I’ll never forget my first sight of Vice Chocolates’ farmer’s market booth: black and purple, more dark carnival than dark chocolate.
Now here at I-Li Chang Brice’s workshop in a corner brick building near Jack London Square, the chocolate takes on a more innocent air. That is until I-Li says, “Taste the skeleton,” her tattooed arm holding out a bag of dark brown bones.
I chuckle, delighted and unsurprised. With flavors like Violent Heart, Rasgasm, Cherry Bomb and Punk’N, Vice Chocolates is not your grandma’s high-end chocolatier.
“It’s made with Fair-Trade
Venezuelan chocolate, created specially for the True Blood Ball at the
DNA where our band, Bloodwire, played.”
“Now try the Slayer,” she says, offering a box of flawlessly glossy dark chocolate bon bons.
“It’s roasted garlic and balsamic vinegar. Vampires
are vulnerable to silver,” she adds, explaining the touch of edible
silver on top. She sold out of both Slayer and Vamp - a blood orange
caramel with cardamom and honey, both ingredients used in the
Chocolate bones? Anti-vampire bon bons? Marketing101 would suggest not targeting your product line to a niche audience who likely thrives more on coffee than caramels. Then again, I-Li’s path during her three years in business has been anything but conventional.
"I come up with flavors that sound
good to me. If people don't like them, oh well!" she smiles.
Her iconoclastic approach didn’t stop the Fall International Chocolate Salon judges from awarding Vice with first Place Gold for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar, Best Truffle, Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations, Most Artistic Designs and Best Gift Set. Now I-Li is too busy filling orders to update her website with these wins, let alone her Chocolate Inclusion Finalist nomination from the Good Food Awards. (The award ceremony is mid-January.)
Like many “second career” entrepreneurs, I-Li’s life took many turns before her calling as a chocolatier came to light.
At age 2, I-Li moved with her family from Taiwan to the East Bay, where her family ran several popular Chinese restaurants. Helping out from an early age cured I-Li of any desire to work in a food business. Working two jobs to pay for her education at Cal, she resisted pressure to be a "doctor or a lawyer" and instead went into information technology.
One day while listlessly perusing Craigslist for jobs, she clicked over to search the Food & Beverage category. A part-time chocolate internship caught her eye. It was serendipity. Literally. After hearing about I-Li’s affinity for making chai truffles and other confections, Serendipity Chocolates in Oakland hired her as an intern and trained her in professional chocolate making.
The leap into entrepreneurship often follows a major life transition. In I-Li’s case it was an illness, which required time off work. After recuperating, I-Li contacted Serendipity - only to learn the company was shutting down.
"I'd barely started learning, but I was so into it.
Chocolate called out to me."
She decided to take the plunge, using all her savings to purchase the business’ equipment and start Vice Chocolates.
She took the trial by fire approach, seeking some advice from small business support organizations, but working largely off of instinct and support from Pete Brydon from Barlovento Chocolates, who operates out of the same space. Today, she’s continuing to learn while working on a formal business plan, testing and refining flavors and happily filling an onslaught of orders.
Chocolates is highly Oaklandish.
“I'm proud to be in Oakland and want to stay here,” I-Li says, not only because of her loyal farmer’s market following. "I'd love to have a shop someday. Staying local makes my chocolate more special.”
The active artisan food scene is an added bonus. “It’s fun to collaborate with other local producers for ingredients,” she enthuses. “The 'Lucky' truffle has Linden Street Brewery's Black Lager Beer and I can’t wait to collaborate with other locals.”
find I-Li’s Vice Chocolates booth most Sundays at the Temescal Farmer’s
Market in Oakland. Her chocolate is available in a few stores around
the Bay Area such as the Star Grocery, Pasta Shop and Draeger's. You can find them online at www.vicechocolates.com.
Let your priorities guide your strategy. Themes
of quality, freshness and perfection — shared by most successful
chocolatiers — are at the top of I-Li’s list. She’s accepted that
distributing to retailers outside the Bay Area may not happen.
“I want to know that what people are eating is just the way I intended.” she says. Having longer shelf-life chocolate bars expands her options for selling at retailers, and the online store lets her get fresh chocolates to customers right away.
Commit to your brand. As a small business, you need to feel good about your branding. If expressing yourself is a priority, as with many artisans, don’t hold back. In the words of Vice Chocolates: “So go on ... just give in.” If growing worldwide is the goal, re-think and test how well your brand is received by potential customers, both consumers and wholesale.
Be online. You may be a one person show for longer than you think. Getting your e-commerce set up and/or joining online marketplaces like Foodzie and Etsy will prepare you for any major press or awards that come your way. Once you get into production, you’ll likely find yourself with barely time to eat let alone set up your web presence.
Some things I-Li wishes she’d known before:
Get a business loan upfront rather than spending your own money and credit. When you try to get a loan they ask what industry experience you have.
"It's ironic since in the beginning I didn't have experience. Yet now that I've spent my savings and racked up credit card debt to fund the business, it's hard to get a loan." (A recent Business Week article offers a few creative funding ideas as well.)
Photos and video by Susie Wyshak.