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Bar Raiser

Bored by the world of high finance, Anne Shaeffer launched a gourmet confectionery brand, Sulpice Chocolat. It’s a move that has made her happy and keeps her busy 24/7.

Ever try to make sense of gourmet chocolate? Even sophisticated fans can be stymied by claims about the percentage of cocoa or country of origin or ingredients ranging from obscure nuts to exotic curries. Anne Shaeffer CBA ’03 experienced just such a moment of bewilderment when she was perusing the chocolate shelves at Whole Foods one day.

“I was looking at all their bars and thinking, there’s just so many out there—how do you know what’s a good one and what’s not a good one? How do you tell them apart? So I had this idea,” she says.

Her epiphany did not come entirely out of thin air. With a degree in finance and entrepreneurial studies, Shaeffer was looking to start a business. A committed chocoholic, she was enamored of “gorgeous” fancy truffles. And as an eager artist who’d studied with a highly regarded muralist, she was more than handy with paints and a brush.

“Maybe what I could do to set my chocolate apart and make it different would be to hand-paint the chocolate,” Shaeffer thought.
That was four years ago. Today, Sulpice Chocolat is on the verge of becoming a recognized luxury brand. It’s become so successful that Shaeffer recently abandoned her retail shop and manufacturing site in a Barrington mini-mall and moved operations to a facility eight hours away in Ohio. She travels there several times a month to oversee production and hand-paint upwards of 2,000 bars a day.

“It doesn’t take as much time as you’d think,” she says. “We’ve developed a special technique that makes everything go very quickly.”

Shaeffer’s a woman who likes to make things go quickly. She went through UIC in three years, taking a heavy class load and going to summer school because she wanted to catch up with friends who’d started a year before her. Shaeffer had skipped college after graduating from high school in Aurora and headed to Seattle to “check out life there,” she says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I took the time to figure out what I was suited for.” She did “a lot of hanging out” and took a part-time job: “I don’t even remember what it was—the kind of job you get when you’re 18 years old,” she says. Her wanderlust put to rest, she returned to Chicago and started at UIC with the goal of launching her own company.

“UIC was a really wonderful experience. I had lots of internships, which helped me get a job right away,” says Shaeffer, who worked at both Morgan Stanley and the Bank of Montreal. “But I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. It wasn’t challenging enough. I was really, really bored.” The death of her sister, who was killed in a car accident, was the tragic kick she needed. “It was pretty much the reason I switched out of finance,” she says. “It helped me realize it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t happy. I wanted to put my footprint on the Earth.”

Shaeffer set her sights on chocolate. She enrolled in the French Pastry School, located at Jackson and Franklin in downtown Chicago, where she “learned about making chocolate in the French tradition—the flavors, the quality, what goes with what,” she describes. “I always had a pretty refined palate and loved the idea of all you could do with chocolate.”

“She was one of those students who was always trying to do more than the other students,” recalls Jacques Pfieffer, the school’s founder and one of Shaeffer’s teachers. “She was never afraid to try new things. At the end of the session, I ask students for their own plated desserts, and hers were always creative. She had a great sense of design and style.”

Much of that came from Shaeffer’s lifelong interest in art. She sketched and painted while growing up in Naperville. She kept up with classes in Seattle. As a student at UIC, she went to an exhibit of public art in downtown Naperville and met the muralist Diosdado Mondero, a master designer and illustrator. They struck up a conversation, and he asked to see her work. Shaeffer then was painting “all kinds of stuff—portraits and animals and rain forests.” When Mondero saw her work, he hired her as an assistant.

An artisan chocolate house
The idea of combining her passion for art and chocolate is what sets Sulpice apart. (Shaeffer picked the name in honor of Sulpice Debauve, the first master chocolatier in the court of Marie Antoinette.) Calling her company an “artisan chocolate house” wasn’t merchandizing hype; her bars are all hand-decorated with Shaeffer’s signature splatter painting or marbleized design, each with colors that enhance the chocolate. For the “Amande,” a milk chocolate bar with almonds and sea salt, she uses gold to reflect the almonds and pink for the sea salt. Alternately, a bittersweet bar with orange oil and pistachios gets an orange and green color scheme. Even the chocolate dictates a palette, she says: “Dark chocolate isn’t straight dark brown; milk chocolate isn’t ‘light’ brown—it has a lot of yellow in it.”

Shaeffer has done a lot of “manipulation” to ensure these colors stay bright and don’t fade. She is equally meticulous about her flavor profile. While some companies tout the source of their cocoa, Shaeffer uses a blend of beans from all over the world because the quality of beans from a single region can fluctuate year to year, even month to month, depending on climate changes.

Even with this attention to quality and craft, breaking into the world of high-end chocolate is challenging. Shaeffer’s bars sell at the relatively modest price of $5.99 (lower in some places, higher in others), which means Sulpice must sell a lot of chocolate to turn a profit. Plus, there are serious start-up costs, including equipment, bulk buys, store rental and marketing. To get going, Shaeffer financed Sulpice with $100,000 from friends, family, savings “and credit cards,” she says, laughing. To stretch her cash flow and earn a modest profit, she keeps her overhead low. Until this winter, before she outsourced production to the Ohio facility, all her chocolate was made in the limited back space of the Barrington store.

She’s kept personal expenses down, as well, moving from the West Loop loft she shared with her husband, Bill Shaeffer ’06 UIUC, on Randolph Street into his parents’ home in Barrington. The couple met through mutual friends in 2011. Shaeffer had just launched her website, and Bill had a full-time job as a trader. He began dropping by to help out with the business, and not long after, he became a full-time partner—of both Shaeffer and Sulpice.

“It’s definitely better to work with my husband,” Shaeffer says. “He’s always there for support. When I’m frustrated, he’ll help out. When he’s frustrated, I’ll help out.” As she told UIC News, “There’s not much separation between the business and our personal lives. We don’t like to be apart.”

He’s not far away the afternoon we visit the Barrington store, which Shaeffer warned us was “stripped down to next to nothing.” While we sit at a bare table and chairs—the only remaining furniture—Bill is in back plowing through receipts and invoices.
“We’re selling the store,” she says, clutching a coat around her to ward off the chocolate-friendly chill. “We hope to be out by August 1st.”

“April 1st,” Bill calls.

“April 1st,” she calls back. “Thank you!”

Bill handles the bulk of operations, everything from bookkeeping to financial modeling and forecasting, and doesn’t miss his former life. “It wasn’t that difficult to give up being a trader,” he says. “The idea of getting in on the ground floor of a business with a lot of potential—and with my wife—was too good to pass up.”

“The most impressive thing about Anne,” he continues, “is how fast she picks everything up. Obviously, going in, she knew a little about finances and a good amount about chocolate. But she’s really quick to develop marketing plans and packaging. She’s become an expert at Photoshop and Illustrator. She’s very good at picking up software programs and new techniques, and integrating them into the business. New directions might take a larger company months or even a year [to achieve]. Thanks to Anne, we’re very nimble and quick to make decisions.”

Promotion matters
By Shaeffer’s own admission, she “knew very little about packaging” when she started out, but she is a fast learner. Sulpice bars that stood out onscreen on the original website often got lost on high store shelves that matched the brown of the wrapper, so she switched to a white wrapper with a filigreed pink design. Now she’s revamping the design to give the bars’ packaging even more pop.

As a wholesaler, breaking into the retail environment has been the biggest challenge for Sulpice. The shelves at quality supermarkets and local specialty stores tend to be stocked with familiar brands such as Lindt and Ghirardelli. To achieve penetration, Shaeffer relies on a distribution network, but she also stays busy contacting buyers, which requires work and fortitude. “The goal is to sit down with [the buyers] because our chocolate’s so good and different and at an affordable price point,” she explains. “We try emails and phone calls, stuff like that, but it’s really hard to get hold of people. That’s why it takes so long. I spoke to a regional buyer at Whole Foods,” she says, shrugging, “but then she got promoted.”

Sulpice has done very well in Wisconsin and is prominently displayed on the shelves of Treasure Island supermarkets in Chicago. At the Treasure Island in the Lakeview neighborhood, the store’s buyer, Shirley Sisiliano, was impressed the first time she sampled Sulpice. “We had all the buyers try the samples together,” she says. “We’re always looking for something different. Sulpice was gluten-free, vegan, with interesting flavors. It was really unique. The tastes were out of this world. The decision was unanimous.”

Even so, it can be tough to stay on top of day-to-day demands. The Lakeview Treasure Island location was out of bars for several weeks running. The Wilmette store completely sold out, and another Treasure Island came close to doing so. “We’re supposed to have six flavors, but they ran out of four,” Shaeffer says. “We had a really hard time getting in touch with the buyer there. They’re so busy, so many people are calling.”

Ideally, Shaeffer would like to put inventory in the hands of a distributor who would make sure the bars are properly displayed and quickly track reorder needs. “You just check the box, mark down what’s low,” she says. “[But] finding a distributor is a big deal.”

Official chocolatier for the Grammy’s
To promote the brand, Shaeffer is always looking for new opportunities. She won the “$5,000 Stand Out & Win” contest sponsored by PopSugar, a women’s lifestyle Internet destination, for her answer to the question, “What am I doing to go after my dream?” She sends out press releases, one of which caught the attention of the 53rd Grammy Awards, which named Sulpice its official chocolatier in 2012. The company’s chocolates were included in Grammy gift baskets, and a number of celebrities followed up with orders.

Shaeffer’s standard is truffle-quality chocolate, but not as exotic as that of another Chicago-based company, Vosges Haut-Chocolat. “They’re very high-end and their flavors are a little more out there,” she says. “We’re more traditional— our bars are meant to appeal to everybody. We want to become a household name.”

As such, Shaeffer tries to get Sulpice into gift baskets at parties and events, such as baby showers and engagement parties, and has considered selling Sulpice to restaurants that use chocolate as an ingredient. “But even if it’s really high-end, they melt it down, and then it doesn’t make much sense,” she says. “We might look into ice cream toppings, maybe with bars that have air bubbles.”

You won’t find air bubbles in a Sulpice bar. Shaeffer maintains strict quality control at her production facility in Ohio. The plant is mechanized, but only up to a point. Shaeffer still hand-paints every bar. That hands-on labor, plus all her other duties, keeps her busy 24/7. She hasn’t abandoned her art, she says, but “lately, I’m not so creative artistically as I used to be. Mostly, I just do sketches, to make sure I have my muscle memory.”

Schaeffer has made one other concession to the demands of her business. Soon, she and her husband plan to return to Chicago and find a place to live in River North. If Sulpice continues its promising growth, Shaeffer hopes to expand from bars into truffles and caramels. “Then, one of these days,” she says, casting an excited look around the empty Barrington store, “we’ll open up a shop.”

By Jonathan Black
Photography by Callie Lipkin





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