Chocolate Magic Happens In Our Own Back Yard
By Mike Henn
Special to KHTS
The earliest records of it date back to approximately 2000 BC. In fact, wealthy Aztecs and Mayans not only used its beans as a decadent drink but it was also used as a form of currency. History reports that Napoleon carried it with him to increase his energy. Even Montezuma drank nothing but it because he believed that it was a powerful aphrodisiac that could give him power and wisdom.
Nothing is more enticing or satisfying than the look, smell and taste of it. What is it? Rich, dark, creamy, velvety... chocolate!
Some of the best chocolate you'll ever taste originates right here in our backyard. Welcome to Chocolates 'a la Carte owned and operated by two generations of the Pocrass family, husband and wife team Rick and Rena and their two sons Michael and Doug, and located in the Commerce Center industrial park.
As I entered the 110,000 square foot facility, I couldn't help but notice a sea of boxed chocolates as I made my way to Rick's office.
The inspiration behind Chocolates 'a la Carte began back in 1980. Rena and a girlfriend were teaching homemakers how to make chocolate. Soon thereafter they opened a retail store called Sweet Fantasies in the San Fernando Valley. The business kept its doors open for four years until Rena, working with a food stylist on an ice cream commercial, decided that instead of placing ice cream in a dish she could present it more elegantly in a delicious and edible chocolate container. In 1986 Chocolates à la Carte was founded and in 2000, they moved operations to Valencia.
A majority of their initial business came from the hospitality industry. They would create what Rick called the "wow" effect for hotels that provided banquets for VIP's of large corporations. For Proctor and Gamble, replica Irish Spring soap bars were commissioned. They were so authentic looking, right down to the green and white swirls; the CEO's couldn't decide whether they should eat them or bathe with them.
"We became well known in that industry and now sell to virtually every major hotel in the United States for special VIP affairs," he said.
According to Rick, their custom chocolate designs number over 3,000 for the hospitality industry alone. From the collaboration between Rena and the chefs, some legendary designs have been developed for 5 star hotels, cruise ships, airlines and restaurants: such as chocolate saxophones for President Clinton's inauguration, tanks for General "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, sunglasses for Jack Nicholson, harmonicas for David Letterman and chocolate pianos for the Grammy awards.
Prior to a behind the scenes tour we donned caps. I was also advised that there were some sensitive zones where pictures were not allowed; however, I was allowed a photo of the enrobing line. Much like the chocolate factory scene from I Love Lucy, the conveyor belt-like machine allows for the dusting and placement of toppings.
As we progressed through the factory, I controlled my urge to pinch candy to see what was inside and, I noticed that they do everything in-house; mold fabrication, complete made-to-order desserts, special container packaging and shipping, they even custom-build their own equipment.
Retail clients include big players too: Costco, Cost Plus and Disney. The Signature Chocolates from Rena, a division of Chocolates a la Carte, is where the retail aspect is concentrated. Items such as chocolate within chocolate figures (i.e. a ladybug with little ladybugs inside), truffles and truffle pops, a collection of coffee-pairing truffles and a multitude of seasonal confections are not just for private label use; they are also available for purchase via the internet.
"Chocolate and wine pairing is a hot area of our business right now and it all started when Rena and I went to a grape camp two years ago in Sonoma," Rick said. "Our corporate chef, Stanton Ho, made truffles for us to take along and by the time the camp was over we had convinced the Sonoma grape growers association to give us a license to produce chocolate truffles with wine under their name."
Walking down the inventory aisle of moldings I spied; full sized hard hats, many NFL items, a vintage Cadillac grille, surfboards and a Noah's Ark amount of animals. Rick told me somewhere in the collection are replicas of an NBA basketball and the Raiders' Superbowl trophy.
Companies often have hurdles on the path to success and for Chocolates a la Carte it was September 11.
"Before the terrorist strike we thought there was no stopping us. Then the hospitality sector came to a halt and our bank would not renew our credit line," Rick said. "We were close to complete ruin...it was a very humbling experience. Fortunately we were seeking more retail with a goal of 50 percent hospitality and 50 percent retail."
That sales mix proved to keep the company afloat.
"Ironically, we just reached that goal in light of the recent recession," he concluded.
Philanthropy is a big part of the Pocrass family philosophy. One of the non-profits Rick is very active with is the Mission College Foundation. In the sampling kitchen, I met Julio Quequezana, a two-year chef apprentice being mentored by Rick and corporate chef Stanton Ho. Julio, a recipient of the C-CAP scholarship (Careers through Culinary Arts Program) was able to attend Los Angeles Mission College thanks to the annual scholarship given by Chocolates a la Carte.
He asked me, "Would you like to try some bark?" I learned bark is the industry term for broken pieces of chocolate.
From the finishing touches of curled chocolate or a custom logo adorning the top of a cake to an endless array of truffles, Chocolates 'a la Carte is a true treasure in our own back yard. (For more info or to indulge, go to chocolatesontheweb.com)