Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Sweet success: Building an empire from chocolate

From Becky Anderson, CNN
July 10, 2012 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Katrina Markoff , founder of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, creates "indulgent and sensual" chocolate filled with exotic and unusual flavors. Katrina Markoff , founder of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, creates "indulgent and sensual" chocolate filled with exotic and unusual flavors.
Katrina Markoff
Vosges Haut-Chocolat
Ferran Adrià
Katrina Markoff
  • Katrina Markoff hopes to promote cross-cultural understanding using chocolate.
  • Her Vosges chocolate includes exotic flavors like wasabi, curry and Hungarian paprika.
  • Launched in 1998, the brand is now sold in 2,000 outlets around the world

(CNN) -- Step aside, Willy Wonka. According to its creator, Vosges chocolate is not just chocolate, it's "an experiential chocolate story-telling vehicle that's meant to be indulgent and sensual and opening to the mind."

More than that, 38-year-old company founder Katrina Markoff intends to "break down stereotypes through chocolate."

Having traveled around the world, Markoff's goal is to get people to try the exotic flavors she discovered, something that's more achievable if those flavors are enrobed in chocolate.

Among her best-selling items is a truffle collection that includes sweet Hungarian paprika and Chinese star anise, fennel and pastis confections.

A passion for 'sensual' chocolate

While chocolate with once-unusual ingredients like chilli or sea salt is now increasingly commonplace, when Markoff first tried selling her product to department store Nieman Marcus in Chicago in 1998, she recalls "the guy looking at me like I'm crazy when I'm telling him what's in it."

But today, Markoff's product sells through 2,000 outlets worldwide, and in eight dedicated boutiques. Last year, her business made $30 million, up 50% on the previous year.

This year, she has brought the Vosges experience to a mass market, launching a new, less expensive brand that will sell in places like Walmart and Target. Where a box of 16 Vosges truffles costs $40, a 2oz bar of Wild Ophelia, which features flavors such as beef jerky and BBQ potato chips, is $3.99.

Dallas was very much a BBQ town, and people were like "I am not trying that curry thing"
Vosges founder Katrina Markoff

More from Leading Women: The woman hunting the Higgs boson

A Vanderbilt University chemistry and psychology major, Markoff moved to Paris upon graduating, to study cuisine and patisserie. On the advice of renowned chef Ferran Adrià, who ran what was regularly described as the world's greatest restaurant, El Bulli, in Spain, Markoff toured Southeast Asia and Australia.

In keeping with her international perspective, Markoff plans to devote her next few years to cultivating cacao in Haiti, and opening a lodge in Belize where tourists can learn about chocolate making.

Here, she tells CNN about how she came up with her winning concept.

On her first chocolate epiphany ...

I had my first chocolate experience in the Place des Vosges (in Paris). I went to this restaurant called L'Ambroisie and they had taken chocolate ganache (which is like the center of the truffle), they froze it and dipped it in a beignet batter and fried it.

That experience of eating this donut-crusty exterior and, when you bit down, this molten explosion of chocolate ... that started piquing my curiosity about chocolate.

On her second chocolate epiphany...

It wasn't until I got back from my trip and moved to Dallas to get a job with my uncle that I realized there was no innovation going on in chocolate.

He wanted me to find chocolate for his catalog business, and (everything) was just loaded with sugars and artificial flavorings and extracts and wax, and there was no story.

Follow that instinctual space in your solar plexus
Vosges founder Katrina Markoff

I had all these spices from my travels, and this necklace from the Naga tribes in India. (They told me it was made out of shells, turns out it was all tigers' teeth). There was a lot of struggle over territory and missionaries tried to get them into new religions, and I was just like "we shouldn't kill culture like that."

I went into my kitchen that night and made a curry and coconut truffle. I decided to pay homage to the Naga people and call it Naga.

Everything made sense in that moment: there was this illuminated path that said "just use chocolate as a medium to tell stories."

I ended up working on 20 different flavor profiles that night -- saffron with white chocolate and sugar crystals to represent Gaudi's mosaic work, a Hungarian paprika and chocolate ginger -- all based on my travel experiences.

The next day I went into work and brought this collection of chocolates. Dallas in 1997 was still very much a BBQ town, and these people were like "I am not trying that curry thing."

I got one woman to try it. She took a bite and her face went from disgust and worry to awe and surprise to "Oh my God, this is actually good." She was like "let me try wasabi." She was totally open to try whatever, and it was really, really cool to see that.

On how to succeed ...

I think it's really important for women to have confidence in her individuality and not try to conform to being someone she thinks she needs to be, to compete in the legal world or in the corporate world.

It's so important to find your own voice. People respect it so much. People are very attracted to people who are passionate in their own way, that are respectful, but that are smart and speak their mind.

I don't rely on consumer research to make new products
Vosges founder Katrina Markoff

You have this guiding light within yourself. Always go to that as your sounding board and your voice of truth. Follow that instinctual space in your solar plexus -- you know, that place that says what you need to do is right or wrong. Following that gut instinct is so critical. You have to have your little niche and carve it out and then follow it with all your heart and success will come to you.

On her management style ...

I've been told I can be a little "big picture" for some people, because I think things can get done very quickly and I want them done very quickly.

I don't rely on other people's opinions or consumer research to make new products, which is somewhat unusual ... I don't always follow processes. I skip steps, and I always make last-minute changes -- and usually that's the right thing to do.

Part of complete coverage on
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
In 2007, Arianna Huffington collapsed at her desk. Suffering from a broken cheekbone, the editor-in-chief decided to change her workaholic ways.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
March 8, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
The Facebook COO's latest headline-making action is a new "Ban Bossy" campaign, which aims at getting rid of the word "bossy."
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Meet Gail Kelly, the woman who started as a bank teller -- and now runs the banks.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 0546 GMT (1346 HKT)
What kind of politician is slashed in the face with a knife, and upon waking up in hospital the first thing they ask about is the election campaign?
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
Cast your eye across a line-up of world leaders and it might look a little something like this: Man in dark suit, man in dark suit, man in dark suit, Angela Merkel in fire engine red two-piece.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Meet Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, the chairperson of French commodities giant Louis Dreyfus Holdings, with a net worth estimated at an eye-watering $6 billion.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
YouTube has a new boss and she has a "healthy disregard for the impossible" -- according to Google CEO Larry Page. Here are five things you didn't know about her.