Location: Based in Portland, OR but sold all over the US
Portland-based chocolatier Steve Lawrence has been in the food business since he started washing restaurant dishes as a teenager. Now he’s ascended to the top of the heap of fine chocolate makers in the United States.
We were able to grab a few sweet moments with Steve during this busy time of year - Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us! - to talk about his growing business, the science of chocolate and how much his wife loves his job.
Steve, how did you get into the chocolate business?
Many years ago, when I lived in Denver, I was a pastry chef. I’d always enjoyed working with chocolate but found it challenging. For such a simple food, chocolate is very complex in the way it responds to time and temperature and movement. When my wife and I moved to Seattle in the 1990s, I went to work for Fran Bigelow, whose business,Fran's Chocolates, became one of the most famous chocolate shops in the US. I was intimately involved in the production, which made it clear to me that chocolate is where I wanted to focus my career.
What is it about chocolate that so intrigues you?
It’s both really fun and really frustrating to work with. It’s a unique food because it’s actually the seed of a fruit, the cacao fruit. The unique aspect of this fruit is that it’s 50% fat. It’s called a polymorphic fat, and it can be solid in many different forms.
Ginger and pistachios in 70% Venezuelan chocolate. (Source: @chocolatemakersstudio)
Did you start your career as a pastry chef, or did you do something else before entering the culinary field?
I’ve always been in the food industry. I started as a kid washing dishes at 15. Continuing in the food business led me to work in finer foods, then become a pastry chef and, now, a chocolatier.
What has been the biggest surprise or challenge so far after starting your own business?
That you can't do everything by yourself and expect everything to be done well. Most artisans like to focus on their craft, not on the business side.
So, do you have help for the business side? Any employees?
During busy seasons, like Valentine’s or the holidays, I'll bring in someone to do packaging, but I don't have any full time employees yet. As business has increased dramatically over the past two years, it's become clear I'll have to make the transition to becoming an employer soon.
An assortment of Steve’s handmade chocolates. (Source: Antonelli’s Cheese Shop)
Your business has grown a lot recently. When was the moment you knew it was really “taking off”?
The Chocolate Makers Studio has existed since 2008, but I knew after returning to Portland two-and-half-years ago that things were taking off.
I first started the company when we were living in Baton Rouge, and my wife was working as a professor at Louisiana State University. I sold my chocolates at their lovely local farmers market. When my wife got hired at the University of Texas and we moved to Austin, my first really big account was withAntonelli's Cheese Shop which has a section of curated, mostly local, fine foods. Austin is a foodie town, so other specialty stores were paying attention to what Antonelli's carried, and that really helped things take off. Antonelli’s still carries my Salted Brown Butter Texas Pecan Brittle Bar and my Salted Caramel bars.
I started shipping chocolates to Portland's ownCacao, a specialty chocolate shop, which brought attention to my brand in the Northwest. We had the opportunity to move back to Portland when my wife got hired by the University of Oregon. Portland is a city that loves food, local producers and curated food shops.
It sounds like your wife’s career took you and your chocolate all over the US! How excited is your wife to be married to a chocolatier?
She does know that rejects come home with me, because even if they’re not perfect, they are certainly edible! She can tell when things are going well at the studio because there isn’t a pile of rejected chocolate on the dining room table.
Dark chocolate hearts with real flakes of gold. (Source: @chocolatemakersstudio)
It’s almost Valentine’s Day, a very busy time of year for you. How do you show love to your customers, and how do they show love to you?
I do a fair amount of events where I sample chocolate to people and it’s fun to interact and talk about the technical aspects of making it. The science behind chocolate making really is intriguing for a lot of people. I do an event at a local winery, and there I can do some one-on-one in a retail setting which is fun. People are excited to see it and learn about it -- and eat it, of course.
What’s next for The Chocolate Maker’s Studio?
I have big plans for expansion this year. I want to open a brick-and-mortar retail shop in Portland, as well as an online store.
Anything else you want to share about the life of a chocolatier?
Do I eat chocolate every day? Yes, I do.
QB Community Members, how did you know it was time to hire your first employee? How did you prepare for becoming an employer?
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I've worked in print, broadcast and digital media for 20 years and managed to start a couple small businesses along the way. I love collaborating with and supporting creative folks who have great ideas. As Content Creator for the QB Community team, I’m excited to help other small-business owners be the best they can be!