From touring the Districts on the train in the ‘Hunger Games’ Blockbuster series to being featured on “The View,” William Dean Chocolates has become a forerunner in the chocolate industry in just 10 short years since their opening in late 2007.
Located in Belleair Bluffs, Florida, William Dean Chocolates are world renowned handcrafted delights. The hand-painted and airbrushed chocolates have competed in competitions all over, winning hundreds of awards including being ranked among Top 11 Chocolatiers in the world. The house selection of chocolates scored an average of 90.18, the fourth-highest rating of any chocolatier in the world.
The man behind the magic, Bill Brown, Founder and Chief Chocolate Officer, would become inspired while looking to reward employees at a software company. Brown came across an episode of Alton Brown making truffles on the Food Network and left the dot.com industry to follow his newfound artisan chocolate passion. Brown began commuting to chocolatier classes in Orlando as a precursor to opening his own business. For two years, Brown studied under renowned chocolatiers including Jean-Pierre Wybauw, Stephane Glacier, Andrew Shotts, Vincent Pilon, and Ewald Notter.
Before a bon-bon workshop and charity function, world-class chocolatier, Bill Brown, sat down for an interview to share his experience of leaving the dot.com industry and becoming a renowned chocolatier.
What made you take the leap into entrepreneurship?
My background was working in management for a big benefits company. I had about 170 employees and seven supervisors. I began making handmade truffles and bringing them into work to let people try them. I didn’t hate my job, but when I started working with chocolate, almost the instant I touched it, I could see it had two things it could do; the ability to be creative with flavors and ability to be a medium of art. I fell into it, and eventually what really allowed the business to happen was my older brother, Terry.
Terry is a very conservative accountant. He told our family with his help and some investment, “I think Bill could really develop this into a business.” That’s when my family knew they should get behind it.
We started with $95,000, not much at all, and we were really conservative. I didn’t have a salary for the first year and a half, but that didn’t scare me. I’m not afraid of unstable ground, I’ve been in the dot.com phase. It’s a little unfair to my staff sometimes because they like to know what are we going to do, and I like to work by the seat of my pants. My philosophy is, if we work hard, we’ll make it. I don’t carry that much stress with me in an uncertain world.
My brother’s advice was, “don’t worry about making money, make a product that people want to buy.” So we spent the first year trying to make a really high-quality product. I took lots of classes with some famous chefs and learned new techniques.
[Actually], when I started, there was a business in Clearwater that offered [chocolate] classes. I signed up, and [the lady] called me and asked, “why do you want to take a class in chocolate?” I said, “I have been playing with it, and I think I want to start a business.” She replied, “Well, I don’t teach people who are going to be my competitors so you can’t take the class.” I was a little crestfallen, thinking, okay, what do I do now? So I got on Google and noticed a place in Orlando called the Notter School of Pastry Arts that would bring in visiting chefs, like Andrew Shotts, who is a famous chocolatier to teach classes on bonbons. Other than those types of courses, I don’t have any other culinary training. Which goes to show that if you have the passion and the humility to soak up every lesson from the greatest in the industry, you have more opportunity for success.
How did you go about marketing your chocolates and what advice do you have in this area?
About five months ago we partnered with a PR firm out of Manhattan. In the beginning, it was pretty much all me. Luckily, before starting this company, I worked in sales. I found the most success in sales is when you don’t [try to] sell, [but you simply] talk about the product. If you’re genuine, people get excited and feed off of that.
If your business is handcrafted, get your product in front of people and let them decide for themselves. Enter national competitions, because it has national press which will trickle down the pipeline to local exposure.
Own your area. Become a local treasure, because that is what will keep you sustainable. Know when to reach out to local news outlets and pitch stories or float out information about recently won awards.
Now, we’re really pushing Instagram and Facebook just to keep up with marketing on social media. Corporate sponsoring, fundraising and charity work become types of marketing that are inevitable – doing good for the community benefits your business.
We were published in the New York Times for being among the ten best in the world for caramels. The next day, we had 130 orders from New York for Valentine’s Day. We had to take our Valentine’s Day chocolates off of our website in order to cater to our locals before we sold out. Every single piece of press can spark sales.
For anyone trying to open up a company as unique as yours, what advice would you give them?
You should do it because you’re passionate about it. A very good friend of mine said to me, “Find what you love to do and find a way to get paid.”
Too many people try to start a business because they want to get rich [but] if that happens, and they don’t love it, it becomes worse than a job. You can quit a job; you can’t necessarily walk away from your own business without massive amounts of baggage. If you can find what you love to do and make a living off of it, you should be happy about that.
[However], it is important to know that you’ll have a response to [your business] before you dive in. Where [William Dean] is located, it’s home to wealthier neighborhoods. We are a luxury item; we couldn’t work in a small town in Kansas – it just wouldn’t work. I have a good friend that opened up a chocolatier business in Jacksonville at the same time as I did – same equipment and same amount of money. [He] graduated from the French Institute of Chicago, which is the best place for a chocolatier to go, and then interned with Ron Ben-Israel for a few months. Looking at the both of us, [you would think] he would’ve been successful, but he picked the wrong place. He opened in the wrong area of Jacksonville.
You gotta be smart; you have to be a business person. If you love it, you have to look at it from a practical standpoint. Will my area support it? Is it over-saturated? Know your community and determine if you company has a future there before laying down your roots.
About the Author
Jenna Rimensnyder is a staff writer and content specialist for Entrepreneurial Chef, having studied Journalism, Media, Food Writing & Photography from the University of South Florida. She combines her love of writing and passion for food to capture stories of inspirational food entrepreneurs and spread across the web. Follow along at JennaRimensnyder.Com.
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