Madison has a burgeoning chocolate industry

Storefronts specializing in chocolate grow in town
Madison has a burgeoning chocolate industry
Photo by Larry Chua
Syovata Edari of CocoVaa is one of a number of local artisanal chocolate makers.

Madison has achieved notoriety as a popular food destination, but more recently the city has developed a sweet tooth. Storefronts specializing in artisanal chocolate seem to be proliferating.

“It’s like chocolate city–it’s like Paris in the Midwest,” says Syovata Edari, owner of the Madison confectionery CocoVaa. Edari believes that the success of the artisanal chocolate industry in Madison comes in part from the rise of the conscientious consumer. “It’s an educated community,” she says. “It’s not only educated institutionally, but on a very deep level people here want to be informed in the things that they engage in or spend money on.”

About 75 percent of American adults say they eat chocolate, generating $22.4 billion in annual sales. Premium chocolate accounts for just 18 percent of the chocolate being sold, but it is those discerning customers whom local chocolatiers are attracting.

Madison’s love of chocolate may also be related to the city’s lengthy, inhospitable winters. Local confectioneries are at their most profitable during the winter months. “Statistically, as high as 80 percent of our business as confectioners in the Midwest is done within about a two-month period, right before Thanksgiving through the end of the year, and then Valentine’s Day is huge,” says Edari.

Markus Candinas, owner of Candinas Chocolatier in Madison and Verona, says selling fine chocolates out of a brick-and-mortar storefront year-round is challenging. “It’s just not the kind of product that’s geared toward being at every point of purchase across the land, at least not if you’re doing good quality,” he says.

Some Madison shops like Chocolaterian Cafe, Madison Chocolate Co. and Milwaukee-based Red Elephant Chocolate also sell beverages such as coffee, tea and hot chocolate, baked goods or ice cream alongside their confections.

Madison seems to be something of a chocolate oasis in a market dominated by large candy corporations. According to the National Confectioners Association, chocolate commands about 60 percent of total sales within the U.S. candy industry. Grocery stores are the most popular place for people to purchase chocolate, and smaller confectioneries constitute about a mere 5 percent of total chocolate sales. These stores cater to a niche market of consumers seeking a unique experience and a locally made product.

“Not everyone is going to be able to tell the difference between a tomato that’s kind of ripened by virtue of the rotting process (in transit from far away), and one that’s been ripened just a few miles away and literally was picked red as opposed to picked green and ripened on the way,” says Candinas. “We create chocolates for everyone. And while we hope everyone will enjoy them, some will appreciate the nuances that others don’t notice.”

There has been a perceptible shift in the American food paradigm, with more people seeking healthy alternatives to traditional sugary snacks. Correspondingly, dark chocolate has become more popular, since chocolate with a higher cocoa content is perceived to be healthier.

Efforts to grow a chocolate haven here are ongoing, and like any industry, it is subject to highs and lows. In December 2017 one of Madison’s oldest confectioneries, Maurie’s Fine Chocolates, closed after nearly 25 years in business. Also in 2017, global food manufacturer Mars filed a lawsuit against CocoVaa. Mars took issue with the similarity between the name CocoVaa and Mars’ nutritional supplement, CocoaVia. Owner Edari, an attorney, represented herself in the case and the lawsuit was ultimately thrown out.

The faceoff between these David and Goliath chocolate makers may be an indication that the corporate candy industry feels threatened by the increasing number of consumers turning to small, local confectioneries to get their sweet fix.

AnnaKay Kruger is a freelance writer in Madison.