Ones to Watch | By Robin Hilmantel
Tom Block didn’t care for fudge, and he certainly didn’t know how to make it. But when he saw an opportunity to sell the treat at the New York State Fair while he was in college, he made a decision: He would learn how to make fudge. For the next two or three years, he prepared and sold it seasonally at local fairs.
“This was not what I went to school for, but I’ve just always been entrepreneurial,” Block says. “It kind of just happened.”
Several chocolate shops later, Block is still making desserts—but this time around it’s more to his liking.
His latest venture, Naked Chocolate Cafe, is a joint effort with his daughter, Sara. In just less than two-and-a-half years, the European-style sit-down cafe and retail store has expanded to three locations that each serves 300 or more people daily. The brand’s most popular menu items by far are its hot drinking chocolates, available in classic, bittersweet, Aztec, and spicy. Coffee selections are also available.
“We’re a real alternative to Starbucks or going to another coffee shop,” Block says.
Lately, Naked Chocolate’s cupcakes also have become “enormously popular,” and retail chocolates always sell well, especially around various holidays. The average ticket price is $6.50.
The inspiration for Naked Chocolate Café came from vacations Sara and Tom took to Europe during Sara’s teens and early 20s. The Blocks enjoyed visiting chocolate cafés abroad, especially ones in Paris and Barcelona. Later, when Sara graduated from the University of Vermont but wasn’t ready to enter graduate school, the two remembered their trips.
“We just really were intrigued with those little sipping cafés,” Block says.
At the same time, Block noticed a spike in popularity in artisan chocolates in the U.S., particularly dark chocolates.
“It just seemed like the time to do it,” he says.
Block sold his Thomas Sweet Ice Cream & Chocolate stores, which he had been running for about 25 years, and moved to Philadelphia, where Sara was living, to start Naked Chocolate.
But why naked?
“That’s the biggest question I get,” Block says. “ We wanted to come up with a name that would be fun and unforgettable and maybe a little edgy.”
Plus, the word helps convey that the shop sells pure chocolate. The Blocks use as many fair trade products as possible and make their chocolates with the best natural ingredients, avoiding anything artificial. They create all of the flavorings themselves from pure essential oils and use local suppliers when they can.
But premium ingredients are only part of the Blocks’ formula for success. Another key component—an enchanting atmosphere —turned out to be Sara’s specialty.
Without any previous interior design experience, Sara recreated the feel of those European cafés.
Light and dark chocolate colors and a warm pink cover the walls of the stores, which average about 1,300 square feet. Cozy furniture, granite counter tops, and hardwood floors encourage customers to stay and savor their selections. Glass pendant fixtures from the 1930s hang from the high ceilings, and paintings by local artists decorate the walls.
The display cases are focal points—one for chocolates and one for desserts—and are filled with choices for customers. Even more chocolate is on exhibit around the shops, some shaped like a life-size football or a carriage.
But perhaps the best part of Naked Chocolate Cafe’s décor is the huge window that lets customers see from the shop into the kitchen, where they can catch a glimpse of staff pouring chocolate or frosting cupcakes.
“We always say we have nothing to hide in what we’re making,” Block says.
The resulting atmosphere is the perfect spot to enjoy a post-theater coffee or dessert, which is exactly what the Blocks had in mind. The café’s original location is located within walking distance of more than five theaters and concert venues, most notably The Academy of Music and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
Naked Chocolate Café
Founders: Tom and Sara Block
HQ: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Year Started: 2006
Annual Sales: $1 million
Total Units: 3
Franchise Units: 0
The rich selection of treats and the charming ambiance resonate with Naked Chocolate’s many regular customers, but Block’s favorite story comes from an older couple from Europe who discovered that he was the owner after several visits.
“They said to me, ‘We feel like we’re in a European café, except we don’t have newspapers here,’” he says. “That made me feel that we did create what we wanted to.”
Block’s main goal is to bring Naked Chocolate’s existing stores to their full potential. Expansion, maybe into other urban markets, might also be in the concept’s future. Franchising, however, is less likely since the Blocks want to maintain complete control of the brand.
“We’ve hit upon a concept that people have taken to, and we want to run with that concept as best we can,” says Block, who can see his success each day: Even when people come in looking miserable, they leave the café happy.
“If you leave this store unhappy, you are an unhappy person,” he says.