Talking about 3 Sisters Chocolate & Bakery with Jeff Guy
1. Tell us about 3 Sisters Chocolate & Bakery.
We're a chocolate shop that's been in Jacksonville for 12 years now. We're known for making our own chocolates and dessert items. On the dessert side we make cupcakes and dessert cakes. We also create sculpted or custom cakes. We have the Chocolate Bar as well but it's a smaller part of our business compared to our chocolates and our cupcakes.
2. What exactly is the Chocolate Bar?
You can literally get all types of chocolate drinks. Most people understand things like a milkshake and we offer all kinds of milkshake flavors. But you can also get a shot of pure chocolate. Just like if you go to a nightclub and get a shot of pure alcohol you can come into our store and get a shot of pure liquid chocolate.
3. What makes the chocolate at 3 Sisters special?
About 12 years ago, before the store was even open, we spent a couple of months coming up with just the right chocolate to use before we went into production. We sampled all types of raw chocolate for months before we settled on the particular chocolate we use. It's a more expensive blend and you can taste the difference in our chocolate versus just about any other chocolates you'll taste. All our chocolates are hand made right in our store. We create the recipes and make our own chocolate. For most of the recipes, we start with a limited production and allow customers to test those chocolates to make sure there's an appeal to our customer base. In fact, 3 Sisters Chocolate was voted Jacksonville's Chocolatier of the Year in 2011.
4. What were you looking for when you were testing all the chocolates? What makes great chocolate?
It's the richness and flavor of the particular type of chocolate we're making. So, for example, when you talk about our truffles it's the ganache centers that people focus on. They're so good because of the type of chocolate we use, the creaminess, as well as the unique or more exotic flavors. Walk into any chocolate store in Jacksonville and you will not find a basil lime truffle or a ginger lemon truffle. We make flavors that set us apart from everyone else. And not just in Jacksonville - in other places as well. We've come up with some very unique flavor combinations that are very appealing to our customers. They come in and they see chocolates they've never heard of before.
5. What can you recommend to someone new to 3 Sisters to give them a sense of what you're all about?
We get asked this all the time. First we try to find out a little about what the customer likes. There are generally two types of chocolate lovers - what we refer to as "traditional" chocolate lovers and then there are the types who are more daring. We ask people about what type of chocolate they like, what their favorite chocolate stores are - because then it allows us to recommend various chocolate flavors. And to that point - one of the most popular chocolates we carry is a sea salt caramel. It's a home made caramel center, covered in chocolate, and then there's sea salt on top. It's one of the most popular chocolates that we sell. However, if you grew up eating traditional caramels you may not care for the sea salt variety because you're more of a traditionalist. In fact, we've actually had customers who've received our sea salt caramels as a gift and they've called us up to say there's been a mistake and someone's spilled salt on their caramels. So we see folks who want a traditional type of chocolate and we recommend certain things for them. Then we have other people who come in and they're just like some wine folks - they're chocolate connoisseurs, so we recommend our more exotic flavors to them. We have a Mayan truffle (won a 2nd place in The Hot Pepper awards this past year) that comes with chili flakes and cinnamon. For people who have explored chocolate in other cities, they want to be more daring in their chocolate choices. But even people who prefer a more standard chocolate with a lemon or cherry flavored center still prefer our chocolates because of the richness of the chocolate and the recipes we use to make the centers - they're much, much better than what you'll find in a box of chocolates at a department store.
6. Where do your recipes comes from?
Some of the recipes that we've had for 12 years started as family recipes. Our chocolate covered brownie is one example of this. Everyone's had a brownie, but what makes ours different is that we use the same high end chocolate as for the individual pieces and we cover the entire brownie with that chocolate. Now, not only is it based on a home made recipe but it's further differentiated because it's covered in high end chocolate. Not too many people have had a brownie covered in premium chocolate, unless you've been to our store. In fact, that brownie was voted Best Brownie in Jacksonville a few years ago.
The chocolate industry is very cyclical, especially in the South. When it's really warm out you can't run into a store, buy some chocolates, put them in your car and then go do other errands, because chocolate can start melting at 73 or 74 degrees. So, the store is really busy from the Fall through the Christmas holidays and through Mother's Day. Then it starts to heat up in Florida and business starts to slow down.
Our product development process kicks in when things slow down. Throughout the year I keep a list of things we might want to explore. When things slow down all our confectionary chefs and bakers take my list and they have the liberty to add twists or whatever they want to do to create new items. Then our internal team goes through a tasting process and we weed out the items we don't feel are unique enough. We look for things that can differentiate us. When we find those things we make them available to the public as samples and we collect feedback that we use to decide what new products to launch each Fall - whether it be new cupcakes or new chocolates.
7. What types of things came out of that process for this Fall?
This year we mostly spent time re-working products whereas last year we were focused on introducing new chocolates and cupcakes. Last year and the year before we almost doubled our cupcake offering. This year we released a total re-make of our Boston Cream cupcake - we completely redesigned and changed the recipe. Since that's happened we've seen the sales of that cupcake double. That's been the primary introduction this year. We've also changed the size of some of the chocolates and how we decorate them. We expect to release several new bakery items in early 2013.
…why change the size of the chocolates?
We've made some bigger because it makes a much nicer presentation when you send a chocolate box. We went from a rectangular look on some of our chocolates to a square look. And then we just updated the designs to make them look more modern and appealing. We noticed last year that when we updated the design on some of our chocolates that people loved it. They'd come into the store and say that the new designs were so "neat," "pretty," and "cool." Those were the sort of words we were hearing. The updated designs would interest people in trying the chocolate - and when they did they'd love it. So we spent some time updating some of our other chocolates as well.
8. You have some very interesting chocolate designs, such as your chocolate shoes and your chocolate pizza. Did they come from that process?
We do a lot of custom cakes and a lot for weddings and bridal showers. We get many requests for different designs and we're always trying to make them unique for each customer. The shoe came about as a top for a bridal shower cake. As soon as people saw the shoe design, which is a full sized high heel, we started getting more and more requests for it. We designed 6 or 7 different shoes and people started buying just the shoe. We now ship our chocolate shoes all over the US.
…what about the pizza?
The pizza idea has been around for a long time in many different stores. Our contribution was the "Everything Chocolate Pizza" - one that had a lot of different toppings on it. The year before last when we were in our new design process we decided that we wanted to expand the chocolate pizza offerings we had. We set about identifying flavor profiles we thought would work and we looked at trends in the marketplace. Then we went through our development process and ended up with about a half dozen pizza combinations. Our pizzas were showcased in a bakery and wholesale magazine a couple of years ago due the unique offerings we had.
…who is the audience for the pizza?
It's primarily a gift item, although people do buy it to bring to a party. Some people like the pizza in our nice clear wrapping with a ribbon on it because it makes for a unique presentation. Others want to shock the person so we will package it in an actual pizza box for the surprise effect. People will be wondering why they're getting a pizza and when they open the box they see the chocolate pizza.
9. Do people mainly buy chocolates as gifts, or for themselves as they do in Europe?
We definitely have two distinct markets. Gifts are an ongoing item. People will come in and buy a gift for a chocolate lover, but they'll also buy a chocolate gift for the people who are hard to buy for or already have everything. Chocolate seems to be an awesome gift for those types of folks. Premium chocolate is not something that some people will buy for themselves regularly so it's like a special treat.
On the other hand we do have a very loyal customer base - people who have been coming to us for 12 years. They'll buy chocolate not just as gifts but for themselves as well. We are very grateful to these customers and launched a new iPad/smart phone based Customer Loyalty program for them in Q4 of this past year.
Cupcakes are something that people buy for themselves and others on a consistent basis.
10. What's the busiest season for you?
Christmas, by far! Followed by Valentine's Day.
11. You have some pretty stunning cake designs. Have cakes always been a part of 3 Sisters?
Cakes have been a part of 3 Sisters for the last 3 or 4 years. One of the chocolatiers we hired was very artistic, had a culinary background, and wanted to do some cakes. So we tried it out and it's worked very well for us ever since. It tends to grow year over year.
What sets us apart from most folks on the cakes is that we don't look for cake decorators - we look for artists. Our cake artists are very imaginative and creative and they come up with designs that just wow our customers. We get customers who come into our store all the time and tell us that nobody in town can make the cake they want, and we make it for them.
12. What's the process for creating a custom cake?
Some customers know exactly what they want. They may have been clipping pictures and will pull together elements of what they want. They are very explicit about everything. Some people go to our website and want a copy of something we've done before. Others look on our website and ask us to adapt a cake we've already done but with their own twist. Still other people come in and they have an event or special occasion for which they want a Wow! cake but they have no idea exactly what they want. We have them sit with one of our artists who will ask a bunch of questions. Usually within a few minutes they can come up with some ideas based on what the person likes and what's special to them. Using that information they'll create a design and draw it right there in front of the customer.
…what are the main events people want the cakes for?
Weddings are the obvious event and we do a lot of wedding cakes. But Groom's cakes are becoming much more popular too. They're smaller cakes and are sometimes used at the dinner the night before the wedding. Other times they're delivered with the wedding cake to a reception location. I've also seen the Groom's cake delivered a week in advance for a special party. It really depends on what the bride and groom want to do.
We do cakes for retirements, for birthdays, for Bar Mitzvah's, for graduations, for baptisms - for any type of event that people feel is special and for which they want a special cake. We've even done cakes for kids who've turned 1 year old. Really, a special cake can be for anything someone feels is important.
13. Can you tell us a bit about the Wedding Wire award you won?
Wedding Wire is an entire organization dedicated to serving brides - it's not just cakes, it's a nationwide wedding community. We won their Bride's Choice Award for Wedding Cakes twice. It's a special award because it's based on the feedback our customers provide to Wedding Wire. So we may provide a wedding cake and the bride will take the initiative to go to Wedding Wire to say how awesome that cake was.
14. How far in advance do you need to plan for a wedding cake?
We always advise folks that 3 to 4 weeks for a wedding cake is a pretty good rule of thumb. But there are some caveats to that. There are certain times of the year such as April and October that are very busy wedding months. It is possible for our bakery to be committed 2 to 3 months in advance prior to those times. But that applies only in those very, very busy wedding months. So, there are times when 3 to 4 weeks isn't enough. But there are other times when the cake is smaller and we can squeeze it in. But that's running risky. It's always better to call as far in advance as possible if your wedding is during the busy season. Otherwise 3 to 4 weeks is fine.
15. Do you still have the Chocolate of the Month Club?
We do. It's primarily a gift and has become more popular in the last year or so. Folks buy this for a chocolate lover. What's nice is that you can specify the number of months you want to buy and the gift (new and different chocolates) keeps repeating each month. It's not a once and done affair. It's also a little different from many other gifts.
16. Can you tell us about your coffee?
We carry our own blend of coffee. We worked with a local company in town to come up with a blend just for us. We went through quite a few blend cycles to get just what we wanted in terms of our flavor profile. We offer our blend along with half a dozen blends from a local company here in Jacksonville called Coffee Roasters. The coffee is also packaged in some of our gift baskets. Chocolate and coffee pair together really well and a lot of people ask us to include a nice coffee with our chocolates in a gift basket.
17. Can you tell us about your rewards program?
We added that recently. We spent about 2 months researching what sort of program we wanted. We have a very loyal customer base and we felt this was a great, fun way to show our appreciation. The customer feedback has been terrific.
…how does it work?
It's free to enroll. We can give you a card or you can download an app for your smartphone. When you're checking out you can scan your smart phone or your card using our iPad at the register, and you get your points. When you sign up we also ask for your email. That's not to put you on an email distribution list, but if you forget your card or your phone, you can enter your email address and you'll get your points for your purchase. And if you upgrade your phone, you just log into your account with your email and all your points are transferred to your new phone.
We offer a menu of rewards. You can save your points up and redeem them whenever you want. We offer things like a free cupcake, free chocolates, a free gift basket and and some of the more off the wall things.
For example, you can come in and help create a cupcake and have it named after you. We have a reward where you can use your points to come in and work next to one of our pastry chefs. Or, if you really have a grudge against me, there's a reward where you can smash a cupcake in my face. So this is a really different program.
We've also set the system up where it will just randomly give something out, like a cupcake. It's just a bonus for being in the program.
18. Can you tell us a little about your background?
I bought 3 Sisters a little over 3 years ago from the original owners.
…what attracted you to 3 Sisters?
Two things: the brand and the quality. The brand was very well recognized and the quality was top notch. Before making my decision to buy 3 Sisters I actually queried people about the brand and the quality and the feedback was very positive.
…had you run a food business before?
I had a separate, specialty foods business called Armadillo Pepper at the time. Armadillo Pepper is a hot sauce, bbq sauce and jerky store, so 3 Sisters seemed like another good opportunity for me.
19. Can you tell us about any surprises you've encountered since owning 3 Sisters?
One lesson I've learned is that the way we reach most of our customers is through digital means, not print means. When I first purchased the store I was being bombarded by print media organizations asking me to advertise with them. Those things aren't bad, but our success rate in terms of reaching brand new customers who've never heard of us is orders of magnitude greater using digital means versus traditional print media.
…what sort of digital means are you referring to?
One of the first things I did was to redesign our web site to optimize it and make it easier for people to find us. That increased the web traffic by a factor of ten times in the first 60 days and it grew to 40 times within the first 8 months.
…is the website used to generate online sales?
Yes, but not exclusively. A lot of people will use our website to discover us and then visit the store to make their purchases. The website allows us to show people our products and tell them what we're all about. We also do online advertising. Over the last two and 1/2 years, we've grown our Facebook fans from around 100 to over 4,500 now.
20. On your website you have a quote that says "we believe that chocolate is an experience." What do you mean by that?
We have people who come in and take a bite of a 1 inch by 1 inch piece of chocolate and you can see that they are just savoring every last taste of that chocolate. It's not like when I was a kid and went to the store to get a Hershey bar. I like Hershey bars, but I'd gobble them down, and yeah, that was good, but it's not the same. The analogy I use is like a wine connoisseur. When you see a wine connoisseur with wine they'll swirl it in the glass, they'll smell it, they'll take a sip and they'll close their eyes and savor the flavor. It's very similar to that with some of our chocolates. Folks look at the chocolate, they may take a very small bite and they just kind of have some time to themselves to taste the chocolate. And you'll hear them make all sorts of sounds: "mmmm," or "this is reaaallly good." And then they'll take another bite and just enjoy.
There's also the service side of the experience. We try to go out of our way for our customers. We have customers who come in all the time and say they'd like a gift but they want it slightly different than what we offer. So, we'll make up a custom gift on the spot. There's a lot stores where you can't get them to change anything - it's A or B.
We go through extensive training with every new person we hire to make sure they understand our chocolates and why each is unique. A lot of people come in and don't understand all the differences but they want to know. That's what we mean by “chocolate experience” - customers come in and there's a very pleasant atmosphere. They're greeted and get help where they need it. Our goal is that when they leave they've been treated very well and they've enjoyed their time in the store.
21. What's next for 3 Sisters?
We spent 2010-2011 introducing quite a few new products. We probably introduced more in those two years then were introduced in the previous 6 or 7 years combined. We went through that and learned a lot. We think we have a pretty good process now. Our cupcakes are an area of focus now. We're introducing new flavors. Our cupcakes are already a little different from what you normally see. They're a super sized cupcake - almost twice as big as a traditional sized cupcake. They're also filled. That's not 100% unique but it is rare. We're continually looking for ways to come up with more interesting flavors. That's a focus moving forward. And we'll be spending a lot of time next year growing the number of chocolates we offer. People come into our store and there's a 12 foot long case with all these chocolates. It's kind of like a big person's toy store. People come in, look, and read about each one. We constantly want to keep adding to what we offer, to provide more variety. That's where we'll spend most of our time in the near future.