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Small Business

Small-Business Success Story: Bluprint Chocolatiers

A former food scientist turns to crafting artisanal confections with exotic flavors.

Photo by Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

Kiplinger's spoke with Blüprint Chocolatiers' owner Kim Gustafson (pictured at left), 50, of Alexandria, Va., about how she transitioned from corporate America to entrepreneurship. Read on for an excerpt from our interview:

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You started as a food scientist? Yes. I worked for Cargill, Dr Pepper Snapple, and Wrigley. I was finishing an MBA from Southern Methodist University when my husband, Bruce, was transferred to Washington, D.C. There were no opportunities with consumer products companies, so I tried consulting. But it wasn't what I expected. I thought, What else could I do? While on a vacation in Denmark, we visited a couple of chocolate shops, and I thought it would be fun to have one.

What was your first step? We wrote a business plan, assuming that we would license with a chocolatier to bring its shop to King Street [a major shopping thoroughfare in Old Town Alexandria]. We talked with a few companies, but the one that seemed interested backed out. So, I thought, I’m a food scientist. How hard could it be to make chocolates and open a shop?

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Did you train? Bruce and I attended a chocolate academy in Chicago run by Callebaut, a Belgian chocolate supplier. We took two weeks of coursework, which cost $3,000. By the time we finished, practiced at home, put some formulas together and shared some products with people, we thought, We can do this!

You rented space? We searched in our target area for nine months for the right location, one where we could make and sell chocolates and set up a small café. We finally found a nicely renovated space. We spent less than we had budgeted for improvements, and we pay $5,500 a month in rent. That’s high, but competitive.

What about equipment? We bought a gorgeous display cabinet from Italy that’s temperature- and humidity-controlled, and a continuous tempering machine to keep the chocolate smooth and shiny. We also plan to buy a coating machine.

What flavors do you offer? Unusual ones, such as Cragganmore Scotch whisky, kirschwasser, cardamom, chili, cinnamon, spearmint and more. I develop all of the formulas. I was trained in sensory evaluation, so I can analyze flavor for sweetness, bitterness and complexity.

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What’s Bruce’s role? He's my co-owner and vice president. He taste-tests, works weekends in the shop, does our books, handles any legal issues and pays the taxes. I couldn’t do it without him.

How did you finance your start-up? We needed about $165,000. We spent our own money and took a short-term loan of $60,000 from a local lender to buy capital assets that secured the loan. We can also tap a line of credit up to $30,000.

What do you charge? Each piece costs $2, about average for artisan chocolates. We sell them in three-, six- and 24-piece boxes. We ship, and we hope to begin taking orders online in late 2016.

How are you doing? We opened on April 7, 2015, and we projected sales of $125,000 for the year. We beat that, without the benefit of Valentine’s Day and Christmas. I just started taking a small paycheck in December. I work about 80 hours a week, with one part-time assistant.

What’s best about the shop? Our customers do a little chocolate dance and off they go, happy as can be.

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