How many years has Chocolate Necessities been in business?
Thirty years in September.
And how long has the downtown location been open?
We’re in our seventh year at the Cornwall location.
Tell me how you got into the chocolate business?
It was curiosity. I had tasted phenomenal chocolate while on vacation across the border. It really set me down. I thought this is how should be.
I didn’t really have any preference for milk or dark and I don’t remember what I bought. It was just smooth and flavorful. The flavors were awesome. Sugar was not the thing. It woke me up and I thought why, why, why? Why can’t we have this in the U.S.? I would love to go and by some more.
So every time I went to Canada I would ask about this. It turns out a friend of a friend owned a chocolate factory so I was able to pick his brain a bit. He wasn’t real forthcoming about details but I learned as much as I could. I figured out that Callebaut, the chocolate I had tasted, was distributed out of Canada. I poked around there and met the owner and we got to talking and he let me buy some slabs—eleven pound bars. I thought that was the most fun thing I had ever done. I thought this is my security blanket. I am not going to run out for awhile. It felt like it was never ending—but no. Two months later I was out of chocolate. Something happens by the time you finish a bar like that you change your bearings a bit. I was pretty much ruined by quality at that point.
Were you eating it straight or were you making things out of it.
I can’t remember if I made anything out of that first slab. I think I just nibbled right through it. It was amazing.
Then I went back to what I was used to eating. Boemh’s had a store out here. That was the best I could find. Then I found out later that they simply use Guittard chocolate which just about every candy store on the west coast uses that, and it’s good but mediocre. It’s not exceptionally good.
I got to talking with the distributor up in Canada, Richard. He was telling me more and more all of the time because I kept bugging him about it. It took about a year before he let me know about the system. Then I said, “I don’t want to mess around with the mediocre, give me the top. I want to try the pinnacle of this stuff.”
The interesting thing is. Callebaut, the Belgians, they don’t view it that way. It’s all good in their eyes. It’s a very interesting cultural shift. They are all making it all good. But they use their chocolates for different purposes. So I had to taste for myself and decide what was good.
That is what turned me into an expert in determining what quality is. I encourage people to do as well. Trends are misleading because you can’t determine that sense of what good chocolate is for yourself if you follow the trends. A lot of my customers come here and they know someone else told them our chocolate is good and they like the taste but they don’t have that internal confidence—which takes a lot of time and interest to develop. You can’t do that with everything in life right? [laughs] Even though I kinda try.
Anyway, I found the best grades and that’s when I started making recipes. I made an amaretto truffle and spread them around to my friends and everyone was like Woah, we can’t eat anything else now. You have got to keep making this.
So it ruined you. Then you went and ruined all of your friends. And then it was time to go into business.
Yeah. They said, “You can sell these!”
I had a friend who liked business. He was an accountant for BP at the time. We went into business together in 1986. After a year he got busy with his professional career and he said, “Well I’m taking off.” And that was fine.
For ten years I was doing this on the side while working odd jobs. I came here and opened the store from three to six and did another job. I just kept it going. I had a small group of people who were interested in what was going on here and what new things I was making. I was sourcing different products. One of the early ones that came up is one that I still use—hazelnut paste. One of the early determinations is sugar is not helpful here. It is flavorless and has no real texture addition, nothing to add really. It’s a filler. I noticed that if you add sugar it became cheaper but that’s not what I wanted to do. The hazelnut paste came in two forms. One was half sugar and the other was called PNP, pure nut paste. So I started making hedgehogs, which were a tradition in Canada out of pure hazelnut paste. And, oh that’s good stuff there. I covered it in milk chocolate that’s not too sweet. It has real flavor and nice texture. I watched people’s reactions to them and realized this is really worth pursuing.
I just added to my knowledge year after year. Jean Pierre Wybauw, one of the world’s best chocolatiers from Belgium, does a big workshop every year in Vancouver. I wouldn’t miss it. It’s like seeing a celebrity. Oh, the magic he pulled.
At the time I called myself a chocolatier and all people would think of is the three musketeers. It wasn’t a profession. It wasn’t anything that people could relate to. But seeing a real professional like Pierre helped justify my interest in it somehow. It really encouraged me and gave me some pride in my work. Then I actually went to Belgium to the Callebaut factory and it was kind of disappointing because I had such a focus on quality and they didn’t think that way. I had to decide myself what was the good stuff.
Eventually it came down to the distribution of things. For ten years I was driving up to Canada to get my chocolate. I was trying to pretend I was a regular citizen. At the border they would ask, “What have you got today?” I would say, “Uh, a couple bars of chocolate.” I didn’t want to mention the size. “They are just in the back.”
Then they would say, “Ok, keep going.” That worked for awhile but at one point I started feeling guilty because I had two bars of chocolate—then five bars of chocolate.
They pulled me over once and thought the had a real drug trafficker. They searched the car and were so disappointed when it really was just chocolate.
Did they drill a hole through your chocolate bar?
They did look at it. They had the mirrors on sticks—the whole procedure. I went through it a few times.
The business grew every year and eventually a Small Business professor from Western came to me saying, “Oh, you are in the perfect niche. I want to use you as an example in my class.” Later on his daughter who ran and owned a bank in Alaska tried to buy me out. I said, “No, no, no I am having too much fun with this.” It’s not about the money. I am not doing it for that reason. But it gave me more encouragement.
A few doctors would pop in and buy my stuff. I wasn’t trying to be fancy or anything, but I knew what it was. It was the best chocolate in the United States at the time. I developed my recipes to the point where I wasn’t going to compromise on anything. I put a lot of labor into it. I even developed my own cutter.
So you make chocolate bars, hedgehogs, and truffles. Are truffles still the bulk of your work?
Yes. That is a really important part of the work that I do.
I had to figure out where to buy molds. You know if I didn’t live close to Canada I wouldn’t have been able to develop a business like this. It’s unheard of to get these kinds of things in the U.S. Canada was the tie to Europe. All that stuff came from Holland, Belgium, Italy, and France. The Europeans have a culture and cuisine that is beyond ours. You know, they have the two hour lunch breaks. I have kind of adopted that and have loved it.
I started buying from distributions up there and eventually got them to truck materials down. Which was good. I didn’t have to smuggle it anymore.
I found the pastry liquors from Italy.
So when you got started European style chocolate wasn’t fashionable in the United States. Does that help you or hurt you as a business?
Oh, that is definitely helpful. I promote any kind of chocolatier I run across.
In fact in Missoula, Montana—where I am from—I ran across a small chocolate company and chatted him up just to see if there was some equipment or tips on sourcing I could give him. I wanted to save him some trouble because he was trying to do a good job. If more people can appreciate good chocolate then that is better for everybody.
I am not really happy seeing people eating sugar products thinking it’s good. There is a reason why Hershey’s can’t sell chocolate overseas. It hurts me to see people eating even chocolate like See’s.
Twenty years ago people would ask me, “Do you have anything as good as See’s?”
And I would ask them, “Well what does See’s use for their chocolate?” Nobody could ever answer that. You have got to be serious about what you are eating in the chocolate world. I tell people what I use—Callebaut. See’s doesn’t even use Guitarrd. They use Nestle. There is no way to upgrade Nestle and make it better. You are stuck right there with that quality.
So your roots are Montana and you have lived here for quite awhile now.
Yeah. Forty-something years.
What do you love about living in Bellingham?
It’s kind of the ideal place. The weather, the people, it has so much to offer as far as things to do. The mountains. The sea, the view, the Islands—I love all of that stuff. The beautiful situation between two big cities so if you do need to go see Jean Pierre Wybauw from Belgium in Vancouver he is only an hour away. The fact that you can still communicate to everybody. You are not just lost in a sea of neighborhoods. I live in a little spot just up the road here that actually has a bit of acreage.
So what does Bellingham need?
There are a lot of really cool industries here. A lot of them I am still learning about. Some are tucked away in Irongate or Ferndale. We are producing some really cool things. I think because I travel from North Bellingham to Downtown every day I see the need for our city planners to view the future a little more realistically. We are going to continue to grow.
I remember the opposition twenty years ago when Costco was being built and the mall was put in. I saw the transition from downtown to the mall area. I remember when that area was just timber. The city still has the idea that we aren’t going to grow much. As a result, our infrastructure is still kinda clumsy. That is my felt need because I spend a lot of time on that one slice of road.
It has been an exciting thirty years. What’s next for you?
You know, I think you are supposed to retire sometime in your sixties.
Is that what you are supposed to do?
I heard that. [laughs]
That’s not enough time in my mind. I just have a fabulous crew. I enjoy seeing them be productive. I kind of have a giving in nature. It’s top in my Birkman score. So I have to be giving stuff away. I like to support my employees.
I’d like to build my business and get it to it’s best place. It’s not so much to do with the money. I’d like to keep making chocolate that people taste and say, “Oh, this is the best!”
I have gotten a lot of feedback from people who have travelled in Europe and say, “We were in Europe for three weeks and we didn’t taste anything better than yours.” That’s not surprising to me because I have been there, to the top in the chocolate world, and I know what ingredients they use. If more people did that that would be fun.
I’d just like people to eat better chocolate. I just got back from Costco where they are selling chocolate for a dollar a pound. I can’t compete with that. That is below my production cost. It’s all supposed to be luxury European. The french truffles aren’t there yet but they will be. Dilettante got their thing there, Godiva’s has a little box there. It’s all just phony garbage made for people who want to believe they are eating good chocolate. In something like their French truffles the first ingredient is oil. We’re not supposed to eat oil. We’re supposed to eat chocolate.
The vision and goal is to spread the word and get people to try a lot of good chocolate. We’d love to help people identify good, better, and best companies that are committed to quality.