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Sweet success – Chocolatiers set up on South Coast

By   /   Friday, August 1st, 2008  /   Comments Off on Sweet success – Chocolatiers set up on South Coast

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What do you get when a French chef falls in love with a business savvy California native? World-class chocolate in Carpinteria.

After two decades of living and operating a restaurant in Burgundy, France, Jill-Marie and Jean-Michel Carré recently returned to Jill-Marie’s home state of California to open a chocolaterie, called Chocolats du CaliBressan. Just seven months later, the company’s clients include several Santa Ynez Valley wineries, top area hotels and resorts and four regional Albertson’s grocery stores.

“Instead of opening another restaurant, we thought we would just like to take one avenue of that and do a really fun thing, and that’s chocolates,” Jill-Marie said.
Both Jill-Marie and Jean-Michel have been in the food and beverage industry for more than 30 years. When they met, Jill-Marie worked as a weekend bartender and Jean-Michel as a chef at the same restaurant in California.

“Ooh la la,” Jill-Marie said. “One thing led to another and we were married.”
The couple lived in Newport Beach and San Diego before moving to France to “see what would happen,” Jill-Marie said. She did not speak any French when they first moved to the country.

Five years later, they opened Restaurant CaliBressan in the country’s Burgundy region. Coincidentally, it was just down the road from the village where “Chocolat” was filmed. The business was named for Jill-Marie’s origin in California and Jean-Michel’s origin in the Bressan region of France. Jean-Michel called it a “marriage of the two identities.” While in France, Jean-Michel – who was already a trained chef – also attended school to perfect his skill at making chocolate.

After 11 years running the restaurant, the pair got a craving for California living, so they packed up and made the journey back overseas.

“As soon as the restaurant sold, we headed back and did a tour from San Diego to Napa Valley to decide where we might like to live and open a business and we wound up in Carpinteria,” Jill-Marie said. The city’s central location between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties appealed to them, she said.

The couple gave themselves one year from the time they closed their restaurant to open their new enterprise in California, and the chocolaterie, named after the couple’s former restaurant, opened right on schedule on Nov. 19, 2007.

At first, Jill-Marie and Jean-Michel were unable to obtain traditional financing for the business, as they had lived out of the country for several years and had no American assets. Determined to forge ahead, they used the proceeds from the sale of their French restaurant to found the new business.

After the operation’s opening, Women’s Economic Ventures stepped in and gave them a small-business loan.

“We proved to them we were professionals who knew what we were doing and they had confidence in us,” Jill-Marie said. “They came through for us and helped us a lot.”

Jean-Michel said he draws inspiration from recipes he used in his restaurants to create his chocolate concoctions, which take three days to make. His flavors include Sichuan pepper and orange, curry coconut, champagne and geranium. One of his most popular sweets, the French Kiss, is made of dark and milk chocolate ganache flavored with tangerine liquor, covered with white chocolate, painted red and shaped like lips. Chocolats du CaliBressan imports most of its ingredients from Europe, including its chocolate and spices.

Jill-Marie, who runs the sales and marketing side of the business, said the product is a lot easier to peddle than “used cars.”

“I’ve just been getting out there,” Jill-Marie said of her sales efforts. “I’m not a shy person. I’m not obnoxious, but it’s just a matter of [Jean-Michel] is excellent and talented in making chocolate. I’m good at eating them and selling them – we each have our side.”

The Four Seasons Biltmore Resort is among the regional hotels and resorts that use chocolates from Chocolats du CaliBressan for turn down service. Another hotel sells the confections in its gift shop. Recently, the Albertson’s grocery chain approached the chocolatiers about selling their chocolates in the four Albertson’s locations in Goleta and Santa Barbara.

“They came to us and said they want to start supporting local people in their shops,” Jill-Marie said of Albertson’s. “They want to show they’re different from other grocery stores.”

Jill-Marie said with the next four years of increased traffic created by the Highway 101 improvements and the increasing cost of gas, displaying the chocolates at regional grocery stores will give her customers more convenient access to the chocolates.

Because Chocolats du CaliBressan is in an industrial park, where the Carré’s were able to find a large enough space to manufacture their chocolates, Jill-Marie said the company doesn’t get much walk-in business. She relies on word-of-mouth and corporate clients as a large source of revenue. The products are also available for order online.

Most recently, Jill-Marie said she has spent a lot of time in the Sant Ynez Valley area, building up clientele in the wine industry, either by putting various wine labels’ logos on chocolates or supplying chocolates for them to use with tastings. Among their clients so far are Foley, Brander and Palmina wineries. Jill-Marie said Chocolats du CaliBressan hopes to eventually open additional locations on the Central Coast.

“I think I will be doing the chocolate as long as I can eat it,” Jean-Michel said. “I think when I can’t stand it, I will stop.”

“That day will never come,” Jill-Marie said.

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