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Sweet Shopping for Valentine’s Day with Mr. Chocolate

“Ladies don’t need us to remind them that it’s Valentine’s Day,” says chocolatier Jacques Torres.

Jacques Torres
Jacques Torres

February 14th is the single biggest day of the year for the chef, founder and CEO behind the eponymous Jacques Torres Chocolate mini empire of stores and cafes.

Female consumers at one of Torres’ Willy Wonka-like boutiques typically come in with a clear idea of what they want from his array of high-end confections.

Price tags range from $6 for bags of milk chocolate-covered brand name Cheerios (General Mills) to $60 for a heart-shaped all-chocolate box of handmade bonbons.

Men, however, shop differently when it comes to sweets. “The guys will come in with a price — not a product — in mind.” For example, “here is $10, here is $40, what can I buy?” Torres and the staffs at his six New York City stores see the bulk of Valentine’s customers on the holiday and the day prior.

The Chocolate Manufacturers’ Association estimates that Americans will gift each other with 58 million pounds of chocolate this Valentine’s Day.

Chef Torres’ picks for quirky sweet treats at a variety of price points include:

Love Pop, aka “The Spanker” $12
Solid chocolate lollipop available in dark, milk or white. Torres says the risqué name evolved after five-ounce solid chocolate hearts failed to sell at expectations. On a whim, he added the hand-painted message “Spank Me” on one side and made a whirlwind trip to three area Home Depots for 12-inch wooden dowels. A cheeky, and popular, product was born.

The Kissing Game $36
Box of 25 bonbons, each painted with a kissable pair of red lips. Kissing instructions for lovers — “Loudly,” “Behind the ears,” “Forever” — are printed on the box beneath the candies.

Satin Heart $15
Shiny chocolate-covered almonds in a chocolate jewel box, covered with two layers of chocolate. The exterior or red-colored chocolate has a velvet-like finish.

A display case inside a Jacques Torres store.
A display case inside a Jacques Torres store.

The Lover’s Helper $15
Heart-shaped chocolate box filled with seven limited edition bonbons. Six are heart-shaped treats representing international traditions of aphrodisiac ingredients, like nutmeg and ginseng. If Mother Nature’s wiles don’t work for you…the seventh is shaped like a certain little blue pill.

While Americans cut back on discretionary spending in 2008 and 2009, premium chocolate sales increased during the recession, according to a 2010 report from research firm Packaged Facts. In 2009, more than $17 billion was spent on the sector that features higher-priced dark chocolates aggressively marketed as high in healthy antioxidants, giving chocolate a sweet advantage as both an accessible luxury and an easy reward for comfort-seeking consumers.

French-born Jacques Torres began his reign as “Mr. Chocolate” in 1999, when he left his job as pastry chef at New York’s Le Cirque and Le Cirque 2000 restaurants.

A dining stalwart since the 1970s, Le Cirque is known for impressing a society crowd. Torres made headlines by engineering a dessert known as the “chocolate stove,” a miniature appliance of remarkable detail down to tiny chocolate sauce-filled pots.

He opened a small artisanal chocolate factory in a converted warehouse in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. Torres did much of the painting and construction himself.

“We were the first retail establishment in the neighborhood,” Torres says proudly of his 400-square-foot shop and cafe on a cobblestone-lined block near postcard views of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Today, median household income in the waterfront neighborhood is $148,611 and Torres’ neighboring stores include children’s clothing boutiques and modern furniture retailers.

The tiny space produced an impressive selection of colorful and whimsically-painted bonbons for a few dollars apiece with fillings like Grand Cru, Earl Grey and Key Lime ganache. Tourists walking over the Brooklyn Bridge and art lovers attracted to the area’s burgeoning gallery scene trickled in to shop and stayed for pastries and hot cocoa.

Palm-size rich chocolate chip cookies have made Oprah Winfrey’s list of favorite things. “Wicked” Hot Chocolate, a warm drink spiked with ancho and chipotle peppers, is a warming combination of sweet and smoky.

The DUMBO location is Torres’ most profitable by square foot.

He expanded in 2004 with Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. The 8,000-square foot corporate headquarters features a cacao pond-shaped store and café with a vintage aesthetic, as well as a chocolate factory with windows on the street. Passersby can watch Torres’ team at their intricate handiwork.

Other retail locations followed in Manhattan and at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City.

On February 1st, Torres opened his 6th New York City store in the concourse level of Rockefeller Plaza. “There are few places where it’s really New York,” says Torres. “Rockefeller Center is New York.” Torres hopes the location will reach an expanded tourist clientele, in addition to locals working and eating in the neighborhood.

“All the stores are doing well,” he says. Jacques Torres Chocolate made just under $10 million in annual revenue last year.

Now marking more than a decade as a personal brand, the chef/entrepreneur admits to thinking about another Big Apple location on Manhattan’s East Side as well as expanding into other cities. Perhaps a surprise during the brutal winter of 2011, Torres is considering Chicago because, "chocolate sells where it’s cool."

“Snow and rain can hurt you,” says Torres with a smile rarely used when discussing that type of weather, “but, a crisp day of 30 degrees with a little bit of sun?” Just the recipe, it seems, for a hot chocolate break.

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