Success Stories – Katrina Markoff

Bite into one of Vosges Haut-Chocolat’s Naga truffles. What do you taste? Exotic ingredients like curry and coconut extract? Check. Top-quality milk chocolate? You bet. But there’s another essential element that adds to the complexity of this delicacy: a story.

“I came up with the idea of using chocolate as a medium to explore other artists, cultures, movements, religions, based on this necklace I had from the Nagaland tribes, this dying culture in India,” says founder and chocolatier Katrina Markoff. “I wanted to pay homage to these people. And that was the idea of bridging cause, beauty, storytelling and chocolate.”

Since concocting that first flavor in 1998, Markoff has expanded Chicago-based Vosges into a critically acclaimed chocolate company with undeniable cachet. Sold online and at its five stores in New York, Las Vegas and Chicago, Markoff’s high-end truffles, chocolate bars and other confections have become a huge hit with foodies and gift-givers around the world. Last year, Vosges earned $12 million in revenue, and Markoff was named the 2007 Woman of the Year by Entrepreneur and American Express and the 2004 Food Artisan of the Year by Bon Appétit.

“I was just following my heart,” says Markoff, explaining her success with Vosges. “What made sense to me was creating a product that had a deep story and had a lot of intention.”

The story of Vosges’ inception begins shortly after Markoff, an Indiana native, graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1995 with degrees in psychology and chemistry. She immediately moved to Paris to study at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, from which she graduated with Le Grand Diplôme in cuisine and pastry, as well as degrees in basic and advanced oenology. Markoff then traveled the world, studying native cuisine and working in restaurants in Europe, Asia, Australia and Hawaii.

The diverse people, places and things that Markoff encountered during her travels now serve as inspiration for new flavors, she says. “I either fall in love with something beautiful or a cause, and that sort of sparks the inspiration,” she says. “Then I act upon that, and I create the experience.”

In 1997, Markoff moved to Dallas to work for her uncle’s mail-order company. “He asked me to do some research on finding really great-quality chocolate products,” she says. “Really, there was nothing on the market—certainly nothing of very great quality and nothing very interesting.”

So Markoff decided to fill that niche. She moved to Chicago and set up shop in her own apartment, thanks to a loan from the Small Business Association. Then she began to cook, mixing and matching premium chocolates with spices, flowers, roots, herbs and liqueurs. She tested the results of her experiments—flavors like Budapest (dark chocolate and Hungarian paprika) and Black Pearl (dark chocolate, ginger, wasabi and black sesame seeds)—on friends and family.

“When I got someone to try it, I’d sort of cajole them to do it,” Markoff says. “But when they tried it, their minds started to change and they started opening up. So, in a subtle way, you’re getting their minds open to new ideas and away from stereotypes associated with certain foods.”

With this feedback in mind, Markoff approached Neiman Marcus about carrying Vosges. She landed a deal with the department store and, later, Whole Foods and Bergdorf Goodman. In 2002 Markoff purchased a manufacturing plant, which allowed her to increase production. Now, in an effort to apply the green-living principles of her personal life to her business, she’s in the process of creating a LEED-certified green manufacturing facility in Chicago, which will combine new facilities with an existing structure that’s being renovated. The project should be complete in about two years.

“[The factory will serve] educational purposes, for tours on green factories, and also how to make chocolate and the art of what we’re doing,” Markoff says. “There’ll be a rooftop garden, and it’ll be really beautiful.”

Other green initiatives for Vosges include using 100 percent renewable energy, using packaging materials made of recycled paper and adhering to a green-purchasing oath “where everything that we buy will be sustainable, Rainforest Alliance-certified, organic, post-consumer recycled, biodegradable, renewable resources—everything from the office supplies to the cleaning supplies to the boxes to the chocolate,” Markoff says. “Our goal is that, by March, 90 percent of what we buy will meet our green standards.”

The company is also looking to purchase a cocoa plantation to “reforest plantation land that was deforested for other crops,” Markoff says. Vosges also wants to create an eco-resort “where you would have foodie tourism and educational transfer between universities and other farmers around the world,” she says.

Markoff explains her eco-friendly thinking simply: “I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Her progressive thinking extends to the workplace, too; the Vosges corporate headquarters is home to a yoga/meditation room, and Markoff likes to emphasize a balance of mind, body and spirit. She warns other business owners to carefully guard their corporate cultures but not overemphasize it when hiring employees.

“Hire people who have the right culture and the right experience for the job,” she says. “The corporate culture of Vosges is very different than the corporate culture of Dell or Starbucks. I want to make sure that this person is a fit for the madness of this company.”

She credits much of her success to her positive mindset. “I think I can do anything,” she says. “I don’t take kindly to nos. I think there’s always a way.”

Meanwhile, Markoff continues to find inspiration anywhere and everywhere: “If I get into yoga, I’ll do a yoga chocolate collection,” she says. “If I get into tarot cards, I’ll do a tarot collection. If I get into fermentation, I’ll do a whole study on fermentation.” She tries to remain open to new ideas and constantly yearns for a “different perspective,” which she obtains through traveling weekly, reading foreign magazines and turning to history. “I’m always trying to stay out of my box.”

One of her favorite flavors is Funk & Disco, a milk-chocolate truffle with buttermilk banana pudding, part of the Groove Collection. “It’s a study of the influence of African-Americans on American musical genres,” she says. “It comes with a CD. You listen to the song, taste the chocolate and read about what artists were most influential of the time and whom they later went on to influence.”

Finding such innovative angles propels Markoff in the creative process. “My work has to be one source of great meaning because I spend so much time doing it,” she says. “Having an opportunity to pull a charity or a cause or a story or frivolity or just fun into the business, I do it because it’s entertaining and fun and interesting and worthy and all of those things, and that keeps me motivated to do what I do.”

Ultimately, Markoff says, it’s all about making a change—for the better. “When you can positively influence someone’s life, whether it’s just having a wonderful piece of chocolate or being inspired by a story or just liking where you work, I think that’s the most rewarding part of life.”

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