“Our goal is to just provide a fantastic product at a reasonable price and to be nice to you while we sell it,” Erika Chavez-Graziano says with a laugh about her business formula, of sorts, for Cellar Door Chocolates in Louisville.
If only it were that simple for every business, and if only it were possible to have the kind of success achieved by Erika Chavez-Graziano. Now in its 10th year, her company is the official chocolate sponsor of the Emmy Awards, transporting exquisite, handcrafted chocolates to Los Angeles annually since 2014 to satisfy the sweet tooth of up to 4,000 prime-time and daytime Emmy nominees and their guests.
Perhaps not surprisingly, when asked how selection as the sponsor for the Emmy Awards came about, Chavez-Graziano quickly responds, “by being nice to people.”
The “fantastic product” part of the business formula came to the attention of Conrad Bachmann, one of the governors of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “I met his wife, Kate, and she said, ‘You’ve got to take these chocolates to my husband,’ ” says Chavez-Graziano. The Los Angeles-based Bachmanns were in Kentucky for Louisville’s International Festival of Film, which Conrad Bachmann had co-founded. Cellar Door Chocolates were being served there.
After a 16-piece box of Cellar Door delights was delivered to the Bachmanns’ hotel, the figurative wheels began turning for the company to become the chocolate sponsor for its first Emmy Awards. Later, the literal wheels turned on a Chevy Suburban laden with 40,000 chocolates for the 32-hour drive to Southern California.
Chavez-Graziano is modest in recounting her steps from wholesaler of chocolates operating from rented kitchens to owning a humming chocolate bar/kitchen in the Butchertown Market building as well as two other Louisville retail locations.
The New Mexico transplant’s ebullience and infectious “niceness” perhaps obscures an uncanny business sense that begins with a company name seemingly incongruent with chocolates. “ ‘Cellar Door’ is a phonaesthetics phrase [or phrase beautiful in terms of its sound, regardless of meaning],” says Chavez-Graziano, an observation made also by the great writers Edgar Allan Poe and J.R.R. Tolkien. (Poe chose the word “nevermore” to include in his poem “The Raven” for its closeness in sound to “cellar door.”)
Here, ambition intersects with the carefully selected euphonious name. “I wanted something that sounded nice,” Chavez-Graziano says. “And also, I wanted something that would become synonymous with chocolate, along the lines of Starbucks’ identification with coffee, Kodak’s identification with film, et cetera.”
There’s no question that Cellar Door is synonymous with chocolates for many in Louisville. Among nonprofit and arts entities, the company’s confections frequently are a part of events—a way to give back to a community that, according to Chavez-Graziano, “opened their arms” to her business. The Frazier History Museum, Actors Theatre, Boys & Girls Haven and Louisville Ballet—for which Cellar Door is the official chocolate—all partner with Cellar Door Chocolates, providing the company’s products to patrons and, of course, indirect promotion. Additionally, Cellar Door confections can be found in coffee shops, restaurants and other retail locations throughout the city, in Lexington, and other locales across Kentucky and in neighboring states.
It is more than a name or shrewd marketing, however, that has made Cellar Door a staple for connoisseurs of premium artisan chocolates. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the chocolate. With Hispanic roots that would seem to dictate Southwestern cuisine, Chavez-Graziano somehow gravitated to chocolate truffles most commonly associated with France, Belgium and Switzerland. She began making truffles without instruction and sans recipe.
How truffles and, later, other chocolates became a livelihood also is not rooted in a culinary education. A University of New Mexico graduate with a degree in economics, Chavez-Graziano enrolled at the University of Louisville 14 years ago for graduate studies in political science. “When I was in grad school, I would make chocolates for my fellow research assistants and professors,” she recalls. After Chavez-Graziano abandoned her thesis, an academic adviser counseled her to “do something with your truffles.”
Soon to follow were bourbon buttercreams (a natural fit for Louisville and Kentucky), peanut butter cups and sea-salt caramels, which Chavez-Graziano sold to retailers Dundee Candy Shop and A Taste of Kentucky in Louisville starting in 2007.
“The reason I went into wholesale was I didn’t have any money to open a retail store,” she explains. “What I did was I rented kitchens from other people to keep my overhead costs low. Three years later, I was approached by Andy Blieden [developer of the Butchertown Market building east of downtown Louisville], and he made it where I could afford to have my first retail shop and my own kitchen.”
Building what Chavez-Graziano calls the “heart of the company” through wholesaling, she set about creating the “face” of the company—the retail side—in 2010. “People were waiting for us to have a walk-in store, so we already had a great following,” she says. Traffic from a building co-tenant and next-door neighbor, Work the Metal, helped expand the walk-in business. Chavez-Graziano is quick to add that the building, constructed in the 1880s and originally home to a leather-tanning company, is a destination for Louisville shoppers looking for unique, locally made products.
An “OK” first year and second year, according to Chavez-Graziano, preceded an upturn in the third year that has not stopped. An Oxmoor Mall store opened in 2013, and a Fourth Street shop opened in November 2015. The original wholesale clientele still served by Cellar Door Chocolates and the retail business have been complemented by a Gourmet Chocolate Club, in which members receive a monthly delivery of luscious chocolates, and a burgeoning mail-order business in recent years. Possibly due to Cellar Door’s presence at the Emmys, California has become the largest market for mail-order chocolates.
Most recently, the company ventured into “bean-to-bar” chocolate-making, elevating Cellar Door Chocolates to membership in an exclusive, elite group among chocolatiers internationally. This means that Cellar Door roasts cacao beans sourced from around the world and produces chocolate in-house, rather than merely melting chocolate from another producer. The process is rare, and Cellar Door is the only chocolatier in the state that offers bean-to-bar. Chavez-Graziano says the decision to go into roasting beans was a natural progression. “We already offer a super-delicious, high-quality confection, so why not make our own chocolate?”
Bean-to-bar takes the company into a whole new stratum of quality and true, handcrafted differentiation among chocolate-makers. Chavez-Graziano imports cacao beans from Central and South America and just recently imported beans from Vietnam.
She likens cacao beans to varietal grapes in that they possess distinct flavors. “You have chocolate from the Dominican Republic, and then you have these different farms within the country that have these different types of beans,” she explains. She adds that flavor variety can vary not only from country to country but from one tree to another on a farm.
Aside from the amazing flavor of the in-house produced chocolate is the price. Cellar Door Chocolates’ prices often are below those of local chocolate competitors and definitely below that of one famous international chocolate-maker. Kitchen efficiency and plain old common sense offset the expense of roasting. “You won’t see a lot of frills on our packaging because it’s going to end up in the garbage,” says Chavez-Graziano of the company’s simple but elegant white boxes and labels, adding that packaging costs are, of course, passed on to customers.
The lone frill might be brightly colored wrapping for individual pieces within some of the boxes. Bourbon buttercreams—specifically Cellar Door’s Bourbon Ball Museum Box—are a virtual rainbow, denoting flavors as varied and unusual as sorghum, bourbon and Coke, and baked apple. New products are constantly added to the company’s staples, along with holiday and seasonal chocolates (“Zombunnies” for Halloween, for example). The museum box is an innovation in and of itself, according to Chavez-Graziano, who believes the selection that is routinely updated is the first of its kind.
So what’s next for Cellar Door? Planned are a bonbon bar and a license with Churchill Downs to produce chocolates starting this year, part of Chavez-Graziano’s goal to continuously innovate while, of course, creating a fantastic product at a reasonable price … and being nice at the same time.
By Ken Snyder | Photos by Jesse Hendrix-Inman