Brave New Catalogers: The Art of Chocolate

May 01, 2007 9:30 PM  By

Cincinnati entrepreneur Bill Sands is pairing his passion for artisan chocolate and fine wine into a business venture that includes a store, a Website, and later this year, a print catalog.

Sands founded Marble Hill Chocolatier in 2004 and launched the company’s Website in November 2005, about a month before he opened his chocolate boutique in the O’Bryonville section of Cincinnati. The 1,000-sq.-ft. store doesn’t cater to harried husbands in search of last-minute anniversary gifts. It’s more like a lounge: You’re supposed to sit and savor the chocolates. The store also offers champagne, coffee, cocoa, and tea.

Marble Hill’s distinctive in-store experience makes its expansion into direct marketing all the more challenging. “With our boutique and chocolate lounge, the customer experience is very different at our store,” Sands says. “Being able to capture that experience and service at the store through a catalog and Website presence will be challenging because we’re dealing with food and wine. People really need to touch and feel.”

All the more so because artisan chocolates are different from gourmet chocolates. If gourmet brands such as Godiva are BMWs, artisanal chocolates are Maseratis.

“Artisan chocolates are made in small batches with really high-quality cacao beans,” Sands explains. “Gourmet chocolates can be mass-produced and artificially flavored. A lot goes into artisan chocolate, and it takes longer to produce. A lot of care goes into every step.”

Marble Hill doesn’t make its own product but instead sells exotic chocolate confections that are handcrafted by renowned artisans throughout North America. The result, according to the Marble Hill Website, is a product assortment that “features the finest single origin and cacao blends, combined with exotic fruits, herbs, and spices offering a truly memorable chocolate experience.”

Such an experience doesn’t come cheap. The Thomas Haas Gelee Collection, for instance, sells for $13 (five pieces), $24 (10 pieces), and $45 (20 pieces). For that you get “fruit-inspired gelees [that] lie beneath a layer of Tanzanian extra-bittersweet chocolate ganache enrobed in pure bittersweet chocolate and finished with a hand-painted white chocolate plaquette…”

Because of the quality of the ingredients and the time-consuming detail, Sands says, most people can “notice the smoothness, long-lasting flavor, and intensity of the chocolate and any fillings. Generally they’re made within the week they are sold, so it’s a fresh product.” To ensure that they arrive fresh, orders are packed in dry ice.

A BRONX TALE

Although Sands has lived in the Midwest for nearly 30 years, he hails from the Marble Hill section of New York City’s the Bronx. And while you can take the boy out of the Bronx… “Marble Hill is where I was born and lived part of my childhood. I am still very fond of New York City, with many of my relatives still residing there,” says Sands. In fact, he notes, “New York City has provided much inspiration for me in developing Marble Hill Chocolatier’s brand essence, product assortment, and store design.”

Sands had wanted to start his own business since the late 1990s. While he “had a fondness for food and gravitated toward some food concept,” chocolate wasn’t high on his list of possible business themes. But “through my own personal pursuits of cooking and entertaining, I considered artisan chocolates,” he says. “It seemed like this was a great niche. I felt this type of product can be appealing, and I thought I could present it in a certain way. It’s attractive enough for people to be connected with it.”

The store was the first phase of the concept. “But before we put the store in place, we started doing chocolate tasting events around Cincinnati. We used that as a basis,” Sands says. “We spent nine or 10 months before we opened the store developing an initial product assortment, and we began our tasting events. From there, the expectation was that we’d be doing a Website and catalog. We looked at it as a multichannel company from a distribution standpoint.”

Now that he has immersed himself in the multichannel confections business, he admits that “it’s very, very difficult, certainly harder than I thought. But it’s been very rewarding, knowing we’re providing a service for our customers and people keep coming back. That is always very satisfying.”

CATALOG CHALLENGES

The catalog, scheduled to launch in September or October, will no doubt pose a new set of challenges. Sands doesn’t know yet how many catalogs he will mail this year or exactly to whom they will be sent. Although he declines to offer specific page counts, Sands says the initial catalog will be “very small.” The goal of the catalog is “really to feed our markets back to the Website.”

The project is already slightly behind schedule. “Our focus is on getting our Web presence solid and then supporting our marketing efforts with catalogs during the fall,” he says. “The intent was to have something in place for Mother’s Day, but we want to be cautious about how we market our events to drive our catalog piece. Our tasting events will dictate catalog drops in certain areas. We usually hold public tasting events twice a month. We’re pretty active in the community.”

Sands hopes to expand the community, possibly to Columbus, OH, and Indianapolis, by opening another store or two. “We want to be able to get into these markets, and we’ll use the catalog as a way we can promote our business,” he says. “We want to get people connected with our brand as we develop and nurture the catalog. I think the Website will trump the catalog at some point because our Web piece is a foundation for us.” But he expects the catalog to complement not only the Website but the retail side of the business as well. “We’ll use it to target specific regions,” Sands says.