May 17, 2013

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A Lifetime of Chocolates

Brian Pelletier says that his passion found him. It was at a dinner party in March of 2008. He was seated next to an acquaintance who mentioned she was selling her chocolate business. Suddenly light bulbs flashed, and Brian knew he was going to spend the rest of his life with chocolates. Not that he had a clue what it took to be a chocolatier.            

Sure, as a child growing up in Minnesota he liked candy, but not exceptionally so, and as an adult he enjoyed cooking, but only for himself and casual parties, not professionally. Up until this “aha” moment, Brian had been a public relations specialist working at Fleishman-Hillard in St. Louis on big accounts such as Emerson Electric and AT&T.

Brian can’t explain what spurred him to become Willy Wonka, but his interest in math and science could have been a factor, as making chocolate is a scientific process; much of what happens is on the molecular level. He also enjoys working with his hands, another factor as Kakao candies are all handmade.

Whatever the reasons, Brian said “I do” to chocolate—in his heart immediately, and in real time about a month later, when he officially bought the Kakao name, some equipment, and many boxes of ingredients from Heather Wessels. Starting from scratch, he enlisted Heather’s help to learn the basics, such as how to temper chocolate and make truffles and the secrets of ganache, the sweet creamy centers to be dipped in a chocolate coat.

By June 2008, Brian had rented space in a catering kitchen on Cherokee Street in south St. Louis and was making candy to sell at farmer’s markets and a few retail shops. By May 2009, Brian was so busy that he left the catering kitchen and opened his own shop in St. Louis’s Fox Park neighborhood. Despite not being in a high foot-traffic area or in an upscale section of St. Louis, the business for Kakao’s luxury candies boomed. Less than two years later, he opened a second shop in Maplewood.

Today, Kakao boasts two shops, nine employees, and a reputation that spreads far beyond the St. Louis metropolitan area.

Of course Brian’s public relations background gave him the know-how to market Kakao, but the real secret of his success belongs to the taste and quality of the confections.

All natural, Kakao’s candies are made in small batches by hand, which Brian claims allows more creativity. Most fans say that Kakao’s creative flavor combinations set them apart from and ahead of competitors. Kakao’s truffles come flavored with single-malt scotch, Turkish coffee and cardamom, chile, garlic, and other whimsical combinations.

“We learn by doing,” says Brian, who has hired other untrained candy makers like himself. “I only have two rules: (1) Don’t burn the place down, and (2) Have fun.

“I encourage my candy makers to come up with their own ideas. So they create something, and then we all casually give input and advice. Rarely does something not work.”

One of the most creative concoctions Brian has encountered was the Elvis truffle, a banana ganache dipped in peanut butter and white chocolate and topped with real bacon.

Sometimes the creative flavors become so popular they stay on the menu. Other times they play a brief supporting role to the shops’ superstar sellers: caramel with salt, lavender truffles, and the chocolate marshmallow pie.

But chocolate isn’t the only focus. Kakao’s long list of confections include flavored marshmallows, fruit jellies, brittles, dragées, and nougats.

Candies are made at both shops, and although each shop may have its own mix, generally the candies made in one shop are shared with the other. The two shops vary little in design and function. Both have vanilla-colored walls painted with tangerine and cocoa-brown murals. Both facilities have large open areas divided by a partial counter, which holds samples of the day’s specialties. Behind the counter, the staff works in the open making the confections that are eventually moved to tables and shelves in front of the counter for sale.

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