Until last month, Jamasen Rodriguez used the cramped communal kitchen of his sophomore dorm at Johns Hopkins as the site of production for his new truffle company. Having been obsessed with chocolate since age 10, Rodriguez was turned off by how pretentious most chocolate shops seemed. The idea for a more casual experience along with a high-end chocolate product inspired Rodriquez to create the Starbucks of chocolate--Jama Cocoa.
"I want my truffles to be indispensable--the new latte to urban sophisticates," says Rodriquez. "And I want my shops to be casual and relaxing. I want people sit back and enjoy conversation."
For now, Rodriquez sells his truffles wholesale to five restaurants and wine bars around Baltimore and to consumers across the country through his website, where he sells over five thousand truffles a month for two dollars each.
With those meager revenues and with a $100,000 investment by California restauranteur Tom Gallo, Rodriquez is dreaming big. He has put together a team of three full-time employees--all fellow undergrads at Johns Hopkins--to help build what he hopes will eventually become a national chain of Jama Cocoa shops.
"I want to open as many shops in urban centers as possible and micro-brand each one to embrace the culture of that city," says Rodriguez. "Each one will be way different."
Rodriguez believes that connecting with local artists will be the key to making these chocolate cafes into such cultural chameleons. The interior decor for each shop will be "crowd-sourced" through the local creative community. Through this strategy, the stores will not only receive automatic infusions of local flavor, but, perhaps more importantly, could also become hubs of cultural activity. "We want to help young, budding artists and, in doing that, they can become an important marketing channel for us," says Rodriguez.
Next up? Rodriquez just signed a three-year lease on an old Italian ice shop in Baltimore that will be used as his first commercial dessert kitchen. With the ability to produce chocolate on a mass scale in the new space, Rodriquez is hoping to lower his prices even further. In the meantime, Rodriguez is renting a temporary kitchen space off campus. His three employees--a CFO, CTO and COO--all work in the kitchen making truffles, in addition to their more administrative tasks. Within the next year, Rodriguez hopes to buy several kitchen tools specifically designed to make truffles.
"What he’s doing now with no equipment is pretty hard," says Jacques Torres, who advises Rodriguez and is the founder and CEO of Jacques Torres Chocolate. "It’s always difficult it start, but eventually he will have all the equipment he needs."
Torres believes that Rodriquez should take a cue from French chocolate café’s for the cultural feel and experience he'd like to recreate here.
"Jamasen is a pretty brilliant, very determined kid," says Torres. "I think it would be good for him go to Europe and travel around and learn a little more about what’s going on there with chocolates."
Rodriquez is eying Soho for the first Jama Cocoa shop, which he hopes will open in the fall of 2014.