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September 12, 2008

I Am the Boss of Me

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The Exotic-Candy Maker
Katrina Markoff, 35, owner of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Chicago

MY INSPIRATION: One night I was playing around in my kitchen and made this milk-chocolate truffle with coconut and curry. Then I got into a zone and made about 20 different kinds of truffles, using Hungarian paprika, Japanese wasabi, black sesame seeds--all flavors from places I'd traveled, like Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Korea. Later I brought a few truffles into my office — a mail-order company in Dallas — for my coworkers. They thought I was nuts, but when they tried the candy, they loved it. I knew I was on to something. I thought, Maybe I can tell stories of where I've traveled through chocolate.

HOW I GOT STARTED: I sold a few batches of truffles from my apartment, then met with a buyer from Neiman Marcus, who basically said, "Don't call me; I'll call you." Amazingly, he did call — the very next day. Turns out, he'd put my chocolates in the break room, and they'd disappeared immediately. Pretty soon, I was selling candy at Neimans in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago. After a few months, I took out a small-business loan from a bank and opened my first store in 1999 in Chicago, where a real foodie culture was beginning to grow.

THE PAYOFF: Now I have shops in Las Vegas, New York, and Chicago, as well as online (vosgeschocolate.com). I'm planning to open a store in Los Angeles next. I have about 100 employees, and we're profitable now; last year we had around $12 million in sales. That's a lot of $2.50 truffles!

THE BUMMER: Cumin and chocolate. I just can't get that combo to work. I wish I could spend more time creating new recipes, but I have to do all this managerial stuff.

WHAT'S NEXT: I would love to buy a cocoa plantation in Grenada and work more closely with the farmers instead of with middlemen — I'd like to make sure the farmers get good wages even if they have a bad crop. I'm also launching new lines of goodies, including chocolate skull-shaped Day of the Dead candies, with Mexican chipotle chilis and cinnamon.

WORD TO THE WISE: Think creatively about how to get the news out to the world about your business. It helped me immensely that I got some good press from gourmet publications early on. Remember the power of the media.

>> NEXT PAGE: THE TECH GURU


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