Growing up in Venezuela, Ricardo Trillos developed a taste for the sweet life. Raised on South American chocolate, the then-accountant relocated to Miami in 2004—and quickly found himself longing for a taste of home.
“After a couple of months with American candy, I was like, 'OK, I'm done with this,'" Trillos, now the founder of Miami-based Cao Chocolates, says with a laugh. On a whim, he asked his aunt (a frequent visitor to the States) to bring him a bit of Venezuelan chocolate on her next trip. She showed up with a six-pound block. The haul spurred Trillos to begin studying the art of chocolate making, seeking out workshops and classes in his spare time and gifting his experiments to co-workers and friends. “It ended up being great market research," he says of sharing the South American chocolate, which can have a deeper and more complex purity of flavor than traditional American blends.
Fast forward to 2009 and Trillos was suddenly laid off from his corporate job—an overqualified accountant in a market scarce with accounting jobs. It was two out-of-the-blue phone calls from acquaintances seeking his chocolate-making skills that spurred him to rethink his career path. “I remember, I told my wife, 'We need as much income as we can get right now,'" Trillos says. “I thought 'I'll do it. I'll make the chocolates.'" Not able to work out of his home kitchen, Trillos leased space from a local baker with a commercial kitchen and retail space where he sold his creations for the next three years. Cao Chocolates (a play on Ricardo's family nickname, not the cacao bean) was born.
Cao Chocolates founder Ricardo Trillos
Today, Trillos oversees two full-time employees (including his wife, Anelith Ortega), one part-time employee, a small retail space/cafe and a growing online business. The shop—the only one in Miami making South American-sourced chocolate from scratch—offers hand-delivery for local customers, custom orders for corporate clients and events, and a branded line of packaged confections that Trillos sells via specialty markets and other retail partners throughout South Florida. That growth, Trillos says, can be directly attributed to his background in both accounting and human resources. “You can bake the best cupcakes, the best cookies, the best banana bread, but if you don't know how to sell it, or you don't have a well-structured business, you won't go anywhere," he says.
Part of Trillos' structure has been a focus on near Olympian-like training. Without the means to hire a staff, and faced with a busy and diverse daily routine (his team of three handles everything from making the chocolate to events and daily deliveries), Trillos began timing himself and recording the progress on charts. “Whenever I had to do something I would try to beat my previous time," he says. “So I know that I can roll 252 truffles in 46 minutes—things like that. Sometimes my team can just make eye contact and know what to do. Even with three-and a-half people, we can do things that chocolate stores with 10 people can't."
Trillos also parlayed his talent for marketing into deep connections within the local small-business community, beginning with a presence at South Florida farmer's markets. “People have this false idea that you have to wait for your customer to walk in," says Trillos, who shuttled between different Sunday markets as his competition took the day off. “At the time I didn't have a storefront, so I had to get in front of my customers. The farmer's markets became almost a pop-up store for me."
Partnerships with other local businesses came swiftly, as Cao Chocolates began to take up space in local specialty retailers and coffee houses. “To me it's a win-win," Trillos says. "My brand is in new and different places and I can drive people to local establishments. Miami is a big city, but I have a small-town mindset that we have to help each other, that we have to stick together." To that end, Trillos works with a local printer to source and print all Cao packaging, a decision that not only stayed true to his business ideals, but also brought on a new consumer benefit in the form of highly customizable packaging for corporate gifts and events, such as weddings and baby showers.
Cao's sales also took an upward swing when Trillos launched a delivery service early on, realizing that customers—mainly corporate clients—wanted product immediately, but were unwilling to pay for overnight shipping. “If you can't make it to the shop, we'll bring it to you," says Trillos, who opened his retail store and cafe in 2012 and schedules deliveries to different areas in South Florida throughout the week. The service also helped increase online orders from out-of-state customers looking to send hand-delivered gifts to friends, family and clients in Miami.
Looking forward, Trillos—who has turned down multiple offers to franchise the business, citing concerns that others would not infuse the same passion—plans to open a second store in South Florida within the next two years and a third outside of the state (he's looking at New York and Chicago among other cities) within five. He also sees immediate potential in using his advantageous importing location in Miami to continue to expand his exotic chocolate offerings, connecting with international growers via the chocolate community on social media. “We've been expanding our horizons and incorporating … new chocolate bars made with cacao from the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Peru, Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Brazil and Tanzania," he says. “We are actually waiting for more samples of different new sources. The best part is the tasting process."
Trillos believes this exotic bent will continue to set the Cao brand apart, drawing interest from established specialty markets and helping him build on his retail presence nationwide. “You can't put all your eggs in one basket," Trillos says of Cao's ongoing evolution. “We're constantly moving forward."
Photos: Alain Alminana from AAR Photo Miami / Courtesy of Cao Chocolates
CAO CHOCOLATES / RICARDO TRILLOS / MEMBER SINCE 14