Nurturing an Entrepreneurial Craving: Q&A with St. Croix Chocolate
As February’s Chocolate Lover’s Month comes to a close, we thought it apropos to spend some Q&A time with one of the most promising artisans in the industry. Robyn Dochterman, founder of St. Croix Chocolate, shares her thoughts about running and marketing a niche business, while crafting a taste of elegance in every chocolate she creates.
What led you to start your business?
I’ve had a passionate interest in growing and making my own food for several years. Becoming a chocolatier was an extension of deepening my passion for quality food. I was moving slowly in the direction of being on my own, but when I suddenly got an opportunity to buy and remodel a licensed kitchen, things began to come together for the business, St. Croix Chocolate Company, very quickly.
When you were younger, did you have any inkling you would one day own your own business?
As a kid, I was always creating businesses. I published my own little newspaper, grew gourds and sold them, and took over part of the basement to set up an “art shop.” My parents and grandparents alternately encouraged me, and tolerated me.
During the first year of owning your business, what surprised you the most about everyday operations?
I was stunned at how fast we needed to hire help. I was afraid of all the paperwork involved, but after several all-night work sessions by myself, I decided I was ready to face those fears.
Do you remember your first customer?
I don’t remember the first person who walked in the door, but opening day is burned into my memory forever. I’d told a newspaper reporter an opening date, but got a bit behind and decided to put it off for a week. But of course, I forgot to tell the writer. I was at an all-night grocery store where you can buy the early version of the Sunday paper and discovered by reading her article that we were opening…in less than 12 hours! We didn’t have many chocolates in the case, but customers were good-natured about it, and we got a chance to talk to people in depth as we explained the situation.
What is a “great day” in your business and what do you do to help ensure more great days?
A great day in the chocolate business is when you get to combine interesting flavors, make something beautiful and hear the yummy sounds a customer makes as they eat what you’ve created. That pretty much fills every need I can imagine.
What is a lousy day in your business and how do you try to keep them to a minimum?
When you’re up very late putting together orders, bone- tired, maybe a little discouraged something didn’t work out, and you bend over to pick something up off the floor and crack your tailbone into a stainless steel cart. And you can’t even whimper because there’s no one there to hear you.
How have you embraced Social Media?
I love that social media facilitates connecting and talking directly with customers or potential customers. You can actually say “what flavors are you craving?” and get a great sampling of ideas. Facebook is especially great for that. Twitter is more about buzz for us than interacting deeply. We’re just figuring out how to make Pinterest work for us, but basically, we’ll go where customers go. If they want to share pictures of luscious chocolates on Pinterest, we can do that. And we need to do that.
How critical is your website to your business?
Our website is our chance to convey our brand and our values to people we haven’t met in person yet. The experience of eating chocolate encompasses more than the actual bite. Anticipation, the beauty, sensuality…these all matter in how you feel about us and our chocolates. Great photos of our chocolates are probably the most compelling way to tell that story. But we also want website visitors to feel connected to the people who make our chocolates. We want them to see us as real people who take great care and have great passion for what we do. So authenticity and transparency are important messages of the website, too.
What other types of marketing do you use to promote your business?
We do some offbeat things, partly because they are fun for us, and partly because the media marketplace is so crowded with attention-seekers. We put on a caramel festival in the fall called Caramelpalooza. We have free entertainment, including pumpkin carvers, musicians, and our favorite: CaramElvis, an Elvis impersonator who mingles with all the ladies. People can taste about 15 different kinds of gourmet caramel and fudge sauces. And we make caramel apples, dozens of kinds of caramel confections and bacon caramel corn from scratch. People line up for the bacon caramel corn because we only make it for that event. At Valentine’s Day this year, we set up a booth along the street so guys could “drive through” and pick up sweets for their Valentine. Turned out that a lot of moms with sleeping tots used the drive-through so they didn’t have to get out of their cars. That was great fun!
How important is it to develop new products in your industry?
There are two schools of thought on new flavors. One is that we’re not really reaching new customers with new flavors — just sort of spreading current customers between more flavors (which is more labor intensive). The other way to approach it is that people are always looking for what’s new and noteworthy, and if you give them something to talk about, they will. In the end, there’s probably a sweet spot between them. But my thinking on the subject is that if you put creative people in the kitchen, you’d better get out of their way and let them create.
What gets your creative juices flowing to innovate new products, new promotions, etc.?
The best and most dangerous words for me are: Wouldn’t it be cool if…..” “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make a whole bunch of different flavors of marshmallows and make a “S’moregasbord ™!” “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had an artist make illustrations of landmarks around Marine on St. Croix and we put them all on labels to really give our chocolates a sense of place?” “Wouldn’t it be cool if we made our own custom molded chocolate bars out of organic chocolate?” Heck yeah! That would be cool!
How important is the local community to your business?
For St. Croix Chocolate Company, there would simply be no company without the support of the community, whether that’s people who live around Marine on St. Croix, foodies who visit Mill City Farmer’s Market, corporate party planners, artists, or the farmers who run the dairy we get our cream from. We don’t exist apart from community.
Where do you see the industry moving?
I think more and more, people are making more educated and conscientious choices about their food, including chocolate. They want to know where it came from, how it was prepared, and what kind of ingredients go into the final confection. It’s actually wonderful to have those careful choices that we make appreciated.
How would you describe your ability to balance work vs. the rest of life – the good and the bad?
One of the very best things about working for myself, is that I don’t have to choose between work and life. I get to integrate them. And, really, I have to. Creativity is not separate from work. Satisfaction is not separate from work. It should never be either/or, because in truth, there aren’t little tidy compartments in life. There’s just the illusion of them. I feel very grateful to get to create an environment and set a tone that honors the reality.
What’s been your most magical moment as an entrepreneur?
When I started, I thought the best part ever was going to be creating a situation that focused on my strengths and didn’t dwell on my limits. That’s good. That’s really good. But giving my employees a chance to work in a creative environment, to develop trust in the team, to be part of something big, to have opportunities to use their strengths? The power of that is far greater than I ever imagined.
Stop by Robyn’s chocolate shop in Marine on St. Croix, MN or visit www.stcroixchocolateco.com to see her creations.
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