Donna BerryCHICAGO — Chances are that if you landed at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, you passed by a Vosges Haut-Chocolat boutique. Three of the four terminals feature the local, modern chocolaterie founded by Katrina Markoff, chef and chocolatier. The stores are a candy lover’s dream, with an exotic twist.

The chocolate creations are made with ingredients from around the world, sourced by Ms. Markoff. The purple house of Vosges Haut-Chocolat and the trademarked tagline of “Travel the world through chocolate” were inspired by her post-university culinary adventures that took her from Paris to Spain to Southeast Asia to Australia and then finally landed her in Chicago, a few hours from her childhood home. Ms. Markoff’s fusion of indigenous spices, flowers, roots, herbs and liqueurs with premium chocolate creates a sensory experience that nurtures awareness of and appreciation for the world’s diverse cultures.

“I use chocolate as a medium for storytelling,” Ms. Markoff said Feb. 1, 2018, at Chocolate Unwrapped, an event coordinated by the Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network and hosted at Barry Callebaut USA, Chicago.

Vosges Haut-Chocolat in O'Hare

The Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network is a non-profit launched in early 2017. Its mission is to drive inclusive economic growth in Chicago by bringing together the region’s food and beverage industry stakeholders to pursue collaborative opportunities.

“The majority of business decisions regarding U.S. confections are made in Chicago,” said Alan Reed, executive director of the non-profit organization.

“That’s why we are located here,” said Beau Netzer, vice-president of specialty and decorations, marketing and sales at Barry Callebaut. “It’s sweet home, Chicago.”

It was also a contributing factor to why Ms. Markoff started her business in the Windy City in 1998.

“At Vosges, we harness the power of storytelling to open minds, spirits and palates through esteemed chocolate, inspiring us all to interact with the world in a new and creative way,” she said.

When asked about the overall confection business, Ms. Markoff recognized that it’s challenging.

“The premium chocolate bar category is too saturated,” she said. “One prominent natural retailer is cutting their chocolate bar stock from 72 s.k.u.s (stock-keeping units) to just 15 to eliminate redundancy.”

Despite being the second busiest airport in the United States, her three O’Hare chocolateries, as well as a few other Chicago locations and online business, are not enough for substantial growth. Retail chains, therefore, are an important part of Vosges’ business plan. In keeping with Ms. Markoff’s innovation process, retail products focus on ingredients, with their origins communicated on the package.

“Our No. 1 selling bar is mint matcha,” she said. “Our bars appeal to the ‘explorer consumer.’”

Mint matcha is made with crisp mint leaves with an aromatic oil that readily melds with the caramel notes of the company’s proprietary 45% cacao dark milk chocolate. Aromas of bamboo and grass linger on the palate from the addition of Grade A matcha green tea.

Part of future retail innovation will include wellness and functionality, which is a hot topic at Vosges. Ms. Markoff believes it will keep the brand’s sizzle.

Selling sizzle is an important part of the high-end confection business, according to Mr. Netzer, who explained the enormity of 175-year old Barry Callebaut. The $7 billion (Swiss) company has 55 factories worldwide and more than 11,000 employees.

“We are a business-to-business company, so you won’t find our brand on any confections,” he said. “But our ingredients are found in one out five chocolate products in the global market.”

Innovation is constant, with some of the company’s current initiatives including the creation of more dairy- and sugar-free options, high-protein products, and programs to address sustainability.

One of the company’s most recent innovations is ruby chocolate, which is being recognized as the fourth chocolate, after dark, milk and white.

Introduced in September 2017, ruby chocolate is made from ruby cocoa bean. The chocolate has an intense taste and characteristic reddish color from the ruby bean’s berry-type fruitiness and color. Sourced from different regions of the world, it took many years for Barry Callebaut to design a process to unlock ruby beans’ attributes.

The new chocolate made its commercial debut in January 2018 when the Nestlé Kit Kat Chocolatory Sublime Ruby bar launched in Japan and South Korea. It will be some time before retail products launch in the United States, as Barry Callebaut is still waiting for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue a standard of identity for the new chocolate.

“Confection shops, however, can start using it,” he said.

Separately, at the end of January, Barry Callebaut introduced a sensory lexicon to help chocolate professionals and consumers understand and express variations in chocolate taste. The chocolate sensory language and tasting ritual was inspired by what has already been created for wine, coffee and craft beer categories.

“Containing over 20,000 identifiable chemical compounds, cocoa is one of the most complex foodstuffs on earth,” said Pablo Perversi, chief innovation, quality and sustainability officer of the Barry Callebaut Group, Zurich, Switzerland. “The sensory language that we have developed for chocolate, will allow consumers to share their passion for a specific chocolate taste much more accurately.”

Pairing cocoa and chocolate sensory research with consumer understanding, the company developed the “consumer chocolate sensory wheel” with 87 descriptors, covering the flavor, texture and aroma of chocolate. A chocolate tasting ritual requires the five senses — sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste — and enables chocolate professionals and consumers to discover new dimensions of the chocolate experience.