Charles Siegel started making chocolate to impress a girlfriend. She loved chocolate -- who doesn’t?
And in the 1980s in Rochester, New York, Siegel says, there was “no good chocolate.” So Siegel ordered a block of Belgian chocolate and taught himself the craft of candy-making.
More than 20 years later, Charles runs the eponymous Charles Chocolates. His 37 employees are dedicated to making seriously delicious, high-quality chocolate in San Francisco. They use Strauss Family Creamery butter and local organic cream and sell their chocolates at Whole Foods, to Google’s cafeteria, at their own retail store, and online.
Siegel grew up in Michigan, at a time and in a family where, he says, “boys and men didn’t cook, except maybe to barbecue.” But when he moved to Rochester for college and later followed his chocolate-loving girlfriend to San Francisco, he was presented with two options: “Cook, or survive on ramen noodles.” He chose the former.
In his free time, Siegel was making more and more chocolates and candies. He was 25 years old, impressionable, and not sure what his next career move should be. When his friends tried to convince him to start a business selling his confections, he went for it.
The year was 1987. There were not that many people making premium chocolates in America. But chocolatiers Joseph Schmidt and Alice Medrich, the “First Lady of Chocolate,” were getting attention for their quality chocolates and truffles—they both lived and worked in Berkeley, not far at all from Siegel. “I called Alice and Joseph,” Siegel says. “They were remarkably gracious and helpful. They helped me source ingredients and suggested places for sales.”
Siegel started very small. This was the pre-Web era, and the best way to sell quality chocolate was on department-store shelves. Chuck’s method? “I camped out on their doorsteps until they tried it.”
They tried it, and soon Siegel's chocolates graced the shelves of Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s.
Siegel's first stint as a chocolate businessman resulted in the creation of the now ubiquitous “Apple," a Granny Smith coated in caramel, dipped in bittersweet chocolate, and then sprinkled with nuts or crumbled biscotti.
Twelve years ago, Siegel sold his first company, Attivo Confections, and went to work in the tech field. In 2004, after a seven-year break from the chocolate business, Siegel founded Charles Chocolates and starting making confections in the San Francisco Jewish Community Center Kosher Kitchen. “People would call asking for advice about chocolate, and I realized how much I missed it. I spent a lot of time playing at home and developing new recipes—the best stuff I ever developed. My wife said yes, so I rented a small kitchen.”
The small kitchen in the JCC grew into a bigger kitchen. In 2007, he opened an 8,700-square-foot facility, a retail store, and a “chocolate café” with a view into the open kitchen.
Times have changed since Siegel was one of a very few number of Americans making serious confections. “After 20 years, the bar is set higher on a regular basis,” he says. “People’s tastes and understanding of food are elevated. You really have to produce great stuff if you want to be successful.”
At Attivo, Siegel ended up educating his customers in order to make a sale. He had to explain to them why his artisanal chocolates, made with the best ingredients in small batches, were better than their mass-produced counterparts—and worth paying substantially more for. These days, many customers come to the grocery store incredibly informed. “Now it’s the consumer pulling the industry along as much as it was the industry pushing consumers along before.”
The Internet made it easy to sell directly to customers. And now department stores are not the only retail outfits offering artisanal chocolates—grocery stores are eager to stock Charles Chocolates.
Another big change, Siegel says is that “these days, the quality of the product is as important as the taste.” People are really paying attention to the ingredients and integrity of food. Siegel believes that his chocolate is “only as good as the worst ingredient that goes into it.”
That means that sourcing the best possible ingredients is extremely important at Charles Chocolates. Making sure the elements that will go into the candies are up to par is harder as the company grows. But, Siegel says, “we are a product driven company—we exist because people like our chocolates.” The quality of the chocolate is “something I feel strong about and something I can stand behind. It’s like the integrity of the chef.”
In a challenging environment with lots of artisan chocolate competition, Siegel has a few things going for him. He’s been in the business before, so the learning curve isn't as steep for him. And as the market keeps growing, he has more access to great ingredients. “Buyers notice we are obsessive about quality,” he says. “They are pretty jaded—they see hundreds of products and only a few are good.” Siegel is focused on staying good, getting better, and being the best.
In an unfriendly economy, people continue to love chocolate. It’s an affordable indulgence, Siegel says, “one of the last things to be given up when times are tough.”
At the end of the day Siegel wants to know, “Does it taste good?” And then he wants to feed you bittersweet chocolate peanut butterflies and some fleur de sel caramels, with salt from the Brittany region of France and 65 percent dark chocolate.