02 Dec Food and Wine: A Chat with Erika Chavez-Graziano (NFocus)
Erika Chavez-Graziano, owner of Cellar Door Chocolates, is an absolute force. From her small batch wholesale chocolate company to her recently opened third retail location on South Fourth Street, her rapid growth shows no signs of slowing down. It most circles in Louisville, the word chocolate is becoming synonymous with Cellar Door and when you meet Erika, you quickly realize why. Her business acumen coupled with her humble approach, topped off by her unparalleled passion for the product, is a delicious combination.
Congratulations on the opening of your largest retail space yet! Walk us through your evolution since opening in 2007 and your current multiple locations.
In 2007, I rented a candy kitchen from O’Neil’s Sweets Shop in Jeffersontown and I was there for a year. It was just me doing wholesale for corporate orders and making chocolate. About a year and a half later, Quill’s Coffee asked me to move in with them, so I rented their kitchen for a year and a half. Again, it was only wholesale for corporate orders, we didn’t have a retail shop. Fast forward three years into the company, we moved to Butchertown and one and a half years into being at the Butchertown Market, we expanded our kitchen from 700 sq. ft. to 4,000 sq. ft. and our retail space doubled in size. We are now at the eight and a half year point and I have a chocolate kitchen that is 4,000 sq. ft. I have a sugar kitchen that is 1,200 square feet, and a bean to bar production line that is 300 sq. ft. We make confections, we make caramels, we make toffees, we do everything, but we also import beans, roast them, and make chocolate on-site for people to watch. We have three locations: Butchertown, Oxmoor and now downtown.
What is the experience you hope people will have when they walk into your new space?
We have a company culture here of being charming and being humble. Immediately when someone comes through the doors they will be greeted and we will try to help you find whatever you need – customer service comes first. Secondly, people will find that our chocolate is super high quality; we spend all of our money on ingredients, not on packaging. We also spend a lot of money on labor and that’s because we have the finest chocolateers, people that really care about making the product. So when a customer comes in they will be treated with respect and they will love the chocolate because it is delicious.
You are Kentucky’s only bean to bar studio, a relatively new development for your company. Tell us about that concept and how it differs from what you’ve done before.
Well, it’s 100% different because instead of buying couverture to make confections, which is what the other chocolateers do and what we have done for the past eight years, we’re importing beans from Equidor and Brazil, from Venezuela and Madagascar, and we’ll import these beans from different countries every year so you’ll never get the same bean and it will always be a different bar. We have 100% control over roasting time, we can control the amount of sugar that goes into a product or we can decide not put sugar in it at all and maybe put something like coconut sugar or maybe sorghum in it, so we have the license to sweeten the chocolate exactly how we want.
Chocolate lovers indulge in your handmade truffles, buttercreams and sea salt caramels year round, but are there any seasonal confections we should look out for?
By the first of December we will have our bean to bar line out. That’s going to be very fun. Something else to look forward to is our brittle collection. A couple of those flavors are: pistachio, rosemary, cashew, green chili, red chili and bourbon soaked pecan. They’re amazing.
Cellar Door has been the official chocolate sponsor for the Creative Arts and Primetime Emmys for the last two years, sharing your talent with the celebrities in attendance. How did that opportunity come to be and what is that experience like for you?
On a day-to-day basis, you never know who you’re going to meet so you should be nice to everyone. We were at an event handing out chocolate and we met the wife of one of the governors of the academy and she really fell in love with our company culture and our product. She said, “You’re going to take this box of chocolate to my husband,” and so I did. That was about five years ago. In that time frame I fostered a relationship with him and his wife and their son, so we just all really enjoy each other. He’s been singing our praises to the Academy for years. We first had the opportunity several years ago but we were too small of a company to accommodate that large of an order. It was heartbreaking to have to turn it down. You don’t want to promise to do something and then fail to deliver. We were passed over the following year and then got it the next year. They thought we had southern charm.
Your chocolates can look like a work of art, but you’ve always said that taste is far more important. You also can be quite adventurous in experimenting with unique flavor combinations. Where do you get your inspiration for flavors and what is your absolute favorite?
We’ll start with my absolute favorite. My absolute favorite is the stout truffle. I always fall back on that but I love, love, love the cayenne pepper, too. All of the recipes we use are my original recipes. I’m inspired by my heritage, Kentucky, whatever it is around me. Very few ideas are genuinely your own ideas. A lot of our ideas are recycled. We’re certainly not the first person to do Bourbon Balls, or chili and chocolate. You just kind of take what’s around you and put your own spin on it. Some of the things that I’ve done, like the white chocolate wasabi bar—that, was my own creation. When my staff and I come out with a new line, we have a test—that as soon as we eat it we have to make this face (thrilled), and if we don’t make that face we don’t put it out on the sales floor.
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