“Mr. Chocolate” is hands-on businessman

NEW YORK — Jacques Torres, a French chocolatier, has turned a classic American treat into a tempting, high-end confection. In the process, he has become, arguably, the nation’s best-known chocolate entrepreneur.

Ten years ago, Torres walked away from one of New York City‘s most famous restaurants, Le Cirque, where he was pastry chef. With much ambition but little money, he launched Jacques Torres Chocolate in a renovated warehouse in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn.

Today, the chocolate entrepreneur creates confections ranging from upscale chocolate crunch puffs to Champagne truffles. He not only designs chocolate delicacies, he makes chocolate himself, straight from the cocoa beans. And he’s set himself apart in the luxury chocolate market.

“I’ve not met many pastry chefs who had the DNA to be an entrepreneur, a businessman and risk-taker,” says Dorothy Cann Hamilton, CEO and founder of the French Culinary Institute. “He had a can-do spirit, and he did it on a shoestring, doing the construction himself.” She’s known Torres since he first came to New York City in 1986, and he joined the institute’s faculty in 1993.

Torres grew up in Bandol, France, a small town in the southern region of Provence. When he was 15, he began an apprenticeship at a small pastry shop.

He went on to earn a degree of Master Pastry Chef, and in 1986, he became the youngest chef to earn the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France medal. He came to the United States, starting out as pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Springs, Calif., in 1988. During his time in the U.S., he’s served presidents and celebrities.

After moving to and working in New York City, he decided to start his own chocolate business with the help of two partners. By 2003, revenue reached about $1 million. In 2008, it had grown to nearly $10 million.

Then the recession hit, and sales started to falter. But the number of customers continued to grow, keeping revenue at about $10 million last year, Torres says.

To his advantage, chocolate “is an affordable indulgence,” says Joan Steuer, a chocolate industry expert and president of Chocolate Marketing. “If you can’t afford to go to your favorite restaurant, you can always count on chocolate to give you pleasure and make you happy. It’s the only food that can either be used as a pick-me-up or a calm-me-down.”

Last year, chocolate sales were down 4.5%, according to IBISWorld industry research. But it predicts that sales will rebound by 12.8% this year.

Premium chocolate sales have outpaced overall chocolate industry sales. By 2011, premium sales are projected to reach $4.5 billion, or 25% of total chocolate sales — up from 13.3% in 2002, industry tracker Packaged Facts says.

Jacques Torres Chocolate is a luxury brand. His fancy bonbons cost about $55 a box. But it only costs $5 to buy 4 ounces of milk chocolate-covered Cheerios or 4 ounces of dark chocolate-covered cornflakes.

Humor and fun

“Jacques’ ability to look at everyday American staples and make them special by adding his own French twist by covering them with chocolate is a great concept,” Steuer says. “It captures his unique humor, and it is fun for chocolate lovers of all ages.”

This year, General Mills followed Torres by introducing Chocolate Cheerios cereal. But not all major corporations have been among his fans.

Last year, Torres received a cease-and-desist order, saying that his Champagne kiss bonbons infringed on the Hershey’s Kiss. He responded by launching a grass-roots campaign, offering free samples of his bonbons, which are not foil-wrapped like Hershey’s Kiss and cost much more. A 12- piece box costs $18.

After Torres started an online petition to save his Champagne kiss, he said he didn’t hear again from Hershey, which declined to comment. Torres has continued to sell the bonbons during the holidays.

In 2004, Torres opened a large, flagship store and factory in downtown Manhattan, where visitors can look through glass windows and watch dials, levers and conveyor belts as specialties, such as chocolate-covered pretzels, are being created.

He now also has two other shops in Manhattan, with plans to open two more by the end of the year and another next year. He also sells his chocolate at a little store inside Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City and in a Jacques Torres Chocolate shop in Traverse City, Mich., which is owned by one of his partners.

Because of the holidays, December is the biggest month for sales, accounting for about 40%. Torres starts gearing up for the winter gift-giving in July.

His best-selling chocolates are boxes of bonbons; since he started making cookies in 2005, they’ve become the second-place seller.

Torres has branded himself as Mr. Chocolate, but his name goes well beyond his chocolate emporium. He’s been the host of television shows on PBS and the Food Network; he’s written three cookbooks; and he’s a master chef and dean of pastry arts at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, where he teaches.

Sometimes, even a master chocolatier such as Torres hits a snag. He’s stopped making chocolate-covered fortune cookies, even though consumers snapped them up. “It’s not good enough for my standards,” he says. “They became too soggy.”

Travel priorities

Torres doesn’t plan to expand his shops across the country because it’s hard to manage and control the product, and he doesn’t want to spend his time in airports. “It’s a waste of time,” he says.

But he does fly to California because his wife, Hasty Torres, has her own chocolate business in Beverly Hills, called Madame Chocolat. They’ve been married nearly three years.

“I go to California from time to time,” he says. “She comes more to New York. And we meet at events or any professional meetings that are held around the country.”

His office is in his flagship store in downtown Manhattan, which he calls a command center. The store and cafe have an oval shape, like a cacao pod, where visitors can shop or sit back and drink hot chocolate while watching workers put chocolate on a conveyor belt. It looks much like the famous I Love Lucy episode, in which Ethel and Lucy stuff their faces with chocolate when they can’t keep up with the machine.

On a recent afternoon, customers ranged from Japanese tourists to New York City mothers with small children and a pastry student from California.

When Torres is in the store, he often talks to children and gives them a chocolate lollipop. But he spends much time riding his motorcycle to the other shops and business meetings. Before he bought his BMW about six months ago, he rode a bicycle.

“I think I’m aging,” he says. “I still ride the bicycle, but I like the motorcycle. It’s comfortable.”

Torres knows that the Internet is one way to expand sales. He has a website, where consumers across the nation can place orders. But he also knows that it needs to be improved

“It’s a Web catastrophe,” he says. “It’s out of date.” He’s hired experts, and in less than a month, expects to launch a better website. “We are still looking at the design and working on it,” he says.

He also may start a TV show about chocolate if he can find sponsors. And he’s considering starting a new business in New York, saying only that the new concept won’t cannibalize his chocolate shops.

The entrepreneur acknowledges that he often tackles too many things at once. He’s personally painted his shops and made some of the furniture. Last year, when he decided to start selling ice cream, he built his own ice cream cart.

Because his father was a craftsman and carpenter, Torres grew up learning to build things. “When I was a kid, on weekends, he was taking me to his workshop to help him,” he says.

He says he knows that he’s a better chief executive officer than chief operating officer. “I think I’m one of the worst bosses,” he says. “I have vision, innovation and drive. But I don’t give clear direction.”

He is, however, shrewd enough to hire people who have the skills that he doesn’t. Torres has about 60 employees, but during the holidays, that number goes up to nearly 80.

He spends most of his time solving problems, from a broken air conditioner to a late delivery, and developing projects. But he never seems to slow down.

He makes his own signature chocolate by blending specific beans, roasting them and molding them into his own bars. The process, called bean to bar, is “laborious, and it’s not easy,” Steuer says. He currently only uses the beans to make one of his bars. It’s called a limited edition “Jacques’ Bean to Bar,” and costs $5.50 for 2.8 ounces.

Torres still has partners, but he owns about 60% of the business. Although sales are staying steady, his costs are not, and profit margins are shrinking. In the past 10 years, prices have more than doubled, he says.

Money is not his primary objective. As he puts it: “Making chocolate is a way of life, not a profession.”

He has no regrets about starting a business. “With all of the stress that can come with it, I’m very happy that I did it.

“I like the freedom of doing what I think is right. I believe in myself. If I make a mistake, it will be my mistake.”

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