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    As Valentine’s Day draws nearer, many flock to grocery stores, flower shops and local businesses for the perfect gift. Erika Chavez-Graziano, however, ensures that you don’t have to go far to purchase a delicious, beautiful product for your love, year round. As the owner of Cellar Door Chocolates, Chavez-Graziano knows a thing or two about the art of being a chocolatier. With years of experience, a degree in economics from the University of New Mexico and two companies under her belt, she has perfected the art of pleasing business people and sweet-toothed individuals alike for almost eight years now. I had the sincere pleasure of sitting down with the Owner and Head Chocolatier of my favorite chocolate company in town and here’s what we discussed:

    Where did your love of chocolate come from?
    “Well, I’m self-taught. So, I always say I do love chocolate, but my passion is business. It just so happens that I’m good at making chocolate, which is nice, but really my passion is growing the business and becoming an incubator for chocolatier talent. For the first three years it was just me making the chocolate, marketing the chocolate, doing everything. And then, in 2010, I moved in here. The first year and a half, I made the chocolate out of a now-closed chocolate company called Onell’s Sweet Shop and for the next year and a half, I made it out of Quills Coffee. And then, once we had a strong enough following, I moved in here and had my first chocolate kitchen that was all mine. Now we have a 5,000 square foot production facility in the building, so we always have at least four full-time chocolatiers on hand and a lot of part-time people and full-time people working up front and at the kiosks, so it’s a much larger operation than it was a couple of years ago.”

    So, what made you start loving chocolate then? Did you ever develop a sweet tooth when you were younger?
    “That’s the crazy thing - there’s not a romantic story about it. It’s really…I had lost all interest in academia. And I was talking with my advisor and she was like, “try something with your chocolates.” And I knew in the back of my mind that I had always wanted my own business. So, when I was younger, I had bake sales and would play bank and would sell the most Girl Scout cookies and those sorts of things, but I always wanted my own business. So I looked at that as a real opportunity to launch my career as an entrepreneur. If you start with basic, good ingredients and don’t muddle that up, you’re going to have a delicious chocolate, so our chocolates really stood out because we start with a very good, very expensive chocolate and then we just add to it. We compliment it with flavors; we don’t want to mask the flavors because we spend so much money on it. But that’s how it all happened. Would I do it all over again? Of course I would. Everything just all kind of worked out.”

    Why did you choose Louisville?
    “Louisville chose me. I really wanted to plant some deep roots here because I loved it. I loved this city. So what better way to start a business? I just knew this was where I wanted to be. I just had to figure out a way for me to stay.”

    What made you want to become a business owner?
    “I love the idea of building something into something bigger. Whether it’s investing money into more money or it’s the idea built into a larger idea, it’s the big picture of it. It’s a thrill unlike anything else I’ve ever felt before. It’s really thrilling. But it’s humbling, too, because nobody needs chocolate. They have to spend their hard-earned disposable income on me, you know? And one day it could all go away, so it makes me want to do my job better and to always stay on the ball and make sure we sing for our supper. We can’t ever take our eye off of the ball. We have to continue to grow, because once a company stops growing, you can’t give employees raises, you can’t compete with other people, you just can’t stay relevant in the industry. And my industry is tiny. It’s tiny, but it’s competitive because, like I said, nobody needs chocolate.”

    What was an important lesson you learned while starting your business?
    “Let’s see… there’s so many. The most important lesson…the thing that I did, that I’m always grateful I did do, was that I didn’t have a retail shop in the beginning. I had very little overhead cost, which allowed the company to weather the recession of 2008 and really focus on the product. Because, if you look at our chocolates compared to other chocolatiers, our chocolate is beautiful indeed, but if you look at the quality of the chocolate, it is not parallel to any one else. Having that time to focus on the chocolate and not on the retail really allowed me to fine-hone my skills. I’m not trained as a chocolatier; I’m trained as an economist. So I had all the time to really do that. It also taught me [about] building relationships. I didn’t have a storefront. My storefront was me. It really taught me how important networking is and how important it is to be kind. You never know who you’re going to meet and if the person you’re going to meet today is going to have an impact on your business two, three, four years from now.

    How do you get your new ideas for all your creations?
    “Well, I’m Mexican-Italian, so I rely a lot on my heritage and those flavors. But also, each individual that works here, they all come from a rich family history of something. And so everybody has ideas. And I give all the girls some creative license over what they make. Ultimately, I have the final say in taste and quality, but if somebody’s like, “Oh my God, Erika, I want to do this…” I say, “Well, go ahead and make it!” And sometimes it works. And other times it’s like, “Well, how can we improve it?” But before a product goes from us to you, it has to have the shock, the wow factor. The first time you eat it, if you don’t make that face, then it doesn’t go on the shelf. It has to be super delicious. And that’s a technical term, ‘super delicious.’”

    What’s your biggest success?
    “Being able to employ as many people as I do. And not having to lay someone off because we were unable to give them work. We keep adding to our staff.”

    What has been your biggest challenge as an entrepreneur?
    “The larger you grow as a company, as you become more financially secure – and even as a company you’re never really financially secure – it can become a lonely place. Because you find yourself as someone who is like, “Wow, you’re interviewing me as someone who’s supposed to be important in Louisville,” but then I find myself asking myself how do I stay there? Sometimes you find yourself in a state of anxiety, because you have to continue to do a good job. You know you can do it, you know you have the tools in your toolbox. But if I make one bad decision that folds the company, 15 people are out of a job and I take that seriously. It’s important that I have a clear head and make the right decisions, but also, it’s important to me that within my industry. There’s a sense of camaraderie, because even though we are all in competition because we sell the same product, we really don’t sell the same product. You can go to me and buy something from me, and go to Muth’s and buy something from Muth’s, and they’re two different products. So, to me, to have a sense of camaraderie within an industry. If you have that, you can rely on each other when things get stressful. You can talk to each other, you can use each other as genuine comrades.

    How did you all prepare for the Emmys?
    “We had 30,000 pieces of chocolate. We were invited to the actual dinners; we didn’t have swag bags or anything like that. We had stations. We had 1,500 pounds of chocolate that we drove to Los Angeles, and it was amazing. We did the Creative Arts Emmys and we did the Primetime Emmys and we had a nominee reception party in-between. These events are high profile, and you can’t be bothered with celebrities. We were there to do the job. We were able to see a lot of amazing people, but, unfortunately, we couldn’t interact with them.

    It was amazing to see and be a part of such a huge production. The Emmy dinners are the largest sit-down dinners in America and they flow so well. Everybody know their place, the plates come out, the plates get cleared, everybody gets their drinks, the music is amazing, over here you have this art display going on, over here this laser show, and it’s just like, BAM! And everybody does their job. And it’s just beautiful. Shit happens and things go wrong, but it’s just like, “Let’s fix it, let’s go on.” It was just amazing to watch it. It made me want to be a better person and make my company run as smooth as that. It was good for me, it was good for my employees to be a part of something that big, and were all just floored and amazed.”

    Photo courtesy of Style Blueprint Louisville

     

    Aimee Jewell's picture

    About Aimee Jewell

    My name is Aimee Jewell and I am a graduate student at Bellarmine University, where I'm studying communication. When I'm not writing for Louisville.com, you can find me at the Louisville Palace, the Mercury Ballroom, or Camp Hi Ho helping with events. Follow me and see what I'm up to on Twitter at @AimeeJewell13.

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