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Sweet success: PR executive quits his job to make chocolate for a living

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 9, 2008 - Brian Pelletier was putting in long days and flying around the world in his demanding job as a public relations executive at Fleishman-Hillard's world headquarters downtown when he decided to make a change. Another job at another agency? No. A cushier gig, perhaps with more money and fewer hours, at a local corporation? Not what he had in mind.

Pelletier, 41, wanted to make gourmet chocolate by hand and sell it for a living out of his own shop. Never mind that the economy wasn't the best and no one really knew if cash-strapped consumers would shell out a premium price to appease their palates. 

Pelletier wanted to be, yes, a chocolatier. And why in the world would he want to do that?

"Who doesn't love chocolate?" he told his skeptical friends at the time, a bit incredulously.

Five months later, Pelletier is the sole proprietor of Kakao Chocolate. He dons an apron and comfortable Crocs instead of a starched shirt and tie at his small commercial kitchen in the back of a storefront space on Cherokee Street, his corporate job and corporate salary both behind him. His days are long and his arms and feet often ache at the end of them, but for all his hard work, the northern Minnesota native is about to do the unimaginable for any new business: turn a profit.

You read that right -- Pelletier says he's on course to close out 2008 in the black, recovering all of his investment and then some. That's after just two full months of business, and a customer base that consists of a single grocery store (Local Harvest in Tower Grove), four weddings and a Defiance, Mo., winery (Yellow Farmhouse), as well as various neighborhood Farmers Markets, the only retail outlets he has so far.

That's good news for the Pelletiers, and great news for the city, which like every place else has been trying to foster entrepreneurs large and small to spur economic development and revitalize neighborhoods.

"We're particularly grateful for people willing to start their own businesses at this time," said Jim Cloar, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, an economic-development group. "It can be tough out there, although if you're clever, there are good opportunities," he said.

It all fell into place easily, to hear Pelletier tell it, his North Woods accent peeking through his words. First, he knew what he was getting into, having owned his own public relations agency in Chicago, Green Cardinal, before Fleishman-Hillard lured him and his wife, Melanie, to St. Louis in 2005. And Melanie's job could sustain the twosome, in pay and benefits, for however long it had to.

Although he had never made chocolate before, he did have the expertise for it, in a way, as a lifelong "foodie" well known among his friends for his dinner parties. He'd cook all day, having scoured local markets for the best ingredients for his fare. His cheese fondue had the smooth consistency of what you'd get at a restaurant. His meatballs were to die for. And the wine he'd serve went with everything in that mysterious way that only aficionados truly understand.

So when Heather Wessels mentioned at a dinner party one evening last spring that she was selling her small chocolate company, "I thought, 'Oh my God, Brian's going to buy that company'," wife Melanie says. She was right.

But it wasn't easy. Once he found a storefront to share with a catering company on Cherokee Street, he had to go through seven separate St. Louis agencies to get his business license. Someone from the fire marshal's office had to see it. Someone else had to check out the electrical hook-ups. Someone else had to okay his plumbing, still someone else the HVAC. Then a building inspector had to check out other things, as well as a guy focused on potential emissions. And then there was the health inspector. Six of the seven departments required a visit.

"But they all came at the same time," Pelletier said recently, ever the diplomat, as he mixed some caramel in a metal bowl in his kitchen. "And that was really convenient."

But because Pelletier planned to share space with a catering company, and technically has to walk through that company's space to get to his kitchen, he had to plead his case before an appeals board before he could get his license to operate. Writing in his blog after his appearance, he was gleeful:

"We accomplished a significant achievement -- we fought city hall and won," he wrote. It was the end of August, and it was finally all-systems-go.

And it's been hard work. Making all-natural, gourmet chocolate is difficult, requiring elbow grease, muscle power and even a bit of Pelletier's educational background in math and physics to understand how all the ingredients are supposed to work together and bind to each other.

He doesn't sell the chocolate typical of candy bars, but confections like truffles of such varieties as lavender-vanilla, chile-vanilla, and Turkish coffee with cardamom. His handmade, chocolate-covered caramels feature a dab of sea salt on top, and his bark -- thin, crunchy sheets of chocolate -- are sprinkled with such un-candy-bar stuff as caramelized ginger and coffee. The caramels, topped with sea salt, are the top sellers. 

"Chocolate flavors are a bit like wine," Pelletier said recently, as he stirred a ganache -- otherwise known as truffle stuffing -- with a rubber spoon. "They have different nuances, aromas, and mouth-feel," he said. To wit: One recent recipe he developed features pine-smoked black tea he bought "from a co-op in the middle of Iowa," which "smells like a campfire and instantly kindled my curiosity about what kind of truffle it would make," he wrote in his blog.

"As a fair warning, this truffle isn't for everyone," he wrote. "It's rich in smoke, like a huge bonfire the next morning, and almost meaty in its flavor."

All of which was lost on Katie Bolt, 23, a 2nd grade teacher who stood at Kakao's booth at Tower Grove Farmer's Market one recent Saturday morning. Bolt shelled out $10 -- $4 for a four-pack of dark-chocolate truffles and $6 for a 2-ounce package of chocolate-covered almonds. "This is a monthly splurge for me," Bolt said as she handed over her debit card. But apparently, a necessary one.

"I love chocolate," she said by way of explanation. "I mean, who doesn't love chocolate?"

Read Pelletier's blog or check out the business' home page.

Susan Skiles Luke is a freelance writer in St. Louis.