In the world of chocolate, there are few American stars, let alone women that steal the show. Meeting both these categories, it’s no surprise that Katrina Markoff is known for the unconventional. Katrina credits numerous influences, many of which wouldn’t naturally translate into artisan chocolate, for her cutting-edge approach to the confection. Despite her winding road to success, however, this female entrepreneur stands out in a very competitive field.
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Katrina Markoff is an American native, raised in Chicago. Despite her distinctly American roots, however, she has culinary influences that span the globe. As far as formal education, she attended the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school located in Paris and earned a degree. Unlike many of her chocolatier colleagues, Katrina did not immediately take a job in a restaurant or go to work in her field. Instead, she spent some time globe-trotting and apprenticing, focusing specifically on local street food where she travelled. She paid close attention to flavour combinations, ingredients and traditions, fully immersing herself in the food of the locales she visited. In 1997, after eight months of eating bliss, Katrina returned home and got to work.
While Katrina was ready to settle down a bit after her world travels, she wasn’t exactly working in her field of study. Surprisingly, instead of applying for a position as a chef or patisserie in a Chicago restaurant, she turned to the family business. Katrina’s uncle offered her a position in his furniture business and she took him up on it. While this wasn’t exactly what she had trained for, it allowed her to focus on her business, management and customer service skills. After a year of tutelage from her uncle, Katrina set out to make her own way, returning to her culinary roots.
Katrina Markoff opened her first retail location in 2008, in her hometown of Chicago, with the assistance of a Small Business Administration loan. Playing off her traditional French culinary education, she christened her company Vosges Haut-Chocolat and began her venture with a strong focus on exotic truffles. Drawing from the palette, experience and culinary notes from her world travels, Katrina made her product line culturally diverse. Three distinct flavours launched the company. Katrina’s Naga truffle blended the Middle Eastern flavours of curry and coconut, while her Budapest line was infused with paprika. A third truffle brought a distinctly Asian flair to the launch, matching the heat of wasabi with ginger and sesame seed. One of the main draws of this initial line was the unexpected flavours, surprising the palettes of customers and bringing them back for more.
After the initial success of her premiere chocolate line, Markoff began the slow and steady process of building her business. In the early days, she leased a commercial kitchen for manufacturing. After successfully pitching her truffle line to the department store Neiman Marcus, Katrina was soon aware that the demand for her product was becoming more than her current abilities could match. Despite the fact that Markoff hadn’t fully developed her branding, marketing or packaging designs, she felt confident enough to risk more and larger loans to open her own manufacturing plant in 2002. Due to her expertise in the kitchen and a sound and flavourful product line, this gamble ultimately paid off. By 2006, Katrina boasted sales that exceeded $7 million and was able to pay herself a healthy salary of $80,000 per year. In reality, the company generated enough revenues for a higher salary, but the desire for strong and sustainable growth led the CEO to invest the majority of the company’s profit back into her dream.
Today, Kristina still maintains a close and hands-on control of Vosges Haut-Chocolat. The company employs a mere 30 people. In addition to the Chicago storefront, Markoff now oversees two successful locations in New York and Las Vegas, with an international shop set to launch in Japan. The focal product of Vosges is still the exotic truffles, but Markoff also sells candy bars, drinking chocolate, bon bons and other traditional confections. The company runs its manufacturing facility on sustainable energy and is proud to offer organic, gluten-free and vegan options for customers. Vosges Haut-Chocolat also has a complete product line built around the iconic combination of bacon and chocolate. Most of Katrina’s early truffle creations are still available in the regular product line. In addition, at least four new items are released every year, with Katrina maintaining creative control of all flavours on the menu.
The chocolates offered by Katrina at her Vosges Haut-Chocolat stores and website are on the mid to high end of the pricing scale. A box of four truffles costs just over ten dollars. These are, however, some of the most expensive products on the Vosges shelves. Chocolate bars and other items are more affordable.
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