In the heart of San Francisco's financial district is a newsstand that carries what you would expect—lots of magazines and newspapers. But then you notice that the snack area is filled with premium chocolate bars. We are talking a "wall" of chocolate and, if you are lucky, a Chocolate Tasting is being held right in the front of the store. And surprise, surprise! The owner, Adam Smith, and staff really know their chocolate.
What made you build what is undoubtedly the largest and best selection of quality chocolate bars I've found—rivaling the Hall of Bars at Eurochocolate?
Well, my goodness, thank you. It was something that happened very organically, but quite logically, looking back on it. I set out to open the best newsstand in San Francisco—one that would draw a well-read and international clientele. And that's exactly what happened. Well, lo and behold, that clientele had international tastes, not just in magazines, but in things like chocolate too!
Once my staff and I began looking into these chocolates, we realized how most Americans had so little exposure to fine chocolate. Within a year we were offering 100 different premium chocolate bars and thought, "Well, that should cover it." Little did we know that was just the tip of the iceberg! ...I'm often reminded of something a regular customer once said. He is an avid magazine reader and has been coming in since Day One. Looking at customers browsing the chocolate section and shaking his head, he said to me, "I can't tell if this is a magazine store that sells chocolate, or if it has become a chocolate store that sells magazines."
Do you have any formal training in chocolate tasting?
I'm happy to say that I don't. I am the perfect case study of how ANYONE can train themselves to become a tasting expert. Like anything, you get out of it what you put into it. If one regularly and consistently tastes chocolate in a focused, in-depth way, then there's no way you can't discover all the flavor nuances it possesses. Of course, I've also been reading anything about chocolate that I can get my hands on. It's helpful to run a store that offers 80+ food magazines.
Your staff is just as passionate and knowledgeable about chocolate as you are—how do you do that?
Every single day, when they are sampling out product at the counter, or just discussing chocolate with customers out on the sales floor, they get to witness new customers' "Aha!" moments when they realize all that they have been missing by consuming mass-market chocolate up until then. So I think, for them, it's the thrill of being part of a new, exciting chocolate movement.
In terms of being knowledgeable, their education is constant. It has to be, to keep up with the passions of our clientele. We conduct staff tastings two to three times a week, and we don't just taste product, we discuss industry news and trends. They read articles and books that I pass on to them. And, of course, there is no substitute for the opportunity they have to meet chocolatiers who come to do casual meet-and-greet events at the store. To hear firsthand how chocolatiers make their products, or what are their sources of inspiration, is invaluable.
Your Premium Chocolate Passport has a twist from the normal loyalty programs, doesn't it?
It's nice—and I think it's a good business decision—to give something back to loyal customers. So when the customer buys 10 different chocolate bars, they get the 11th one for free. But my thinking about the Passport came from the opposite direction of just a volume discount program. I was noticing that customers would try a few bars and when they had found one that struck a chord with them, they would settle on that one and never buy anything else. And I thought this was terrible waste of our selection!
First and foremost, I am always trying to encourage exploration. When the exploration stops, the learning stops. So the twist to the Passport is that the customer has to buy ten different bars to get the 11th free bar. The other twist is that the Passport is more than just a punch card—it's a tasting diary of sorts—because we actually record the names of the bars on the card. That way, the customer doesn't have to save wrappers, etc., and we can review their diary with them and discuss what their preferences have been thus far.
What is your personal favorite, out of all the bars in your database, and why?
Ha, ha! Well, we don't really have favorites at the store. My staff is trained not to have them. Every bar is completely unique. We enjoy the whole spectrum, from 100% unsweetened dark chocolate all the way down to white chocolate. And every portion of the spectrum has something to offer to tasters who are open-minded.
The minute you say that you have a favorite means that the exploration has stopped. In fact, when a customer says, "Bar X is my favorite," I will say, "Oh, that's too bad."... Maybe it's the bar they have enjoyed the most—based on what they have tried thus far—because of X, Y, Z aspects. But most of the time they aren't even aware of, or can put into words, that those particular aspects are what they are most attuned to and thus enjoy the most.
By searching through our database of tasting notes, most of the time we can zero in on those aspects and reveal a whole other set of bars that may be even more interesting than their "favorite." Then we achieve that fun "Aha!" moment again.
455 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
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