Thinking of Buying a Fast-Casual Franchise? Read this report first.

Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis

Bittersweet Chocolate Café

Bittersweet Chocolate Cafe is an emerging fast-casual restaurant brand.The sign reads “Bittersweet,” but the experience is anything but for customers and owners alike. The three partners behind Bittersweet Chocolate Café in Oakland, California, launched the store in January 2005 in part to satisfy their own cravings. But they quickly found they were not alone in their appreciation of fine, internationally sourced chocolates. Customer demand led the partners to open a second store within a year in San Francisco. Now there are plans for a third store, possible licensees, and a retail line.

“It started so fast at the gate,” partner Seneca Klassen says. “We anticipated it starting small, but we got a lot more traffic than we expected.” The stores see about 270 customers a day, with average sales of $8 to $10 per visit.

Klassen describes himself, along with partners Beth Rostan and Penelope Finnie, as a chocolate enthusiast who found himself coming home from far-flung places with suitcases stuffed with chocolates. “We were frustrated that there was no possibility of finding these chocolates in the Bay Area,” he says. “There is such a foodie culture here, but somehow this wonderful varietal food had gotten left behind.”

Bittersweet’s mission, they say, is “to bring the best the world of chocolate has to offer home.” And that’s just what they’ve done with a menu and merchandise including unique drinking chocolates, confections, pastries, and chocolate bars.

Prices range from $15.00 for a 50-gram, Amedei Chuao bar (made with cocoa from the legendary Chuao village plantation in Venezuela) at the high end to a few dollars for most pastries and drinking chocolates. Among the chocolatiers Bittersweet represents are Bonnat, Cluizel, Pralus, Domori, Amedei, and Scharffen Berger.

“Anywhere chocolate is produced, there is a representative of that place on our shelf,” Klassen says. “Chocolate typically is grown in one place and shipped somewhere else to be manufactured. Only recently have we started seeing origin chocolates that are made in the region that the cacao is grown.”

Klassen talks off the cuff like a textbook on chocolate might read, explaining that chocolate is made from the seed of the cacao, that the cacao tree grows in regions close to the equator, and that chocolate must be made and maintained in cool and dry conditions. “It’s a very non-perishable food when stored properly. You’re starting to hear about vertical tastings, sampling them year over year, like wine.”

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