Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=231549
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:16:07 AM CST

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Eman Shurbaji/MEDILL

Chocolatier Piron in Evanston, Ill., has produced Belgian chocolates for 30 years.


Chocolatiers look for niche markets amid competition

by Eman Shurbaji
Aug 26, 2014


It’s an industry once ruled by chocolate bars in the checkout line, Mars candy for children and Fannie May for celebratory occasions. 

  

But as specialty food industries evolved to meet growing consumer demands for quality and unique products, chocolatiers took heed and jumped into creating specialty chocolates. From to dark and vegan chocolates, to spicy and fruity flavors, chocolatiers are finding their niche—and making it work.  

Entrepreneurs like Jennifer Love of NibMor, Inc., a Great Neck, N.Y., small business, started her company five years ago. Today, it’s a multimillion-dollar enterprise, with a thriving fan base.  

“We did field research and found women were the primary grocery shoppers in their households,” Love said. “So my business partner and I decided to start a company that caters to health-conscious women.” 

NibMor sells single-serving packets of dark chocolate and health shakes at Whole Foods across the country. 

 

“We started in a shared small kitchen and my partner got training at the French Culinary Institute,” Love said. “We were at specialty food stores in the Tri-state area before moving into the mid-Atlantic. 

  

Love, who previously worked as a business consultant and is a wellness guru, was inspired after attending a chocolate party in February 2009. She connected the dots between dark chocolate, health and women, and launched her company in July 2009.  

  

While Love’s company had fast success, others are steadier in their approach.  

  

Bob Piron, who owns Belgian Chocolatier Piron, in Evanston, Ill. with his brother, has been in business for 30 years, and says consumer interests are subjective. 

“What’s good to you?” Pirron said. “It can have the best taste in the world, but it has to be the best to you.” 

  

Jim Piper, a chef and chocolatier, has worked for Piron for six years, mixing the chocolate and filling molds, rotating flavors and testing temperatures. Piper says people always buy chocolate.  

  

“It’s seasonal, some months it’s slow and it picks up around the holidays, but people look for us because they like this type,” Piper said. 

  

Piron imports its chocolate from Antwerp, Belgium, and serves rich chocolates from its storefront and online. Piron says that though chocolatiers are getting creative with their products, everyone is looking for a gimmick. 

  

“People will try to put chocolate on anything, even asparagus,” he said. “There’s no such thing as healthy chocolate, but it’s used for marketing.” 

  

Piron sticks to traditional chocolate truffles and bark, though they unveil flavors periodically. Yet it’s true Belgian chocolate lovers have kept doors open over the years. 

 

“We have customers from around the area—Evanston, Skokie – but we get a fair share of people from out of town,” Piron said. “People visiting Chicago drop by.” 

Piron says he’s happy to be in an industry where “reputation, quality and competitively priced” are key terms. But he admits competition is fierce.  

“I’ve seen maybe half a dozen chocolate makers come and go on Michigan Avenue,” he said. “Our clientele is getting older, so we need to take steps toward marketing.” 

Bernie Pacyniak, editor-in-chief of Candy Industry magazine, says up and coming chocolatiers, who have paralleled drive and interest in chocolates, still have a chance, despite a saturated market.  

“At the Fancy Food Show in New York, I saw names of chocolatiers I never heard of before,” he said. 

 

Pacyniak says there’s wiggle room for competition, because chocolate lovers are always on the lookout for superb products. 

 

“People look at the level of quality of chocolate, and are more open to premium chocolate,” he said. 

Customers are also looking at where the chocolate comes from, and bean-to-bar businesses are popping up.  An example is Theo Chocolate, Inc., a Seattle-based chocolatier that handpicks beans for chocolate bars.  

“We’ll see more artisanal chocolatiers establish themselves,” Pacyniak said. “And people are looking to support local businesses and help people.” 

 

Though some businesses begin as local favorites, their popularity sometimes catches on and expanding becomes an option.  

Vosges Haut-Chocolat a Chicago-based chocolatier, has been able to cross several lines: catering to locals, opening storefronts across the U.S. and attracting chocolate connoisseurs. 

The company sells chocolates with exotic flavor combinations, like Argentinian dulce de leche, curry powder and ancho chiles.  

Spokeswoman Natalie Markoff, sister of founder Katrina Markoff, says they set the bar high, and don’t worry about the competition. 

“No doubt, the chocolate bar category is becoming saturated and there are new brands on the shelf weekly,” Markoff said. “We do not consume ourselves with thinking about the competition but with continual innovation of our product like our new Super Dark category and Dark Chocolate plus Super Foods.” 

The upscale retailer, which sells chocolates for as much as $40 for 12 truffles, insists consumers are willing to try their quality product. 

It’s a reality NibMor, Piron and industry experts know all too well: people will try—and come back—if they’re satisfied.   

Good news for businesses and chocolate lovers alike.