Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Starting Making Chocolate

As the Guide to Candy, I often receive emails from enthusiastic home confectioners wondering how they can turn their interest and talent into a career. Unfortunately, it takes more than passion to start your own candy or chocolate business; like any entrepreneurial effort, it requires a huge investment in time, effort, and money. In order to get a sense of what such an enormous undertaking involved, I went searching for a successful candymaker who could shed light on the process.

Art Pollard, the founder and President of Amano Chocolate, was kind enough to answer some questions about his experiences starting a small gourmet chocolate business from scratch. Read on to find out how he began making chocolate (at home!), his biggest challenges, what books and classes he recommends, and what advice he has for YOU, the home confectioner. Candy Guide: Let's start with you. The website says your professional background was in the sciences. What sparked your interest in chocolate? How did you go from a personal interest in chocolate to deciding to make it a full-time career?

Art Pollard: I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It is unusual to grow up there without acquiring a solid background in the sciences. It is a beautiful town surrounded by ponderosa pine and I believe a wonderful place to grow up. I went to high school in the Seattle area. Seattle is in itself a food Mecca, and the wonderful fresh fish and produce found at the Pike Street Market greatly influenced my later culinary adventures. When I graduated from college, I started a small software company. We design and write search engines, or to be more specific, the actual search technology. Other companies license and use our technology for their websites or products. (Odds are that a major percentage of your readers have on their home and work computers some of the code I developed.)

While I was still attending college, I thought it would be interesting to make my own chocolate. I mentioned this to a friend whom I worked with in the physics department. At the time I did not know what was involved, only that it wasn't commonly done. He told me that I couldn't do it, and that it was mostly impossible without hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in equipment.

This caught my interest, though at the time, I did not pursue it very far. Not long thereafter, I was in Hawai'i on my honeymoon, and my wife and I found an outlet for a Belgian confectionary company. The chocolates were beautiful. They were in a whole spectrum of colors, and arrayed in a beautiful glass display case, they looked like glistening gems. At the time, they were probably the most beautiful confections I had ever seen. When I asked the lady at the counter how much they cost, she replied $2.00. I was floored. $2.00 for a little piece of "candy"! I was poor at the time, having recently graduated, and my software company was still limping along. And $2.00 was worth even more then than now. Even so, I sprung the $4.00 for the bon-bons for my wife and me. Immediately upon tasting it, we both looked at each other and knew that this was something special. I was hooked. Unfortunately, the company where I first discovered my love for chocolate is no longer represented in the United States. Even so, I will always remember that first moment when I discovered that a bon-bon could be not only a piece of candy but a piece of art.

As my software company grew, I started to experiment with building my own chocolate refiner as a way to escape coding when I needed to clear my head. I experimented with different designs to see how each design changed the flavor and texture of the final chocolate. Eventually, after much iteration, I came up with a design that I thought worked very well. Others apparently thought so too, because it was not long before my friends and family were clamoring for my chocolate. It was not long before I was regularly coding in one room while listening to the chocolate refiner chug away in the other room.

After a time, my software company landed a large contract, and my business partner and I decided that we wanted to do something out of the ordinary with the windfall. He suggested that we make chocolate, since I was already making incredible chocolate in the machine I had built. Initially, I was pretty hesitant, since at that time, I had enough experience to know what a huge job it was and that there were very good reasons why people did not make chocolate from scratch on a small scale. Even so, after many discussions with my business partner, my friends, family, and local chefs, I was eventually persuaded, and off we went.

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