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Sweets and Beauty Amid Economic Crisis

New America Media, News Report, Inga Buchbinder Posted: May 30, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- In a time of recession when many unemployed are busy searching for new jobs or even becoming street vendors, Shawn Williams, 28, is banking on making and delivering his hand-made chocolates. In fact, William is working slowly and steadily to make his boutique chocolate company, Au Coeur des Chocolats, a success.

"I'm determined, and there's nothing else that I want to do in my life, William said. According to Williams, it takes an obsessed and determined person to get a business up and running.

Williams cooking career began in high school and includes a stint as a personal chef in the Navy in Naples, Italy, and as an apprentice in chocolate making to Doug Besagio at the California Culinary Academy. Ewald Notter, known as one of the best confectioners in the world, later asked Williams to work with him in Florida. "My theory has been to find out who's the best in your trade and go work there," Williams said.

Even with the help of Basegio, his mentor, starting his own business has not been a piece of cake. Williams started Au Coeur des Chocolats, or Heart of Chocolates, two years before the recession set in. As with any start-up company, there was a lot of planning, hard work and long hours that went into it, and Williams refuses to put out a product unless everything is right, he said.

The greatest challenge is securing accounts with grocery stores and hotels because they often have contracts with larger companies for their food services, which makes it harder for smaller companies to get their foot in the door. "I was really surprised how hard it is to put up wholesale accounts," Williams said. Sometimes it takes six months of consistent contact through e-mail and chocolate samples to get into one store, Williams said. And after all that, there is no guarantee of snagging a new customer.

The economys downturn poses some hurdles for Williams, but candy sales in general and chocolates in particular have not felt the recession. In fact, nationwide chocolate sales grew by nearly 4 percent over the last year, according to the National Confectioners Association.
chocolatesWilliams and Basegio have made sure that any profit that comes from selling the chocolates to hotels like the Marriot Santa Clara and the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport, as well as wholesale grocery stores like Andronico's and Alameda Natural Grocery, goes right back into the business.

Currently, Williams is the face of the company, the sales department, the chef and artist behind the beautiful chocolates, as well as the delivery guy. He makes all of the chocolates by hand in their commercial kitchen in Redwood City, Calif.

To help keep his dream alive and pay the bills, Williams also works full time at the Professional Culinary Institute in Campbell, Calif., teaching baking and pastry making. Williams will have the next two months off of teaching, but he is not worrying over lack of income. Instead, he is using this time wisely to immerse himself into Au Coeur des Chocolats.

"We would have no problem selling them retail in a store for two dollars apiece, Williams said. But unfortunately retail stores have large startup costs, which aren't in the cards at the moment.

Its not just technique that is necessary to make a boutique chocolate. Williams brings his own artistic vision to this delicious art form by using airbrushes, molding and his fingers. His dedication is clear with his detailed and enthusiastic description of the chocolate making process, including the scientific properties of chocolate.

Although he enjoys getting creative with the colors of chocolate, Williams likes food too much to leave it behind for paints and a canvas. "Sometimes you get bored eating a big bowl of ice cream. By the end of the bowl its all the same, your mouth gets used to it. With chocolate it's only 10 or 12 grams...and you pack as much intense flavor inside of it so you don't get bored.

Williams spent some time showcasing his chocolates with samples at the Andronicos on Shattuck Ave in Berkeley, Calif. It was his first time doing a display table in a store, but he wasn't nervous. "I'm in front of 15 students everyday," he said.

From the moment he set up the table covered in artesian chocolate, shoppers stopped by to see if they could have a nibble. After all "everyone loves free chocolate," Williams said. Most people wanted to know William's personal favorite for their taste test.

"You should buy them for your girlfriend," Chanel Smith said to a young man perusing the chocolates. "She'll fall in love with you."

"I'm confident, not arrogant, but confident that our product is better than most out there" William said.

The look, particularly the shine of the chocolates, is something that Williams is proud of because it separates him from other chocolatiers who don't "put the same quality into the product." He hopes that consumers will begin to notice the difference.

Whats next for Williams and Au Coeur des Chocolats? Artisan ice cream.

Photos by: Inga Buchbinder

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