Montague inteviewed for Houston Chronicle Article PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ryan Montague   
Friday, 08 June 2007 12:13
This chocolate shop isn't your plain vanilla variety
In The Woodlands, the Chocolata Cocoa Bar hopes to capitalize on a sweet boom by taking it a step further
Not your plain vanilla variety
A Woodlands chocolate factory

Opening Saturday in The Woodlands, the stylish Chocolata Cocoa Bar is like an Old World dessert shop that struck it rich and moved to a playful resort in the Americas.

Chocolata's general partner is Houstonian James Calaway, who is known for launching high-tech and energy companies as well as the nonprofit Center for Houston's Future.

For his first retail venture, Calaway is leaving little to chance.

Sweetening his chance for success is a chocolate boom that generated $16.3 billion in retail chocolate candy sales last year, according to the National Confectioners Association.

Consumers are already spending $4 or more on coffee, thanks to Starbucks, and that habit may lighten sticker shock at chocolate bars and boutiques, said Ryan Montague, president of Gourmet Business Solutions in New Orleans.

Recent reports on the health benefits of dark chocolate only enhance the health of the chocolate industry, Montague said.

Calaway seized on the trend and took it up a notch. He opened Chocolata at a prime location in a growing, affluent community.

He hired one of the nation's leading store designers, Richard Altuna, whose clients include Pottery Barn, Disney, Sony and Nike.

Calaway won't say how much he spent, but it looks like he didn't cut corners in the 3,800-square-foot shop.

The foyer is a three-story rotunda housing a slowly revolving ice cream case made in Italy, and the interior beckons with rich shades of brown, pink and gold.

At one workstation, customers can watch crepes and sundaes being made, and at another, chocolate poured and molded.

Chocolata's slogan is "Everything Chocolate," and here's what that covers:

Twelve flavors of chocolate ice cream, boxed fine chocolates, fondues, s'mores, cookies, crepes and croissants with chocolate butter, four-layer cake, sundaes, cupcakes, candy bars, covered strawberries and marshmallows, truffles, muffins, milkshakes, sodas and chocolate martinis, along with wines, liqueurs, champagne and coffee beverages.

In recent years, chocolate lounges and boutiques have been sprouting across the U.S., selling chocolates, cocoa and the like. Chocolata is more ambitious.

"They're fitting into an existing trend by creating a natural extension of it," said Chris Tripoli, president of A'la Carte Foodservice Group in Houston.

"They've taken an impulse buy — 'Let's go get an ice cream cone' — and made it a destination."

 

Seeking 'an extravaganza'

Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm in New York City, said Chocolata wants to "create an extravaganza," where affluent people will "meet and chat and buy stuff for their homes and parties and tell their country club to cater from it."

Montague said Chocolata is creating chocolate as entertainment.

"They're taking the chocolate trend one step further by demonstrating the processes and techniques in making chocolates and desserts," he said.

Every chocolate product is made in-store.

A single-scoop ice cream cone at Chocolata is $3, cupcakes and muffins are $1.50, cookies are 75 cents and a big slice of cake is $7.95. Coffee drink prices are comparable to those at Starbucks.

Chocolata offers four basic chocolate flavors: dark, milk, white and Mexican. The tastes are meant to satisfy an American palate — rich with no harsh notes, said Chocolata CEO Mike Vucurevich, former senior vice president of operations at Cheesecake Factory and chief operating officer of Eatzi's.

Another key player in developing the concept was David Carlock, who has done brand development for the Hard Rock Cafe and Disney.

Chocolata will host parties on-site and offer social and corporate catering and curbside pickup.

No matter how dazzling the concept is, Chocolata must still satisfy customers' expectations for quality, service and value, Tripoli said.

Those expectations have risen as more chocolate lounges and boutiques have opened nationally. Two years ago, Mars launched Ethel's Chocolate Lounge in Chicago. South Bend Chocolate Co. has opened about 20 Chocolate Cafes in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

 

Variety in Houston

In Houston, a variety of chocolate concepts are emerging.

Earlier this year, Truffles Chocolate Lounge opened at Market Street in The Woodlands, selling chocolates, desserts, coffee beverages, hot chocolate and more.

There is also the Chocolate Bar in Montrose, Chocolat-Du-Monde in Rice Village and others.

Dylan's Candy Bar in the Galleria has a chocolate fountain, used for coating strawberries, pretzels and other foods.

 

High-profile spot

Chocolata is in the Waterway Square district of The Woodlands, at the corner of Lake Robbins and Waterway.

When completed, the area surrounding that corner will be the epicenter of The Woodlands, said Dan Leverett, vice president of the Woodlands Development Co.

Chocolata plans to open a Houston location in the near future, Calaway said.

Los Angeles-based Richard Altuna, the store designer, said that while Europe is best known for making and selling chocolate, its source, the cacao bean, comes from Latin America.

In designing Chocolata, Altuna wanted to bring it all back to the Americas, he said. Inside the store is a reproduction of a Chocolata-commissioned mural depicting the origin of chocolate according to Aztec legend.

 

Two years on the concept

Chocolate is "a beautiful substance with a gorgeous flow. People get pretty transfixed by it," said Calaway, who is CEO of Calaway Interests, a private investment and development company. He spent two years working on the concept.

He's been developing companies for decades, but Chocolata marks the first time he has made any impression on his daughters, who are 18 and 20.

In the past when telling them about his business ventures devoted to, say, managing legal spending, their reaction was, " 'How quickly can we end this conversation?' " Calaway recalled.

But this time, he said, "They told me, 'Dad, you finally did something cool.' "

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Last Updated on Monday, 08 October 2007 14:40