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She gave up $100,000 a year job in banking to seek ‘world chocolate domination’

She gave up $100,000 a year job in banking to seek ‘world chocolate domination’

Sarah Dwyer has a sweet gig. The 45-year-old entrepreneur manufactures high-end chocolates. She owns her own business, called Chouquette (pronounced shoo-ket). She makes money. And her creations are plastered all over the area, in places such as the Four Seasons Georgetown, the White House Historical Society and even at swanky events (a salute to a philanthropic billionaire).

But under the cheerful personality lies a hard-nosed business executive.

“I love the creative and sales side, as well as making the actual chocolates, but I have to be both smart and careful to grow Chouquette,” said Ms Dwyer, who spent nine years in the financial sector. “My personal growth — starting with being an artisan to managing the business to the entrepreneur building a brand — is key to Chouquette’s success and to world chocolate domination.”

Case in point: A few years ago, the business was chugging along through sales at farmers markets when she blew it all up.

“The farm markets were fun. Meeting all those people. Bringing in money,” she said. “But I wasn’t growing my business.” The problem was that she was a retailer at the farmers markets, which meant she not only made the chocolates but had to sell them, too, requiring a big labor investment.

“I was spread too thin,” Ms Dwyer said. “We did farm markets four days a week.”

The way to scale a business is to make the chocolates, then sell them wholesale to many retailers and let them take it from there.

“Was I going to do farm markets and be in this region only?” she said. “Or go the wholesale route and try and grow into a national brand?”

She chose “world chocolate domination.” Her sweets are in California, Japan and Bermuda — and all over Washington.

Chouquette (translation: little cabbage) is a robust little business and growing fast. I spent a few hours with Ms Dwyer recently at the kitchen she rents four nights a week, tucked in a corner of a low-industrial park in Montgomery County, Maryland.

About a dozen workers earning the minimum wage of $11.50 an hour manned an assembly line scooping, scraping chocolate and piping Ms Dwyer’s secret caramel recipe from plastic bags into chocolate shells.

The entire process, including customised stencils for clients, takes around two hours and typically results in around 3,000 caramel-filled chocolates with flavours such as vanilla with sea salt (most popular), balsamic, bay spice, chai and lavender. The chocolates are packaged into five-piece boxes that sell for $15. Chouquette makes more than 100,000 chocolate pieces a year. I estimate the profit after cost of goods and labor and rent at around $1 per piece.

This is inspiring: a little enterprise in a quiet corner, creating something of value and employing people, some of whom come from Cornerstone Montgomery, which employs people with mental-health disorders or substance-use challenges.

Chouquette projects up to $450,000 in sales this year, up from less than $300,000 in 2016. The business has a net profit margin of around 10 per cent. High-margin corporate orders make up 40pc of sales, with wholesale to the 140-plus stores that carry Chouquette being another 40pc. Special events take in the rest.

Ms Dwyer works about 60 hours a week, with Monday through Thursday in the kitchen, which she rents for $25 an hour.

The all-business side of her brain kicks in on Fridays. She reserves that day for website management, ordering supplies, hiring (and sometimes firing) and accounting, which she performs on QuickBooks.

Bloomberg-The Washington Post Service

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2017

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