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The Economics Of Chocolate


While most of us were nervously watching the price at the pumps this past summer, a handful of San Diegans had their eye on the rising cost of a little brown bean. Cacao, the raw ingredient of chocolate, had become running buddies with the rest of the commodity market, and, just like oil, the price was going up. 


“We saw our base product grow 20 percent over the summer and I’m not going to say it didn’t have an effect,” recalls Jesse Brown, owner of Little Italy’s Chi Chocolat. Hammered with rising material costs and faced with slumping sales, one might suppose that local chocolatiers were feeling the pinch. But then again, you might think that peppered goat cheese and chocolate are two things that should never mix. On both counts, you might be surprised.


The U.S. market for premium chocolate has enjoyed 20 percent annual growth for the last seven years and is projected to hit $1.7 billion in sales next year. Promising to put the box away “after just one more piece,” we later regret eating almost 13 pounds a year each — the equivalent of 100 Hershey bars!


Just as consumers have become more educated — and picky — about our favorite imbibes, chocolate is no longer just chocolate: it’s single origin French Valrhona with 80 percent cacao and citrus overtones, it’s an artisan-crafted couverture from Guittard in San Francisco, it’s the unctuous raw material that local chocolatiers are using as a palette for decadent delights with a connoisseur’s edge. 


“Premium chocolate has been the only category in the whole chocolate business that has been growing,” says Michael Antonorsi, co-founder and chocolatier of Chuao Chocolates. “It has been turned from the candy aisle into more of an adult indulgence, it’s no longer just a Snickers bar or an M&M.”


Antonorsi and his brother opened the first Venezuelan chocolatier in the United States here in 2002, and have since expanded to five locations. Maybe no one informed them about our creachy economy — Chuao’s business is flourishing despite the downturn.


“There will always be room for a chocolate in the moment of crisis,” explains Antonorsi, “it’s a small indulgence that delivers a very important pleasurable and emotional release.”


He invites the downtrodden to find great joy in a small truffle. The dark chocolate “Firecracker,” for example, is filled with chipotle-infused caramel fudge and cloaked in a layer of exploding candy. “That’s what we call our multimedia surround sound chocolate!” 


If you’d like a momentary respite with a more subdued, or even savory delight, try Eclipse Chocolat in North Park. Though Will Gustwiller, owner and head chocolatier, saw a decline in sales last month, the cafe has enjoyed steady growth since he first opened it four years ago.


“We slowed a lot in the last month, but obviously a lot of that is just the economy,” says Gustwiller. “I think if I were using a non-domestic chocolate I would be impacted more.” 


The local goods he refers to is San Francisco’s Guittard chocolate, a couverture prized for its high coco-butter content that many confectioners cannot afford to use and customers cannot afford to miss. The result is a chocolate that magically liquefies as soon as it hits your mouth.


A happy ending is only half the battle. First comes the hard part: convincing customers to pay premium prices for just a skosh of chocolate.


“The type of chocolate we use, the anatomy of it, is far different than what a lot of people are used to,” says Gustwiller. “We have to educate people on the quality of ingredients and the potential of exotic flavors that you’re just not going to find elsewhere.” 


His signature bar — dark chocolate spiked with candied coco nibs and lavender-herbed gray sea salt — will teach you that fine art can be sold by the gram.


Back at Chi Chocolat, Brown’s educational strategy is to move exotic confections into familiar territory. 


“We actually use wine terminology to describe our chocolates. We set them up in flights, all grouped for some reason that ties them together, whether it be a flight of spices and herbs, a flight of nuts and flowers, or just simple things, like truffles.”


Luckily the learning curve is about as steep as Kansas. “When they switch from a Hershey bar to a cardamom infused, ganache-filled dark chocolate truffle, there’s an easily recognizable difference!”


With the holidays around the corner, all three shops anticipate shaking off the post-summer slump. Eclipse will continue to feature a monthly, chocolate-themed, five-course prix fixe dinner, Chuao will warm you with cups of frothy hot chocolate, and Chi is offering a true flight of fancy — a full-scale solid chocolate chessboard, complete with all the pieces. 


Having known several musky chess fanatics, it seems like it would be best to snag a pawn before the game begins, which begs the question: what exactly do chess fans do with the decedent sculpture?   


“I don’t know what they do with them,” Brown laughs, “but they would be more than welcome to eat it, because they would be eating super high quality Belgian chocolate.”   PAUL STUART


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