Chris Elbow sells his artisan chocolates to more than 30 stores across the United States. He has a retail store in San Francisco and hopes to soon open another on the East Coast. But home is where his heart is, and that’s at his flagship Christopher Elbow Chocolates store in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City is where Elbow grew up, and it’s where he honed his gourmet chocolate craft, which has earned glowing praise from the Food Network, O – The Oprah Magazine and foremost food industry publication Food & Wine.
More than just a place to work
Elbow doesn’t just live and run his business in Kansas City. He and his business have become a part of the community by participating in benefits throughout the year and by donating his sweet delights to numerous fund raisers in the Kansas City area.
“Kansas City is the perfect size, where it can be very personable,” Elbow said. “You have the opportunity, even being a small company, to make an impact in the community. There’s a lot of pride from the citizens here that support local products.”
A recipe for growth
Elbow credits First National Bank with helping his business grow in the Kansas City community. After lending his pastry-making skills to restaurants in Kansas City and Las Vegas – where he helped Emeril Lagasse open Delmonico Steakhouse at the Venetian – Elbow fell in love with the art of desserts, specifically chocolates.
His first operation was housed in a 400-square-foot space above a Kansas City restaurant that was kind enough to lend him the room. He had one employee: himself. From there, he opened a retail area that amounted to a kiosk at a local store. Next was his flagship location in Kansas City in 2007. San Francisco came in 2008. And he’s now up to 32 employees company-wide.
Throughout each growth spurt for Christopher Elbow Chocolates, First National Bank has been there.
“They have been instrumental in wanting to become a strategic partner in helping us grow our business with securing loans for equipment,” Elbow said. “We’re in the process of purchasing a new building that we can move into and grow and expand our production.”
“The great thing about First National Bank is that they have really expressed that this is a long-term partnership, and they want to do everything they can to help us succeed and grow our business. They have a lot more emotion involved in it rather than just, ‘Here’s a loan, pay it back.’ They really invested in the business, in the company, and wanting to see it succeed.”
The sweet taste of success
From the company’s thriving online business and retail stores to its wholesale business and its ice cream offshoot (Christopher Elbow Chocolates was chosen by Häagen-Dazs to create a signature flavor), each endeavor has been a winner.
The only problem now is keeping up with demand.
“The number one challenge for us is production, trying to meet demand” Elbow said. “A lot of the things we do, we can’t mechanize. So, it’s tough … we grow and expand and learn how to be more efficient every year, but keeping up with demand is our biggest challenge, and doing it in a way where you don’t sacrifice quality is of vital importance to us.”
Quality is the first ingredient
“Chocolate is a lot like coffee and wine. There are different varietals and better varietals, and they can taste different from where they are grown. And they can taste different from year to year, much like a vintage of wine,” said Elbow.
Christopher Elbow Chocolates imports about 30 tons of raw chocolate from France each year.
“Getting the best varieties and the best flavored chocolate is paramount to us. They have a much richer and deeper complex chocolate flavor than you get from a commodity grade, a grocery-store-candy-bar style of chocolate.”
The chocolate is custom-made for Christopher Elbow, which then melts it down to craft their signature combinations.
“The high quality of the chocolate doesn’t stop there,” Elbow said. “That carries into the other ingredients we use. For example, with a fresh mint chocolate we don’t use a mint extract or flavoring. We use fresh mint leaves and infuse that flavor in. You have to have great ingredients to create a great chocolate.”
Works of art
The end result after years of perfecting his craft is an assortment of chocolates that are not only euphoric to eat, but also magnificent pieces of visual – albeit edible – art.
“One of the most common reactions I get is that the chocolates are almost too beautiful to eat. My response is, ‘You said almost.’”