"Bringing peace to the world through chocolate is a pretty big mantra," admits Katrina Markoff, the founder of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, a Chicago business with $4.5 million in annual sales. "But it can do that by introducing different cultures and points of view." To that end, the typical box of Vosges truffles mixes exotic flavors from all over the globe, including Japanese wasabi, Italian taleggio cheese, and Mexican ancho chili. In Markoff's mind, you can't help but think about tribal lands in northeast India as you savor her curry-coconut Naga truffle.
Markoff, 32, developed her "We are the World" philosophy of chocolate while studying classical cooking at the Cordon Bleu in France and later, when she apprenticed under Spanish chef Ferran Adria, who is celebrated for taking culinary risks. She then spent nine months traveling the world and tasting all manner of foods, from worms to kaffir limes to white poppy seed. Returning to the U.S., she took a job at her uncle's home-furnishings catalog business to learn about vendor-buyer relationships, photo styling, and copywriting. She opened her first retail shop in Chicago in 1998 with a loan backed by the Small Business Administration, and started selling chocolates at specialty food stores and Neiman Marcus a year later.
Today there are Vosges stores in New York City and Las Vegas (Japan is next) and 30 employees on the payroll. And Markoff still maintains that her chocolate can save the world. She credits her mother, who runs a hazardous waste removal company and who taught her to add receipts at an early age, for encouraging her to set audacious goals: "She always said, 'You just have to do it. There are no limitations."