Sarah Dwyer has a sweet gig.
The 45-year-old entrepreneur manufactures high-end chocolates. She owns her own business, called Chouquette (pronounced shoo-ket). She makes money. And her creations are plastered all over the area, in places such as the Four Seasons Georgetown, the White House Historical Society and even at swanky events (a salute to a philanthropic billionaire).
But under the cheerful personality lies a hard-nosed business executive.
“I love the creative and sales side, as well as making the actual chocolates, but I have to be both smart and careful to grow Chouquette,” said Dwyer, who spent nine years in the financial sector. “My personal growth — starting with being an artisan to managing the business to the entrepreneur building a brand — is key to Chouquette’s success and to world chocolate domination.”
Case in point: A few years ago, the business was chugging along through sales at farmers markets when she blew it all up.
“The farm markets were fun. Meeting all those people. Bringing in money,” she said. “But I wasn’t growing my business.” The problem was that she was a retailer at the farmers markets, which meant she not only made the chocolates but had to sell them, too, requiring a big labor investment.
“I was spread too thin,” Dwyer said. “We did farm markets four days a week.”
The way to scale a business is to make the chocolates, then sell them wholesale to many retailers and let them take it from there.
“Was I going to do farm markets and be in this region only?” she said. “Or go the wholesale route and try and grow into a national brand?”
[How a little Capitol Hill kitchen store survives in the age of Amazon]
She chose “world chocolate domination.” Her sweets are in California, Japan and Bermuda — and all over Washington.
Chouquette (translation: little cabbage) is a robust little business and growing fast. I spent a few hours with Dwyer recently at the kitchen she rents four nights a week, tucked in a corner of a low-industrial park in Montgomery County.
About a dozen workers earning the minimum wage of $11.50 an hour manned an assembly line scooping, scraping chocolate and piping Dwyer’s secret caramel recipe from plastic bags into chocolate shells.
The entire process, including customized stencils for clients, takes around two hours and typically results in around 3,000 caramel-filled chocolates with flavors such as vanilla with sea salt (most popular), balsamic, bay spice, chai and lavender. The chocolates are packaged into five-piece boxes that sell for $15. Chouquette makes more than 100,000 chocolate pieces a year. I estimate the profit after cost of goods and labor and rent at around $1 per piece.
[The little neighborhood bookstore that a venture capitalist would love]
This is inspiring: a little enterprise in a quiet corner, creating something of value and employing people, some of whom come from Cornerstone Montgomery, which employs people with mental-health disorders or substance-use challenges. Others are from culinary schools, some are high school students, some are retired, and some are moms.
Chouquette projects up to $450,000 in sales this year, up from less than $300,000 in 2016. The business has a net profit margin of around 10 percent. High-margin corporate orders make up 40 percent of sales, with wholesale to the 140-plus stores that carry Chouquette being another 40 percent. Special events take in the rest.
Dwyer works about 60 hours a week, with Monday through Thursday in the kitchen, which she rents for $25 an hour.
The all-business side of her brain kicks in on Fridays. She reserves that day for website management, ordering supplies, hiring (and sometimes firing) and accounting, which she performs on QuickBooks.
“I make a monetary goal for each year, and have reached it or been very close each time,” Dwyer said. “We think, with adding new stores and growing our corporate gift program, we can get to $1.5 million by 2022. Barring another not-so-Great Recession.”
Dwyer started the business in 2010 with $100,000 she socked away working in banking, where she earned more than $100,000 a year. (The start-up money was diverted from a planned down payment on a home — one of the costs of entrepreneurship.) She has zero debt, growing the business with most of the profit.
Dwyer grew up in Annapolis. She gets her business chops from her father, “a brilliant” electrical engineer who ran his own company. She gets her creative/personal side from her mother, a social worker.
Dwyer quit the University of Maryland at College Park in 1992 after her sophomore year, finally earning her degree in management studies 20 years later. She worked for two financial firms for nine years, where she enjoyed success in training and sales. She spent a year in pastry school in Paris, then returned to the Washington area to become a cook.
[Is bitcoin another tulip craze or a legitimate investment?]
After a couple of weeks as an assistant pastry chef at the late Citronelle, the career climb through the kitchen appeared steep. “I realized I should be my own boss,” she said. “I realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur.”
Chouquette grew out of her midnight experiments with chocolate recipes in the kitchen she shared with her sister.
“I have always loved eating chocolates,” she said, “getting into trouble by squishing chocolates in unmarked boxes, trying to find chocolate-covered caramels.”
Like all smart entrepreneurs, she did her research, refining and expanding her recipe. She sampled 55 chocolates at one trade show in Atlantic City. She zeroed in on two strategies for building a business — making quality caramels and serving the growing demand for food gifts in upscale Washington.
“I didn’t see anyone combining innovative design with quality caramels,” she said.
She sources her vanilla beans from Madagascar. The sea salt comes from France. About $5,000 worth of chocolate arrives every other month from San Francisco-based Guittard.
She incorporated the business and began calling on stores. Bradley Food & Beverage was her first customer.
“I walked in and said, ‘You want to try my chocolate?’ They said yes, but you should probably figure out how to do an invoice so we can pay you.”
She grossed $15,000 her first year, and it went from there.
Her emphasis now is growing her brand name, which comes in small bites. The shoe-leather cold calls have been the hardest part, with some prospects taking years before becoming a regular. A New York trade show last month brought in 35 new stores.
[The $2.2 billion price for the Houston Rockets isn’t so crazy]
“We like them to start with a small order, give them lots of samples to get customers a taste, and most of them have grown their sales with us,” she said.
She has 12 part-time employees and a director of marketing. The assembly line grows during the fall season and increases by 50 percent in the December party season.
Her retail clients include Periwinkle, Blue House and Hill’s Kitchen. She also sells personalized stenciled pieces to caterers, nonprofits organizations and professional businesses including law firms and lobbyists. Her biggest job was an $11,000 order for a corporate event.
There is no fleet of delivery trucks or tractor trailers pulling up to the loading dock. Employees use their own cars to drop off at local retailers and to corporate customers. And if something is going out of town, she said, “chocolates might hitch a ride with my mom going to Philly or my cousins going to the beach.”
When you own a small business, you need to be resourceful and do what you’ve got to do. When I called her last Thursday with a question, Dwyer and her chief troubleshooter, Nora Burke, were packing orders and wrapping ribbons around the chocolate boxes.
I am not sure which side of the brain was working on that one.