Erika Chavez-Graziano doesn’t remember much about the early days of Cellar Door Chocolates. She was operating out of rented kitchens, first at the now-defunct O’Neil’s Sweet Shop in Jeffersontown, then in a 250-square-foot kitchen at Quills Coffee on Baxter Avenue, where she also sold her chocolates. Starting out, she estimates she worked more than 80 hours a week to develop truffle and bourbon ball recipes and find places to sell them. “It was hard — chocolate is a difficult mistress,” she says. The biggest challenge: learning to temper the chocolate. That’s the process in which the chocolate is exposed to different temperatures to ensure that the finished product has a smooth, glossy surface. “A lot of people think (making chocolates) is just melting it in the microwave and then pouring it into a mold, and voilà, but that’s not the case at all,” says Chavez-Graziano, 33. Today, Cellar Door chocolates are sold in some 30 boutiques around town, and in the company’s own retail stores in the Butchertown Market (1201 Story Ave.) and Oxmoor Mall.
Before starting Cellar Door in 2007, Chavez-Graziano was about to finish her master’s degree in political science at the University of Louisville. She was burned out in academia, and her adviser suggested she do something with the chocolates she’d make and bring to class. Chavez-Graziano got into making chocolates when she visited a shop that sold chocolate-making supplies in her hometown of Albuquerque, N.M. She’d always been into baking, but she really liked the challenge of working with chocolate. Her first creations at home: raspberry and cayenne pepper truffles. The biggest challenge in starting a business was increasing the amount of truffles and doing everything by hand. “I was used to making truffles at home in small batches and the largest batch was maybe like 200,” she says. “Translating that into thousands was not as easy as I thought.”
Another challenge: making chocolates that can sit on a shelf at room temperature. “When it gets really, really humid in Louisville, something magical happens inside the truffle if you’re not careful,” she says. “It’s terrifying to bite into something and find mold. Unless it’s cheese.” She only had one mishap like that.
Currently, about 4,000 pounds of Cellar Door’s best-seller, the chocolate-covered sea-salt caramels ($1.36 each), come out of the 5,000 square-foot kitchen in Butchertown Market per year. That’s in addition to more than 12 varieties of truffles and other chocolates.
Chavez-Graziano says she still works about 80 hours a week doing sales and marketing and helping out in the kitchen. Last year she and two business partners opened the Jackknife Cafe, a breakfast and lunch place in Butchertown Market. Chavez-Graziano says she feels like all her hard work paid off when she could hire people for the kitchen and retail operations. “Being able to employ as many people as I do (10 total), that makes me feel like I’ve made it,” she says, then adds: “When I pay my bills, that’s how I know I’m successful, too.”
Photo Courtesy Mickie Winters