The 32-year-old founder and president of Vosges Haut-Chocolat has built a burgeoning chocolate empire one luscious and exotically flavored truffle at a time. In seven years, her company has grown from a single owner-operated retail shop into a $4.5 million business with 50 employees, five stores and thriving online and catalog sales.
The firm earned spots on Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 fastest growing companies in the United States in 2004 and Markoff herself has garnered attention and accolades from both the culinary and business media. Bon Appetit magazine crowned her Food Artisan of the Year last year, and she was a finalist in Ernst &Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year competition in 2004.
She’s achieved all this by mapping out her own route and doing things her own way.
“I’ve always done things that may not seem logical or sensible in order to maintain my creative spirit,” says Markoff. “And I apply the same approach to running this business.”
Markoff studied psychology and chemistry at Vanderbilt University, and headed to culinary school in Paris three days after graduating. She worked in restaurant kitchens from Spain to Thailand but ultimately decided to reinvent chocolate. Everything she does has a surprising twist, from using Indian curry, ancho chile powder and sinus-clearing wasabi in her chocolate creations to providing staff at corporate headquarters in Chicago with a meditation room and weekly yoga classes.
She dilutes her brand by marketing her signature products side by side with whatever else grabs her fancy currently leather jackets, lingerie and scented candles. And she puts personal satisfaction her own and that of the people who work for her before bottom line goals.
While not exactly thumbing her nose at conventional wisdom, Markoff has disregarded, defied and disproved many tried and true fundamentals of the candy kitchen and the corner office.
Traditionalists and MBAs might find many of her ideas a touch too New Age for their taste, but she combines her highly personalized style with sales savvy and a brilliant knack for self-promotion.
Her star is clearly on the rise. Her high-end products featuring a global grocery cart of ingredients are an Oprah favorite, and the company reported a whopping 392 percent growth last year.
Smart Business got this on-the-go gourmet to slow down long enough to share her ideas about her vision for Vosges and how she gets her staff to invest in it.
How do you run your business?
I’m definitely not your typical executive. I suppose you could say I’ve established an alternative corporate culture. And doing the unexpected is fun.
Establish a supportive, welcoming workplace where people feel they can be themselves. This creates an environment that encourages new ideas and one where everyone is motivated to work very hard and put their heart into everything they do.
The key is to be flexible and responsive to employees’ needs and interests. For example, my bookkeeper prefers working from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. rather than 9 to 5. That’s fine with me. Another one of my staff cares for her elderly mother. When she has to take her to the doctor, I allow her to have paid time off and don’t count it as a sick day. She never abuses the privilege and truly appreciates the consideration.
We have no dress code - that’s another small way to nurture individuality.
We also have a very malleable and adaptable structure. I had a young woman in operations who had a real interest in marketing but no experience. When a position opened up in that area, I gave her the opportunity to move into it, and she’s doing a great job. In another case, I decided to make our corporate headquarters in Chicago green, and I handed off the responsibility to an employee with a personal passion for environmental consciousness.
And when I learned that an employee was very involved in V-Day [dedicated to ending violence against women and girls], it become one of our charities of choice, and I tapped her to manage our giving program.
I’m a big believer in exploring and exploiting the talent we have in-house and building on it.
Is it working?
We’ve had almost no turnover. We continue adding employees but rarely replace any, and have had no trouble recruiting talented, energetic people. They’re attracted to us precisely because of who we are and how we’re different from other companies. This is a place where people want to be. Good things come from nurturing your team.
Is that why you have a yoga studio at the office?
It started because it was part of my life and I wanted to fold it into the mix of my business day. But employees are very enthusiastic. Attendance at the class is optional, of course, but most choose to come. And I have no doubt that the relaxation and yoga’s effect on the mind, body and spirit is beneficial to them and to the company.
What’s your biggest business challenge?
I fight against becoming institutionalized because I think if we do, we’ll lose the innovative edge that’s brought us so far. I’m also determined to stay true to the integrity of the product, which gets harder as we continue to grow. Sometimes that means not accepting the standard answers or the most practical solutions.
What’s next for you and the company?
We have three stores in Chicago, one in Las Vegas and another in Soho in New York City. Now I’m looking at opening at least one in Los Angeles and expanding retail operations into Japan. There’s a lot of interest in our products there.
The business keeps moving in new directions. I think that’s because I don’t put borders around my thinking. I just let things evolve naturally. I have so many ideas that if I wasn’t busy with the details of running this company, I’d probably be starting 10 more businesses all at the same time.
Dealing with the bank keeps me grounded. But I would like to get back into the creative end of things, do a little more right-brain thinking and a little less left-brain stuff.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Talking about world peace through chocolate. My chocolate creations cross international boundaries. I like to think of them as a way to introduce people to different cultures and bring them together in a nonpolitical arena.
My mother always told me there are no limits. I think that’s a good rule for life and business.
How to reach: Vosges Haut-Chocolat, http://www.VosgesChocolate.com