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Sunday, May 28, 2023


Chocolate/21″/dt1st/mike2nd By WADE DANIELS Staff Reporter At the October opening of the $1.6 billion Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, there was cuisine from New York’s Le Cirque restaurant, the art on the walls was by European masters, the marble had been imported from Italy, and the chocolate came from Sylmar. Guests received hefty chocolate plaques with the hotel’s name emblazoned in gold-colored chocolate, and sporting a full-color rendering of an abstract painting in “chocolate ink,” all fashioned by Sylmar-based Chocolates & #341; la Carte. Customized items made of chocolate, like nautilus shells for a Nancy Reagan luncheon and sunglasses for a party for Jack Nicholson, have been the company’s main business since Rick and Rena Pocrass founded it in 1986. Its other mainstays have been cones, cups and other petite containers made of chocolate, which hotel chefs and caterers use for their dessert creations. However, three years ago the owners decided to diversify their sales, and began distributing their chocolates in supermarkets, restaurants and via catalog. This year, sales through those new channels are beginning to take off. “We decided that if the market for the custom chocolates we make was hit hard, we’d be in trouble,” said Rick Pocrass, the company’s chief executive. “We’re building new pillars for the business.” Some of the goods Chocolates & #341; la Carte began selling this year to supermarkets and restaurants are the same products the company has long sold to hotels and for special-event banquets. For example, some supermarket bakeries use its chocolate cups to hold desserts like mousse that are sold from glass display cases. However, the company’s current top seller is a new product, a chocolate-covered graham cracker developed last year. It was ordered for one Costco store in May and has subsequently been shipped to 30 other Costco outlets. “It’s been amazing how people react to a cracker covered in chocolate,” Pocrass said. He noted that while chocolate-covered graham crackers are nothing new, the crackers from Chocolates & #341; la Carte are covered in gourmet chocolate, imported from places like Belgium and France. The Sylmar company does not manufacture any of the chocolate it uses in its confections. While Costco’s demand for the product has expanded quickly and dramatically, Chocolates & #341; la Carte is progressing with such bulk accounts cautiously. Costco has a reputation for suddenly “pulling the plug” on supplier accounts, so it is wise not to devote major resources to something that may not pan out long term, Pocrass noted. “The steps we take away from our core business are done slowly, so we can easily go back to our safe harbor, or core business,” Pocrass said. That kind of caution is characteristic of the company, whose growth has been entirely financed with earnings and never with loans. The new distribution outlets now account for 15 percent of the company’s sales, which totaled $10 million last year and are projected to reach $12 million this year, Pocrass said. He added that the company aims to double its sales within two years, mainly through growth of its sales to new markets. To accommodate the anticipated growth, the 200-employee company plans to move into a 110,000-square-foot, build-to-suit facility in Valencia next August. Chocolates & #341; la Carte currently operates out of a 30,000-square-foot administration/production building in Sylmar and a 15,000-square-foot production facility in Cerritos. Over the years, the company has sculpted hundreds of chocolate replicas of things like cars, animals, sunglasses, soda bottles and footballs. Models are hand-sculpted at the Sylmar plant and then turned into plastic molds. In the past year or so, after discussions with food stylists and chocolatiers mainly in Europe, the company began offering items using “chocolate ink” multicolored chocolates that can be used for writing or even creating artistic images out of chocolate. The company has a store of about 1,000 molds, some of which are often reused, and an inventory of already-produced chocolate objects in the 40 or so most popular shapes. Chocolates & #341; la Carte was born in the kitchen at the Pocrass’ home, where Rena Pocrass began fashioning chocolate sculptures and dessert cups. She had co-owned a retail chocolate store called Sweet Fantasies in Encino in the early 1980s, but it closed in 1984 when its lease ran out and her partner decided to quit. Soon after, she landed a job as a food stylist for an ice cream commercial, and was struck by how much artistry was used in presenting the food. “I realized that food is very visual, and decided I wanted to make art with chocolate,” Rena Pocrass said. Food critics give high ratings to the company’s offerings. “Chocolates & #341; la Carte products are absolutely first-rate, as good as you can get,” said Michael Schneider, editor in chief of the New York-based trade magazines Chocolatier and Pastry Art & Design. “I also like that they are so active in the industry shows and with sponsorships.” Schneider also said he likes Chocolates a la Carte because its people have “recognized the artistry that can go into desserts.”

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