Chicago Chocolate Cafe
847 W. Randolph
Growing up in South Bend, Indiana, Eric Moore looked forward to his traditional Christmas gift every year: Fannie May Mint Meltaways. He still has a soft spot for the brand. "Fannie May did a lot of things right," he says. When its parent company, the Archibald Candy Corporation, filed for bankruptcy in January 2004, closing the Chicago plant and 228 retail stores, he says, "it kind of broke my heart a little bit." (The new parent company, Alpine Confections, has since reopened some of those stores.)
But Fannie May's loss was Moore's gain. When the local chocolate giant was unable to fulfill some corporate holiday orders at the end of the year, Moore's Chicago Chocolate Company, which at the time sold candy only through its Web site (chicagochocolate.com)--mostly corporate gifts like bars molded in the designs of company logos--stepped up. "We had a number of clients calling us, frantic," Moore says. "We had one that had been with them 35 years, and we were able to turn around and get it done in ten days. And it was a pretty big order. We worked around the clock."
Moore had wanted to open a cafe for a while, and that holiday season gave him the capital he needed. He started scouting retail space, eventually settling on an 8,000-square-foot space in the West Loop that used to house a health club and a bank.
The Chicago Chocolate Cafe, which opened in early May, sells chocolates packaged and by the pound. A three-ounce bag of peanut-butter-chocolate malted milk balls goes for $4; one pound of Ruby Reds--dried cherries coated in red chocolate--is $15. The cafe also serves soups, salads, sandwiches, ice cream, several varieties of cheesecake, chocolate fondue, and espresso drinks. All mochas are garnished with milk chocolate shavings, liquid milk chocolate, whipped cream, and a cherry, and are accompanied by a chocolate-dipped spoon.
And then there are the chocolate fountains. I pictured gushing fonts tumbling over outcroppings of chocolate boulders, framed by lush foliage, perhaps an orchid blossom or two. So I was a little disappointed when I saw the Chicago Chocolate Cafe's three specimens, one each of milk, dark, and white chocolate. They look like wet, quivering tier cakes on industrial stainless-steel bases. Moore tells me that his company actually owns 12 of them, as they occasionally have to be switched out for cleaning. Sadly, you can't dunk anything into them--they're just for display. But they can be rented for $400 (dunking materials are extra).
Moore, who's 40, is more Wall Street than Wonka; he came to the chocolate biz only recently, at a friend's urging. He traded options in New York and London for 14 years, about half that time for Merrill Lynch. In 1997 his childhood friend Mark Tarner tried to get Moore to buy into his business, the South Bend Chocolate Company, which makes and sells candy and has a cafe, but Moore wasn't interested. "I didn't think it was going to work," he says. "I couldn't visualize what he was visualizing."
But Moore longed to return to the midwest. "Chicago is where I grew up, where I started my career, where I got married," he says. "London and New York were not Chicago. Chicago is clean; the people are nice. I would have conversations with people there about how great Chicago is, and they'd say, 'Then why don't you go back there?' and I would say, 'I will!'"
A few years ago Tarner, whose company was doing quite well, approached Moore again, and this time Moore was interested. "His business plan was proven," Moore says. "But if it'd been any other area besides the midwest, I wouldn't have gone for it. The company became my excuse to come back."
In July 2003 Tarner, Moore, and Moore's younger brother Todd founded the Chicago Chocolate Company as a sister to the South Bend company. Eric Moore still lives in New Jersey with his wife and four kids and commutes weekly to Chicago, where he stays in an apartment above the cafe. "It smells like chocolate all the time," he says. Once he sells his New Jersey house, he'll bring the family out.
He shows me the second-floor space, where there's an exhibit, open to the public until the end of October, about the history of candy making in Chicago. "We've got stuff about making chocolate and pieces about specific companies: Blommer, Fannie May, Frango, Brach's, Tootsie Roll," he says. Part of the exhibit's devoted to cacao trees and their football-shaped pods (which contain the seeds, or beans); other displays contain antique candy boxes and candy-making paraphernalia. In the future, this room will likely be given over to chocolate production.
Most of the panning--the process by which fruits and nuts are covered--is done downstairs. The two panners, large hollow steel globes that look like giant old-school astronaut helmets, are visible from the cafe through a window behind the coffee bar. (Truffles and creams are not panned but enrobed--this requires a conveyor and other equipment, plus more factory space than the West Loop facility has, so Chicago Chocolate enrobes its stuff in South Bend.) Almost all the suppliers are local: the ice cream comes from the Plush Horse in Palos Park, the cheesecake from Leo's on Madison, and other baked goods from Turano Baking Company. And the raw chocolate, Moore tells me, travels just a few blocks, from Blommer Chocolate Company on Kinzie.
This last one confused me: shouldn't a chocolate company make its own chocolate? Moore set me straight. It's expensive and time-consuming to turn cacao beans into raw chocolate. The beans must be fermented, roasted, ground, and stirred carefully until the chocolate acquires the right texture and aroma. "You have to be on a monster scale to make it work," he says, so only a handful of companies do it. Blommer is the largest of these in North America, and they supply chocolate to Fannie May, Nestle, and General Mills. They produce several grades of raw chocolate, and Chicago Chocolate Company uses one of the highest. Once received in solid bars, the raw stuff must be melted and tempered, a delicate process of heating and cooling that enables the chocolate to hold on to whatever you dip in it--like a blueberry or a peanut--and maintain a glossy appearance and snappy texture. "There's a lot of chemistry to chocolate," Moore says. "Even the high-end scientists don't know how or why some of these processes happen. Chocolate is mysterious. I never thought it was going to be as complex as it is."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.