May 5

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How an Internship Led to Creating a Chocolate Company

By Mimi MacLean

May 5, 2022


internship to founder Katrina Markoff
Katrina Markoff

Katrina Markoff, Founder and CEO of Vosges

Katrina Markoff is the founder and CEO of Vosges, a chocolate brand with a mission to share quality, meaningful food with the world. She began her chocolatier internship in Spain under the direction of Ferran and Albert Adria of the famed El Bulli, where she began to understand that food was a medium for transformative visceral experiences. At the encouragement of Ferran, she set out on a quest directed by the signs to identify her path and reason for being in the world of good, meaningful food and embarked on a trip around the world.

Find Katrina and Vosges Haut Chocolat:

Episode Content

Apprenticing and Learning About the Chocolatier World

Photographer: nina avroneva

Mimi:
Katrina, thank you so much for coming on today. I really appreciate it. And I'm so excited to talk to you about two of my favorite things, chocolate and all the great superfoods and things that you add to it to make it even extra special. So thank you for coming on. And I would love to just start out by just talking about your story and your apprentice that you started to figure out exactly what you wanted to do with your company.

Katrina:
Yeah. I mean, I guess the origin story started with me going to… I went to Vanderbilt and I didn't love my degrees. I moved to Paris, went to the Cordon Bleu and then I decided I really wanted to learn more about other cultures' cuisine outside of just France. And so I moved to Spain and I got the opportunity to work at El Bulli and that was the beginning of molecular gastronomy. But the way I saw that work was really experiential food. And I think it just had this… I mean, it had a tremendous impact on me in regards to food is so much more than taste. And I think from there, I ended up going east for the next nine months throughout Southeast Asia and Australia and China and Korea, and just worked in different restaurants and really learned about culture through food and markets and seeing how food was much more than just about again, taste.

Katrina:
But in the I found it to be more about ritual and healing. That was really unique to me. So certain foods pressed on your skin or roots pressed on your skin or taken and internally or that were food, but we're used in a way for purpose. And I thought, oh, that's really interesting. And I think as I traveled, I gathered all these little interesting nuggets of information that kind of fed into ultimately creating Vosges.

Mimi:
That's good, because I don't feel like the United States, they don't really believe, there's not that connection of food and medicine and your body and you're using it to nurture it. I mean, we all have the standard American diet, which is SAD. And so the Hippocrates quote, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." That's where you should be turning to and figuring out. So that's why I love your company because you're doing that, but with something that we all love. So you went and you did that. You did your intern… But then when you came back and you realized you did not want to work in the restaurant industry and that's when you said, "Let me do a twist on what I already learned."

Katrina:
Right. I wasn't meant really for the kitchen. It wasn't my space. I started to look into food, what food items sold and this was 21, 22 years ago. At the time the chocolates that you could buy to eat were mostly at drug stores, there were very few really nice specialty stores around. Dean & DeLuca suppose was it and maybe [inaudible 00:05:41] time and you just couldn't get great chocolate. You also, if you got gift box chocolates, always, it was filled with preservatives, potassium sorbate or whatever to preserve it. And so I was like, "God, there is nothing here that I would ever want to eat." Though I never really loved chocolate as a kid and I hadn't even really worked with chocolate I just thought it was just a huge opportunity because as I started researching cacao, the fruit that makes the chocolate it was sacred plant medicine.

Katrina:
I was like, "Whoa, this is so fascinating to me." And now it's like this childlike confectionary sweet, but it came from these very serious, cool roots of healing and bringing you into your hard space and making you feel like you're in love. I was just like, "Oh my God, this is the food I have to work with. This is it." And so I brought in all this conglomeration of all these moments of epiphanies as I traveled that made sense now into a brand that I was going to use chocolate as a medium for storytelling about these different cultures, but through a very luxury positioning lens, but with a deep soul. That was not really typical. When you thought about luxury, it was more indulgent, but I never thought about it having a soul, but when you bring in those human stories about the way different cultures use the food, it creates that natural soul of a brand.

Katrina:
It just started to feel more and more and more right as a platform for not just a business, but really for creating this opportunity to open people's minds up to new ideas, through food energetics, through storytelling, through just well crafted chocolates. And then I just started to think about the brand as a woman and I made a name, her name was Sophie and she became the personification of the brand. So whenever I went to look at what would the brand do next? I would think about this muse Sophie, where does she shop? What does she read? What does she care about? Where does she travel? And it became to be the ultimate voice of the brand. There's so many stories about about how this brand was developed. But in the beginning I think that was a super crucial part because I think it's a very deep brand and some people don't go that deep with it. But the point is that it is a soulful brand in a luxury positioning.

Katrina:
I think that's really interesting because it doesn't necessarily go together always. Then as I look into the ingredients we use with chocolate, they don't always go together with chocolate either as you would typically think. Olive oil and chocolate or paprika and chocolate or Taleggio cheese and chocolate, these things sound… At the time when I did it especially, they sounded very disgusting to a lot of people and that was the tension that was really interesting about it. Because chocolate is a magnetizing food and everybody likes it. And then when you say but it has this in it or it's about this culture, they're like, "What? Oh, but I love chocolate. Okay. I'll try." That moment of tension is really interesting because you become very present and the mind is much quieter. So that was another thing that I saw in what we were doing is people did get very viscerally present into their body as opposed to just popping in something sweet.

Approaching Distribution with a Fashion Model – Some Products DTC and Other Retail

Mimi:
That's awesome. So when you created your first chocolate and your brand, where did you turn to first to sell it? How did you distribute it?

Katrina:
I had looked at the way fashion brands had built brands of off couture originally and runway. Then they had distribution though of makeup and sunglasses in large department stores without diluting their brand. I thought that was a really interesting model, so what was going to be the sunglasses part of our brand and what was going to be the couture? So it was very clear that the truffles would be the couture side because they were going to be made with fresh cream. So they could only be shipped direct to consumer, we couldn't sell them anywhere else because they only last for two weeks. But the chocolate bars could have a lot longer shelf life naturally, because chocolate is solid, it has very low water, so it can last for a long time on a shelf. So I thought that's really an interesting model.

Katrina:
So in the beginning that's really how I set up the channels and it was omnichannel from the very beginning. So Whole Foods and you know, Dean & DeLuca and your specialty food stores became basically wherever they sold really good cheese would be a place we could sell chocolate bars. We weren't the center aisle thing. So when I say Whole Foods, I don't mean in the middle of the store. I mean in the cheese department, which they call specialty. So that's really how it is, direct and consumer through e-commerce and then the wholesale business was built through specialty cheese shops and then of course we had developed another brand ultimately and built a bigger factory and created more volume for more of a corporate gifting perspective of the channel.

Mimi:
That is true, everyone's always looking for a unique and special gift. Was it hard to get into a Whole Foods and bigger brand specialty stores?

Katrina:
We were lucky that we had really great press and back in the day, media based in New York print, that was really how you could get your name out without spending a ton of money. Because it was such a unique concept and I had a background that had some credibility, I guess, because I worked at El Bulli went to the Cordon Bleu the media was willing to cover the story, but it sounded really gross to everybody at the time, wasabi and chocolate. But I think that was again, that tension helped pull their attention and then we got a lot of press and it was really the press that helped build the awareness and I think give the confidence to the retailer that this was a legitimate cool new trend.

Following Your Intuition Through Growth and Fear

Mimi:
Looking back over the past 20 years, what would you say has been your hardest lesson that you've had to learn?

Katrina:
Oh my gosh. So many. There have been so many, but I would say always being really present in your… I'm going to call it awareness or your intuition because I got to the point where the company was just growing really, really fast and it got bigger and I started to get insecure. I don't know what I'm doing, what do I know about this? I'm just an entrepreneur that just can figure stuff out. But I don't know how to run a big business and hire… And then I'd get all this advice like, well just hire amazing people. Well, that's not really that easy to do. It's one thing to spend a lot of money on someone and it doesn't mean that they're a great hire and so I think I was just not really listing, I wasn't checking in with my own gut and I was just kind of like, oh yeah, you guys know better. You're more experienced, you come from a big company, you would know and that was too far off the rings.

Katrina:
You have to have a balance of your perspective and someone else's perspective who thinks they're an expert. So I would say always checking in and with yourself and does this feel right? Really look beyond the shine of other people's opinion and their background and does it feel right and then weigh in on that. But I hired a lot of people like they'll get it done, they'll figure it out and it didn't always go like that.

Mimi:
Because they don't have your vision. What you're trying to do and you're disrupting something that's there, they're trying to do what's already been there. So they're not seeing what you really want to do with the company and the direction it is taking.

Katrina:
And also a lot of times when you hire people that are more senior in their role or come from a big company, they're used to having huge teams to delegate to, so they're not used to actually do the work themselves. So You really need people, I would say really hire for heart. Because usually when you have someone who's got their heart in it, they're willing to work hard, they're willing to just figure out whatever it is that needs to be done. I've been doing this a long time and the reality is there's always an issue. There's always an opportunity. I mean, it just is every single day. So you got to work through that, have faith through that, be coming up with plan B and C through that all the things. And a lot of times people with a lot of heart are used to being able to solve problems with their will in a way because their hearts in it, as opposed to being like, you know what, I'm not paid to do this, this isn't my job.

Mimi:
Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Katrina:
You just can't have on a team. And especially when you're building a smaller company and don't have endless resources to just hire a bunch of people to do-

Self Funding For The First 15 Years and the Power Of Slow Growth

Mimi:
Right, to be a lot more resourceful and yeah. It's so true. Speaking of resources, did you fund the company completely on your own or you've had to go out and look for outside investors and talk about that process.

Katrina:
Yes. It was all self-funded up until the 15th year. And then we took growth capital from friends and family investors and I'm a big fan of just slow growth. If I didn't have to take investment money, I wouldn't have, I would've just kept kind of going slower, but I felt I had to. And I was trying to grow another brand also, Wild Ophelia, a lot of the glamor stories in the investment world is just grow fast and have a huge transaction, big multiple, but in building a luxury brand, I think something like that, it's a multi-generational view for me on how to build a brand that has staying power and that's not necessarily the most popular path, but I think it really does speak to the brand's longevity when you can have a brand that is around a long time like we have, and obviously want to be around for another couple hundred years at least, but so you have to make those different kinds of decisions in growing a brand like that.

Mimi:
Yeah. Because there's so many different ways. I mean you can go raise capital, but that comes with, that's a full-time job going to look for investors.

Katrina:
Yes.

Mimi:
And then too with that comes a lot more responsibility as far as being an angel investor myself, you don't really… You as a CEO are not really required to give me weekly, monthly, quarterly checkups, financial, you're on your own as far as I'm not bugging you to be like, okay, give me… Whereas if you have outside investors that are bigger, like private equity VC, they're expecting financial statements and updates and it's just a whole other level of commitment and time that maybe it distracts you from your actual core business.

Katrina:
Yeah, absolutely. It is a huge piece of it. So if you can do it on your own and just have a really strong value set, I think it's a good multi-generational type role, but it's not the most popular. I mean, I wonder how many people that you talk to really have that kind of approach.

Mimi:
I think it depends on what your end goal is. They're is people who start a company and they're like, "Okay, in five to seven years, I want to sell." Especially food or beverage, they're in it to be able to just sell it for a couple hundred million dollars to a bigger conglomerate and get out. Then there are some people that I've spoken with other CEOs that are like, "No, I want this to be my baby and I'm not going to sell it." So I think it's like, what's your end game and what you're trying to do with it. If you're trying to grow it and sell it or you'd rather just keep it as your business that you're going to grow and like you said, generationally and pass it on.

Katrina:
It's not even about like, yes, maybe pass it on. But for me it's just like a brand that has really great staying power. I think to do that, you have to iterate on a product like this so much to make it really refined. It looks simple from the outside, but it's a lot of little tweaks to everything and tests and to just a great product that evolves over time. Because products always need to evolve. There's no perfect recipe in my mind. You're always going to find a better source or a cleaner item or something with a better story. There's always reasons to continue to evolve that and it takes a while to embed that in a culture.

A Second Brand and Product Line Can Sometimes Mean A New Skills, New Team, New Expenses

Mimi:
But I think with specialty item, it's also hard, even if you wanted to sell, it's like what conglomerate would do your brand justice? They're not going to want to spend the time and energy to perfect it the way you do. They're going to want to mass produce it to increase their margins.

Katrina:
Yeah. I mean, so like with our products though, we have like mainstay truffle collections that have been from the very beginning and they're the best sellers and those are… Not to say that I don't always kind of do little adjustments, but they're pretty solid. But the innovation piece is what's really, I think, important to keep consumers interested because people have the need for new, a lot and operate very much like a fashion house in that we have new packaging, new recipes for every season, which is Valentine's Day, spring, and then really holiday. So that feeds that one half of our customer base, which is all about the experience and new and innovation. And the other one is really the person who wants to give like a tried and true luxury gift and they just want to get like the everyday assortment. And so those are pretty well locked in their format, but yeah, but for the innovation, you need basically an artist to create that storytelling for the brand.

Mimi:
Is there anything that you look back on and you're like, oh, I wish I knew this before I started.

Katrina:
I mean, sure. I tried to do ice cream for a little bit and we were really ahead of the ice cream pints for $12, $15, but it was really a completely new supply chain and need a huge amount of investment dollars. To ship frozen, you have to find very special trucks that hold negative 20 degree temperatures, which are rare. And then you can't really do LTL on those, so you have to do a full truck and if you don't, you're just wrapping dollar bills around it. And when we started, we found a dairy doing it in east coast, but all the demand was from the west coast. And it was just like, oh my gosh. After spending like $500,000 on that, I'm like, this business needs way more than that to really get it going. So I would say if you're going to do a second brand or another big product line it does require a lot of resources and you can't just lean on your existing team because they are doing a lot with your current business.

As Female Entrepreneurs We Have To Listen, Learn and Adapt Without Getting Stuck In The Perfectionist Wheel

Mimi:
You're just distracting and then you'll lose the eye on the ball on the other main stay business. So it's interesting, I don't know if you know the stats, but it was like, I don't even know what percentage, but very few percentage of companies make it past five years. And for women, only 1.7% of women ever reach a million dollars in sales in their businesses.

Katrina:
Oh my gosh.

Mimi:
Which is so crazy low. So obviously you've done well and you've lasted more than those stats as far as timing and dollar amounts. So what would you say was your secret or what can you pass on advice to other women who may be deciding, should I keep going? Should I not keep going any kind of advice or what could have made you be one of the 1.7%?

Katrina:
I mean, you have to believe in your goals, you have to write your goals in all categories of your life and you have to deeply feel it. So if you're starting to doubt, you need to go get a refresh at the spa or something and reinvigorate yourself with the brand because you are the energy that really drives it out. And if are not in a good place, it's hard for your brand to be in a good place. So I would say keeping that energy inside yourself for what you're doing high, and then being smart about putting together your plan, like, okay, I'm going to reach out to this many people. I'm going to make a connection with everybody I meet today. Because when you give energy to other people, I don't care if it's the person working at the drug store or whatever, the lady that's helping you with your house.

Katrina:
When you give it comes back and that gets you out of your head. I do really think a lot of this is a mental game and women can sometimes I've read be more a risk adverse when it comes to debt. I don't know if that's true, but I've read that. I was never… I don't have issues with having debt and taking a big chance in a flyer. And you have to do those things and when you do do the flyers, because I do it almost all the time because we're always is innovating and you never know if something's going to work or not work. You have to just be committed to workshopping it until it does work. Because something inside, you said it was a good idea, so it took you down that path.

Katrina:
So see it through and figure it out. Don't be like, oh I just give up. You can never do that. You screw up, fix it. That's just what you do. You cannot doubt yourself, there's a reason it took you here. So just keep following, growing it, learning from it. Because you're going to make a mistake all the time. It's just about learning from it and moving on. Make a mistake, learn and keep going. So I think that's what we do a lot is just try to be smart about learning from all the mistakes that we make.

Mimi:
And maybe they're not even mistakes. It's just learning to be adaptable. I think a lot of times women, when they start a company, they tend to feel like everything has to be perfect. When I launch, my website's got to be perfect, the font's got to be perfect. The products… And instead you really don't know what your customer wants. So by launching, you're listening. Launch and listen and learn and adapt.

Katrina:
Well, and the thing is I remember I could show you the first box I ever did for Vosges and it is a total embarrassment. I'm like, "Oh my God, I can't believe I did that." But somehow some people liked it. It was like there was enough grace in there that people wanted to support, I don't know, the product was really good even though the packaging wasn't at the time, but you just get better. But you can't… I always say whenever I launch something, it's probably a 75 or 80% out of a hundred. It's never perfect. But if I don't launch it, it will never exist because something else will happen and there'll be another reason. And I can't buy the thing because for whatever… Whatever, so I really push hard to launch because I know once it exists, it can grow.

Katrina:
But if you just fuss with it too much, you'll never get it out. And it's also just a stifling process to be it's just not right. I'm like, "It's good enough for right now. We're going, let's go." And next time I'm going to tweak it and tweak it and tweak. But I just can't get hung up on being a perfectionist. Even though I am one, I look at perfectionism over a five year span almost, I'll just keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking.

Keeping Everything Organized Preserves Clarity of Mind and Your Brand

Mimi:
Because what's perfect? How do you know what you're perfect is actually the right perfect. You look at how many brands have changed their logos or changed their packaging. It's just inevitable, you're going to change. You're going to change your time. That's why hairstyles change over 10 years. So we're not going to wear the same hairstyle we wore 20 years ago. So of course everything adapts and change to what's going on. So I think that is definitely one of the biggest hangups women have launching because they feel like they have to have everything perfect because everyone's watching and everyone's looking and everyone… And it doesn't have to be, because you have to be willing to adapt and listen.

Katrina:
Absolutely. It's all about that. I have a friend that spent all this money on doing this huge ad in New York in Times Square, this huge thing. And then she's like, "You know what, I really don't like my brand name." And then she changed it and I was like, "What? After that?" But it's like you just constantly adapt. If it's better, go over there, don't be ashamed that you made a bad choice.

Mimi:
So she did change your brand name after?

Katrina:
Yeah, she did. Maybe she got feedback from that. Maybe, I didn't get the details, but maybe she got really good feedback that no one knew how to pronounce that, those letters together. So she changed it, but the concept was good, but just the name wasn't resonating. And so what? Okay, it was an expensive mistake, but change it.

Mimi:
Yeah. No, totally.

Katrina:
Just can't be afraid of change. That is the biggest thing. It's like some people get so tied up in their ego with this is perfect and I shouldn't have to change. No, you always have to be humble enough to be looking at something how could it be better? I'm constantly looking at how could this be better, better? And the little things they me for a while. But then when I get the opportunity to change it, because we ran out the packaging so we now opportunity to update, I will. But I'm in a constant state of change. That must be, I'm also very like I love change. It's almost stimulating me, change is really a powerful energy for me. I don't mind when a meeting cancels. I don't mind when a trip cancels. It's like, oh it's exciting, what's next?

Mimi:
Yeah, yeah, totally. I'm always the same way. My husband's like, "You're so fickle." I'm like, "No, I'm not." You have one life. I can't imagine living the same thing for my whole life. That's why I move all the time. I love meeting people.

Katrina:
Oh, do you move all the time?

Mimi:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Katrina:
Oh my God. I would love that. I would love to do that too. I would love to.

Mimi:
Yeah, I'm sure my kids don't like it. Literally we move every… I don't think we've lived in a house more than two years.

Katrina:
Oh my God. [crosstalk 00:28:23]

Mimi:
When I look back and I'm like, "Wait, what did I… That's so much energy to move and unpack and pack." That part of it. I'm not psyched about, I haven't mastered that, so much attention is to that. But I do like moving and experiencing different things all the time. I think college, I look back, if I were to have a college, college should be only one year and then you should move to a different school. It shouldn't be four years at one school. That's where you should be like-

Katrina:
That's true.

Mimi:
I mean, that's where you should be meeting people and learning experiences and figuring out what you want to do with your life and where you want to live. It shouldn't be like four years at one school. I don't know. It should be more like different experiences. I'm always like that.

Katrina:
Where are you living now?

Mimi:
We just moved from LA to Connecticut.

Katrina:
Oh, right, right.

Mimi:
Have you ever read your numbers read?

Katrina:
Yeah.

Mimi:
So I had my numbers read once and the woman's like, "You have…" I think it was like all fives. She's like, "That means you should be always moving." She's like, "You have five kids." She's like, "That's not your numbers, you should have been a travel writer and you're never home with a family. That's who you should be." And I'm like, "That's funny because that's probably why I always feel like I need to be moving and traveling and doing things."

Katrina:
You have five kids, did you say-

Mimi:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Katrina:
And you're moving every two years. That's incredible.

Mimi:
Yeah. Well I like it.

Katrina:
Oh my God.

Mimi:
I also like organizing and throwing stuff out. I don't like having a lot of-

Katrina:
Me too. I just hired someone to come to my house to just like… I'm like, "Just do the basement." And now I have her come every single week.

Mimi:
And what does she organize?

Katrina:
She organized, so they go through whatever the room and they would say, "You know what? Your kids are these ages, they don't need this in there. Here's a pile go through it." And then like when she's standing, I'm like, "Okay, I'll just donate this stuff. I'll donate this." And it feels so good. I'm like, this is like retail therapy. I feel like I just lost 20 pounds and got a new dress because you're like shedding so much of the stuff that you're like, kind of weighs a lot.

Mimi:
Yeah. No, it definitely does. No. I just interviewed a couple weeks ago The Home Edit girls. I don't know if you know The Home Edit.

Katrina:
No, no.

Mimi:
They have a TV show now on Netflix. I interviewed them and they were just bought by Reese Witherspoon's company last week. They just announced it. So they have a great brand too called The Home Edit and they go in and you would love it because they make it very visual. It's not just about organizing. It's like everything they do is just beautiful colored and visual. And they were the first ones who kind of started doing it on Instagram, the before and after. And so they took that whole Instagram trend and that's how they became pretty big.

Katrina:
Oh my God. I love that. Oh my God. Honestly, it's like… I feel like it's the greatest thing ever. I mean, I don't know how much they charge for a service or whatever, but it is so worth it to me.

Mimi:
I know.

Katrina:
I want everything to be so pretty. I can show you my pantry, it's okay but it could be better. I'm always, [inaudible 00:31:18] better. Because you want to be inspired when you look around-

Mimi:
Yeah.

Katrina:
At your house.

Mimi:
It's true.

Katrina:
I mean, that's how my office is too. I have visual boards all over because it's like, whatever I'm working on, I want to be reminded of why did I pick that? I just say like, "This feels good. I'm going to take this. It's an energy that I want around." And then I'll change it up. But it's nice to be in constant creation, I think. I think that's what life is about. You're always creating something.

Mimi:
Exactly. Well, Katrina, this has been amazing. Thank you so much. And so anybody who wants to try her delicious chocolate should go to V-O-S-G-E-S and then chocolate.com and you can see all her great treats and also packaging for gifts and everything, or for yourself. But thank you very much. I really appreciate your time.

Katrina:
Thank you so much. It was great being with you.

Mimi:
Thank you for joining us on The Badass CEO. To get your copy of the top 10 tips every entrepreneur should know, go to TheBadassCEO.com/tips. Also please leave a review as it helps others find us. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear them. So email me at Mimi@TheBadassCEO.com. See you next week and thank you for listening.

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