BB Spotlights feature Edmonton individuals that intrigue, inspire, and interest us and will be published once a month.
Rebecca Grant is a one-woman chocolate factory. She is the owner and founder of the Violet Chocolate Company, a local business that offers high end chocolate with unique flavor profiles to the fine people of Edmonton. You've probably seen her or her award winning bars at farmer's markets across town or in one of the thirteen stores in the city that carry them. Her chocolate is handmade in small batches and contains fresh local ingredients (such as rosemary, dill, and even olives and sun dried tomatoes in the more adventurous ones).
In celebration of Valentine’s day, we interviewed Rebecca, ate a whole lot of chocolate, and learned about the art of being a chocolatier. She invited us into her workspace, a house she has converted into her Violet Chocolate kitchen and headquarters, where we sat in to watch her make truffles and chat about how she got to where she is today.
How did you get into this business?
A friend of mine was working at Kerstin’s Chocolates and was leaving. I was between jobs and looking to get back into more of the pastry side of things so he gave me a call one day and asked me if I wanted his job.
Were you doing pastry and baking before that?
No, that was always the goal but after culinary school, when I was finishing my apprenticeship, I ended up line cooking. Then one day, I decided I didn’t want to be a line cook anymore so I quit my job. I was starting to get a little bit desperate and then thankfully he called a couple weeks after.
Where did you go to school?
I did the two year culinary program at NAIT. We only worked with chocolate for about a week, so I didn’t really remember it or what I was getting myself into, taking this job, but I’ve been doing it ever since and it’s a lot of fun. It’s something different everyday.
What made you decide to start your own business?
Kerstin’s was shutting down and I’ve always wanted to own my own business, I just never really knew exactly what it was going to be. I just knew I wanted to be my own boss. I knew ahead of time that we were going to be closing so I gave it some serious thought. I had actually just gone back to school to do business so I asked myself, is this a good idea to try and start a business while in business school? It’s been an interesting three years but it was probably the best decision to start this while in school.
It’s nice to learn under someone as well.
You see what works for them and what doesn’t work for you. Most of the companies I’ve worked for since entering the food industry have been small businesses so I’ve seen a lot firsthand what really doesn’t work in a business. It’s been nice to learn from that.
Let’s talk a bit about your space.
It’s definitely not a traditional kitchen, but it works. We do a fair amount of production in here. When I first started this, because it’s technically a home-based business, I was worried about how the neighbors were going to respond to me opening a chocolate shop in the middle of a neighborhood. But after I moved in, I realized the people across the street converted their house into a personal gym and there’s a daycare on the street. So it actually ended up perfect being in this area.
How do you come up with the flavors?
Initially I had ten chocolate bars that were in my line-up. I had a white board where I wrote flavors down and I had my friends write flavors down and once the board was full, I’d put different flavors together until I found something I liked. But a lot of the time it’s things that I’ve been eating or foods that I like that I try to work with. A lot of friends and family give me suggestions as well.
What awards have you won for your chocolate?
My Honey Rosemary Bar won Gold for best flavored milk chocolate in the Canadian Chocolate Awards in 2013, again for 2014 along with nine other medals for my other chocolate bars, and it also won World Gold at the International Chocolate Awards in London, England. I also won two Bronze medals there as well. 2013 was my first competition and I thought nothing was going to come of it, but I’d enter anyway for the experience and to get my name out there. I was able to go to Vancouver for the awards, still thinking I wasn’t going to win but planned to network with people. When I won, I was so flustered, everyone kept looking at me, I was the most ridiculous person there.
Has the way you make your chocolate changed over the years?
Not too much. I’ve become a little bit more streamlined with production and how fast I go. I mostly do the chocolate bars and when I do them, I normally pick one or two flavors a day and just do all of that flavor for the day. When I do truffles, it’s a little more all over the place because I’ll be making shells or putting ganaches in them while I’m airbrushing at the same time. So normally truffle days are a more chaotic day.
Where do you source all your ingredients?
I try and do local as much as possible. Getting fresh ingredients isn’t always the easiest here. But since I do the farmer’s markets during the summer and I do the indoor downtown one over the winter, I try and buy fruit and things from other vendors there. The chocolate all comes from different plantations. A lot of it comes from Ecuador and then some of it comes from Venezuela. Madagascar is the other big one I use. I just started bringing in some chocolate from Brazil for some things. I do try and do local and stay preservative free.
Do you mostly do milk chocolate?
I do a mix of everything. I’ve won most of my awards for my milk chocolate and I think that’s just because I prefer milk chocolate a little bit more, so I tend to go towards that. But I use three different kinds of white chocolate, two different kinds of milk chocolate and then I have a dark milk, and four different kinds of dark chocolate that I use on a regular basis. I try to keep it even between white, dark and milk. Some people prefer dark, while others won’t really eat white.
What does it mean to you to be a local Edmonton business?
I think Edmonton is probably one of the best cities to have a business. The community is so supportive and Edmonton is like a little big town. Everybody knows each other. I come from a military family so I’ve lived all over Canada and Edmonton is definitely home to me now. I had so much support from my instructors at NAIT opening up this business and continual support from my customers and my family and friends. The community really embraces new companies, especially if you’re doing something that incorporates other local products into it. I don’t know if I’d necessarily be as successful if I had started this in a bigger city.
What are the biggest differences between your chocolate and largely produced chocolate?
A lot of it is full of preservatives and a lot of them substitute cocoa butter for hydrogenated fat, and it’s mass produced on an assembly line. I make all of mine in small batches, there’s no preservatives in it and I use fresh ingredients. With my Honey Rosemary Bar, I use fresh rosemary and I grind it up about five minutes before I temper the chocolate so it’s going in as fresh as it possibly can. I normally try to grow the rosemary myself but it’s not always the happiest during the winter. I’ve gone through a few rosemary plants.
Do you ever get tired of chocolate?
Not really, I do go through phases of wanting to eat it. Some days I’m in here and all I want to do is snack on it and other days I don’t at all. I think because I can’t smell it anymore, that helps with the cravings.
Do you ever eat chocolate that isn’t your own?
Yeah! Every year, whenever myself or friends and family are traveling, we always pick up whatever is the local, must-have chocolate. So there’s a lot of half eaten chocolate at my house in the basement. My mom calls it the chocolate graveyard. I like to see what’s out there and what other people are doing. Even if I don’t necessarily buy it for the chocolate, I like to see the packaging and what’s going on that way. When I was in Paris, I came home with basically a suitcase full of chocolate.
Is Paris where you’d find the best chocolate?
People always associate Paris with the best, but they have more traditional chocolate flavors and it’s more classic. Whereas in North America, the chocolatiers here are having a bit more fun with their products, painting the chocolates or using different flavors. Europe is still more classic with what they’re doing. They know what they’re doing and are happy doing it. That’s one thing we noticed when we were going around the expo in Paris for the chocolate show, it was very traditional. London seems to be a little bit closer to what North America is doing with the more fun flavors.
Do you have a favorite flavor?
I go back and forth. Right now, I’ve been eating my Berry Fizz Bar. It has pop rocks in it and I love candy so I eat that one a lot. Or the Pumpkin Chai. It was my cousin’s birthday in December and she and I both love Sour Patch Kids so I made her Sour Patch Kid Chocolate Bars. I only ended up sending her four and I had to make two batches because I ate the first batch and then ate a fair amount of the second!
Has there been any flavors that just didn’t work?
Not really, the ones that I think won’t work tend to, actually. The Lemon Dill Bar won a Gold at the Canadian Chocolate Awards. I made salmon one day and I always use lemon and dill. I had extra dill leftover and I brought it to work to play around with because I was on a savory kick at the time. I thought it was going to be disgusting, I was just throwing the dill in not having high hopes for it at all and then I took it out and was surprised at how well it worked. Even at the markets, people look at it funny and I have to tell them to just try it. I have one customer, she’s a regular at the downtown farmer’s market, who tried it and started screaming telling me it was going to win a Gold, to submit it. She was very excited when she found out that I won.
Tell us about your Violet Edition line of bars.
Every month I come up with a new flavor. When I originally made the line up of ten, which has now doubled, I wanted to still be able to experiment and bring out a new flavor every month. So I do one hundred of that flavor for the month. This month, it’s a Milk Chocolate Apple Cider. (When I first made that, I was eating that one a lot.) It just gives me a chance to play around and keep things interesting. I ran into a problem though, when I submitted seven Violet Editions to the Canadian Chocolate Awards and six of them won. So I’ve added all of them to the regular line up for now until I figure out what to do. I was going to weed some out if nobody bought a certain one but they sell so consistently. If I get rid of any, some people are going to be really mad at me. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing seasonal bars so the more summery flavors are only available in the summer, for example. It’s a lot of work, when it’s busy, so trying to keep up production on twenty-some bars is just asking for trouble.
What’s your biggest clientele?
I do a lot of corporate work. I’ve done work for Enbridge and Atco in the past. I have work for the University of Alberta that I’m going to do. I do all the Legislature chocolate bars, so I’ve actually had a special mold made that has the Legislature engraved into it. The farmer’s markets are a big one too, especially during the summer. I get a lot of weddings in the summer as well. Weddings are a lot of fun because everyone has their own idea of what they want to do and so we’ve done a lot of weddings where we put their picture on the label. We’ll take a couple flavors that match what their favorite foods are and incorporate them into the chocolate. That’s the fun thing, it’s a little bit more personal that way.
You work pretty much 7 days a week, 10 hour days. When you have any, what do you do in your spare time?
Just relax, try to hang out with some friends, although it usually turns into work talk. My best friend is in marketing so she’s always coming up with marketing ideas for me. Over Christmas, I was so excited because I was going to take time off. Boxing Day was probably the first day I had nothing to do and I tried to watch some movies and sit around on my couch and I was so bored. I ended up coming back to work and completely scrubbed the place down. I did a massive cleaning and started working again. I used to know how to have a day off but not anymore!
Where do you see the company going?
Eventually I want to have a more traditional retail space. I still haven’t figured out if that’ll be a straight chocolate shop or if I’d pair with a different type of business and kind of get the best of both words. But just continue to expand. I’ve been working on moving into stores outside of Edmonton. A place in Fort McMurray just started carrying them and I’ve been talking to somebody in Calgary as well. I’ve had a few people in Vancouver ask me to find someone there to carry the bars so we’ll see.
Where can people find you?
I’m at the City Market Downtown year round, and during the summer, I usually do the Terwillegar and 124th Street markets. I have an online store and you can also shop here, where I make the chocolate by appointment. There are thirteen stores in Edmonton that carry the bars so there’s that support in between other local companies which is such a great thing.
How did you come up with the name, Violet Chocolate Company?
It was my dog’s name. Did you ever watch The Pound Puppies when you were little? It was a TV show and you could buy the stuffed animals. Violet was my favorite pound puppy. I went through a phase when I was three where I would only respond to ‘Violet’, which didn’t stick of course. We got a puppy for Christmas when I was nine and it just so happened that they color coded all of the dogs and so they were calling her Violet already and we decided to keep the name. We had her for eighteen years and she passed away right before I wanted to start this company. I thought it was kind of a cute, boutique-y name. Dog lovers all think it’s a cute story, the non-animal lovers think it’s a little weird to name a chocolate company after a dog.
We’re on your side.
It’s funny, I’ve had a few older ladies come to the market and ask if I’m Violet because their name is also Violet. I have to tell them that, "No actually, Violet was my dog," and they’re quite taken aback. I tell them, “Sorry! I do love the name though!”
Shop local for the one you love this Valentine's Day! Visit thevioletchocolatecompany.com!