bar might be on the high end for chocolate, but it’s still just $10, which makes it an affordable treat or present. I think that’s part of the reason our business was very steady and continued to grow during the recession. And we stay relevant because I’m constantly creating and expanding the experience of chocolate. I create products that are seasonal or available for just a brief amount of time. Then they get archived until the next year, so there is constant freshness with the product, flavor profile and experience.