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.
Many of the luxury brands we think of are centuries-old, European brands. How do you create an aura of luxury for the modern, everyday consumer?
People always want nice things — and they especially love to gift nice things. We make sure that luxury comes through in every part of our experience, from our thick, editorially photographed catalogs to our website, boutiques and packaging.
My uncle John, who spent years working in the mail-order division of Neiman Marcus, really taught me the importance of pairing a story with actual physical merchandise. You can’t just list an opulent blanket, bed or handbag for sale; you have to take a beautiful photo then write text that romanticizes the item and explains why it’s worth so much money. You delve into the background of where and how it was made and talk about the special, precise details. The goal is to connect the customer to the product, so when they see a truffle selling for $3 or an $8 candy bar, there’s an explanation and reason.
And I’m constantly channeling brands like the legendary Parisian purveyor Hermès. Even their packaging is part of the ultimate luxury experience. People collect those beautiful orange boxes and line them up in their closets! I hope it’s the same thing with our Vosges boxes; we put as much effort into designing these gorgeous, limited-edition boxes as we do with the chocolate itself.
I also modeled Vosges’ standalone shops after high-end fashion boutiques. The stores aren’t just blank spaces for buying chocolate, but lush environs that are meant to be as decadent and experiential as the chocolates themselves. The walls are bathed in deep purple and crystal chandeliers hang from the ceilings. Ornate, velvet-covered chairs invite customers to relax with a wine and chocolate tasting flight.
In 2012, you launched a more accessibly priced brand, Wild Ophelia. Why the move into mass market, and why the different brand?
I believe that if you’re not evolving, you’re dying. Today, we’re in a world of flash sales, outlet deals and cheap-chic collaborations — but I never want to put the Vosges name on a lesser product lest it hurt the brand’s identity. At the same time, there is a strong market for products at a lower (but still moderate) price point. So I envisioned Wild Ophelia as the “younger sister” brand of Vosges — if Vosges is couture, Wild Ophelia is ready to wear. Unlike Vosges, Wild Ophelia bars are sold at places like Target and Walgreens. And without the cost of high-end boutiques, lush packaging and catalogs and exotic ingredients, I can charge less. And the larger market gives us additional economies of scale. For us, it’s win-win. We don’t dilute the Vosges brand but can still expand into this big market.
A lot of people want to start a food business — and especially a chocolate company! What’s your advice to them?
Create partnerships to expose people to your product — especially outside of the normal food world collaborations that are almost expected. We’ve partnered with everyone from makeup guru Bobbi Brown and Victoria’s Secret to clothing and handbag designers. Our attitude is to be open. As I like to say, “With what will chocolate not marry? Very little!”
Rachel Hofstetter is the author of “Cooking Up a Business” (Penguin, 2013) where you can also read more about Katrina’s story. Rachel was so inspired by the entrepreneurs she wrote about that she left her food editor career to launch guesterly, a software platform that enables anyone to create a playbill for life’s special events. Today, you can find her sharing guesterly with the world by day — and recipe testing at night!