For the final piece in our Wild Ophelia Women Entrepreneur Series, we sat down with Katrina Markoff, founder and CEO of Vosges Haut-Chocolat and Wild Ophelia.
You may think beef jerky and cayenne peppers are ingredients best kept far away from chocolate, but the geniuses at Wild Ophelia makes it work in their chocolate bars. From BBQ Potato Chip Dark Chocolate to Crispy Chia Seed Peanut Butter Cups, these Americana confections are a far cry from your childhood milk chocolate bars. Even better – all of the brands’ products are Fair Trade, gluten-free, and non-GMO.
Founder Katrina Markoff wants to help you travel the world through chocolate. She’s won all sorts of accolades, from Fortune Magazine’s 40 Under 40 to Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in the World. I sat down with Katrina at the purple house of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, right here in Chicago, to chat about female entrepreneurship, following your heart, and, of course, innovation in chocolate.
Spoon: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Katrina: I’m the creator/founder/CEO of Vosges Haut-Chocolat and Wild Ophelia. I went to Vanderbilt, where I studied chemistry – but I didn’t love my degree, so after graduation, I moved to Paris to attend Le Cordon Bleu. I worked in France and at El Bulli in Spain – I traveled around the world studying food, and when I got back to the States, I realized there was no innovation in chocolate. I wanted to use chocolate as a medium for storytelling. I started my business in Dallas, then I moved to Chicago and started making everything in my apartment – it’s a really scrappy American dream kind of story, and I grew that into my first store. We got a huge article in Food and Wine – that’s what really put us on the map. Then, the wholesale business started to expand, and then an ecommerce business, and retail – and it just grew and grew.
Spoon: How did you make the jump from academia to culinary school to chocolate making?
Katrina: I remember going to career fairs my junior and senior years [of college] – you know, when you show up in a suit and you’re supposed to interview for investment banking or consulting. I was really not successful or comfortable that way – I grew up in an entrepreneur family. Then, this woman gave me a book called Where Success Leads You Your Heart Will Follow – it said to go into a natural environment with a pen and paper and write down the things you really love to do. So I did, and I only wrote down horseback riding and cooking. So I pursued it – then, I realized at some point in my journey, when I was working in restaurants in Europe and Southeast Asia, that I didn’t want to be a chef. And that was a really hard thing to think about – I’d made the decision to go to culinary school while my friends were making real money, and I was gallivanting the world and by the time I got to Vietnam I was like, “Oh my god, I don’t want to be a chef.” My uncle had a mail order business in Dallas – it was home furnishings, a website, a catalog business – and I went there to learn whatever I could and get a job. Since it was a startup, I learned how you bring product into the marketplace. When I started looking at what he needed to buy for 4th quarter, I started looking into buying some great foodstuffs because everybody buys food as holiday gifts. I started looking at chocolate, and I realized there was no innovation in the chocolate space – there was no story, no interesting flavor profiles or maps telling you what you were eating. And that night was when I had the epiphany to use chocolate as a medium for storytelling and to travel the world through chocolate.
Spoon: What separates Wild Ophelia from Vosges Haut-Chocolate?
Katrina: Vosges is highly experiential – very crafted, lots of bespoke and hand-touched components, best-in-class ingredients, global avant-garde inspirations. It’s very sensual – like guiding you how to taste a truffle and how to pair it with wine or scotch. Wild Ophelia is more free-spirited and unconventional. It’s a more accessible price point – $2.99 for a bar or peanut butter cups. Vosges is more of a gift, while Ophelia is more shareable and snackable. For Ophelia, we’re working on a crisps line – tortilla chips, to rice and quinoa cakes, to potato chips, to pretzels. We’re doing all different types of cups – not just peanut butter cups, but also cookie butter cups and dulce de leche cups. We really don’t want to do bars – we want to do sticks that are bite-size and shareable. Ophelia is a communal, sharable brand, while Vosges is something you covet for yourself.
Spoon: If Wild Ophelia was a celebrity, who would he/she be?
Katrina: She could be Jennifer Lawrence because she’s smart and really diverse in her abilities. She’s funny, goofy, and comfortable in her own skin, and I think that’s super “Ophelia” – we like to say that Ophelia beats to her own drum, but still has a reverence for old tradition. Or, she could be the younger version of Angelina Jolie – a little wild, irreverent, American, exotic. She’s somewhere between those two.
Spoon: Where do you get the ideas for flavors like Beef Jerky Milk Chocolate or BBQ Potato Chips Dark Chocolate?
Katrina: I basically think about American regional snacking. I remember I was driving through Colorado or Utah, and on the side of the road they were selling elk-beef jerky or bison beef jerky – that’s where that came from. The BBQ potato chips flavor was because BBQ potato chips are very classic American. I think about American traditions and fads. So, people ask why I’m doing a chia cup, and I’m like, “Well, it’s really in fad right now in America.” It’s something that we’re into right now as a culture. I also like honey roasted peanuts, caramel corn, Alabama peaches, hickory nuts from North Carolina, and New Mexican pecans, cornmeal, sweet potatoes, Charleston red rice pudding, hot pepper jelly and goat cheese, sorghum – these are all my new ideas.
Spoon: How do you source your ingredients?
Katrina: My goal is finding the best that I can find. The challenge with that is that we can’t just buy things off the back of a truck because we’re a food manufacturer, so all our vendors have to comply with health inspections. So, it’s an art, and it’s really cool when you can work with the partners to help grow their businesses, too. Essentially, I travel a lot and I get samples in from a lot of different farmers, artisans, and vendors. Then, we do a panel tasting and we pick the ones that are the best. We’ll always have at least two sources for each item, in case there’s an issue with the crop.
Spoon: What’s the craziest ingredient used in chocolate?
Katrina: People thought it was crazy when I did oysters – we did something for Vosges for Valentine’s Day as an aphrodisiac collection. We’ve done carrots, bacon, wasabi, taleggio cheese.
Spoon: Is there any ingredient that’s off-limits for you?
Katrina: As far as spices go, cumin has never worked in chocolate. I like to experiment – I’m working on grasshoppers and bugs. In Central and South America there’s lots of bug eating. I think it’s really interesting to think of bugs as an alternative protein source for the world because there are no methane gas issues since they grow in a small space, very quickly.
Spoon: You started your business right here in Chicago. What was special about this city, and why did you choose to open up in Bucktown?
Katrina: Chicago was a budding food scene. I didn’t want to go to New York because New York has everything, and I really felt like the Chicagoans would embrace an artisan chocolate brand. There’s something about a product that’s born and raised here – it’s like hometown pride. People want to support local.
Spoon: What’s the biggest mistake you made when first starting your business?
Katrina: I tried to get into the ice cream business once. It’s difficult because of the logistics of shipping ice cream. A lot of the dairies are on the East Coast – we were packing in Pennsylvania – then we had orders in California, but they were just testing it out because it was a new product. We didn’t really have enough money to launch a new business and we couldn’t afford to educate the market on $10 pints of ice cream. We should have probably just started with local distribution around the East Coast – instead, we were taking orders from California, Florida, Texas. It didn’t make sense financially. So it failed, hundreds of thousands of dollars later.
Spoon: Vosges Haut-Chocolat is certified as a women’s business enterprise through the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, and Wild Ophelia is committed to empowering American female entrepreneurs. How did you decide that chocolate was the key to women’s empowerment?
Katrina: Any time I would speak and tell my story, a lot of women would come up to me and say, “You’re inspiring, you make me feel like I can do it too.” And that made me feel so good, because there’s nothing better than seeing someone follow their heart and passion – to me, that leads to happiness. When I thought about the second brand, I really wanted to give back – so Wild Ophelia is our social entrepreneurial platform for giving back and for supporting women’s breakout. The idea of Ophelia is twofold – when you come to Vosges, you can work your way up the ladder from the retail team up to leadership, and when you get up to leadership you can make a choice. You can be on the leadership team, or you can go and start your own business. And if you want to start your own business, we will help with startup costs. We’ve had about 10 employees leave here to start their own businesses – some have been men, but most have been women. The other side of it is offering grants – we’re going to take at least 10% of our profits and reinvest that into woman entrepreneurs in the food space. The reason why I want to do it in the food space is because I know a lot about food, so I can add value, and because these people will have access to our advisory board members and their businesses.
Spoon: What advice would you give to your college self?
Katrina: Believe in yourself. Believe in your own voice, your gut, what you have to say, and your story. Follow the signs. Be present. Look for what your meaning is. Don’t ask anybody else’s opinion. You can get sounding boards, but you are the ultimate decision maker. You are the ultimate judge of what is right for you – really trust deeply in your instincts. It will serve you well!
Spoon: What advice would you give to young women who want to start their own culinary business?
Katrina: Make sure you find your niche and tell your story authentically. Make sure there’s a soul to whatever you do – usually that’s a reflection of your own soul. Make sure you have a strong point of view – your mission statement should be highly aspirational. Don’t water it down. Be bold!
Spoon: If you were hosting a dinner party for bad-ass women, who would you invite, and why?
Katrina: Erykah Badu, Aretha Franklin, Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou, and Stevie Nicks. Women who are bold and speak up!
Spoon: What is your favorite thing to eat in Chicago?
Katrina: This is so hard! I love Fat Rice. And I love the sesame leaves from Parachute.
Spoon: What’s your favorite wine to pair with chocolate?
Katrina: I like to pair beer! Caramel marshmallows with Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, or our bacon bar with Rogue Shakespeare Stout.
Spoon: How much chocolate do you eat on a daily basis?
Katrina: A lot! I’m starting to spit it out so I don’t eat so much. Anyone that comes to work here gains 15 pounds!