Everyone, it seems, knows one of them — the people who can’t say no to a chocolate treat.
But then there’s Bill Fredericks. The research engineer in the School of Oceanography studies ocean cycles and ocean dynamics. And he’s a chocolate devotee of the highest level of sophistication, a chocolatier, if you will. If the folks who love a Hershey’s bar are on one end of the spectrum, Fredericks, a.k.a. The Chocolate Man, is decidedly on the other.
“I am a chocolate snob, I must admit,” he said. “I have kind of a refined taste.”
In fact, the only time he’ll buy a Hershey’s bar is for a comparison exercise in one of the many chocolate-related classes he teaches in the area when he’s not busy with his day job. The rest of the time, it’s strictly couverture grade — the best available chocolate.
“You can’t compare a good chocolate unless you have something to compare it to,” he said. “A Hershey’s bar is our gold standard in the United States. So I give the students a piece of a Hershey’s bar and a selection of couverture-grade chocolates. It just blows people out of their socks. They do not understand there’s as much of a difference as there is. It’s because American chocolates are mostly sugar — they’re washed out.”
His refined understanding of cooking in general and chocolate in particular began as an undergraduate. In those days, Fredericks worked as an executive chef and a short order cook in order to pay the bills. He became The Chocolate Man, the name of his small business, much later.
To save money one Christmas, Fredericks and his wife, whom he calls a chocoholic, decided to bake the gifts they would give to their families. His wife chose truffles and began by melting some chocolate chips that she planned to use for the filling.
Enter The Chocolate Man.
“I knew that chocolate chips aren’t premium-grade chocolate. I recommended we buy a better grade.”
That proved to be a more daunting task than one might imagine. Grocery stores aren’t exactly teeming with high-grade chocolate. And to buy directly from the factory means ponying up for at least a 500-pound minimum.
Fredericks was finally able to get a reasonable supply of the good stuff from some chef friends. The ensuing Christmas gifts were a big hit.
“People were going gaga. And once you get started you’re stuck. Everybody wants them again and again. It got to where we were spending $170 on chocolate in order to ‘save money’ on Christmas gifts.”
It may not have worked to his fiscal interests immediately, but now The Chocolate Man is a prosperous business that Fredericks runs when he’s not at his day job.
A simple business model led to his success. First, he knew enough people who would be interested in buying the premium grade stuff. Second, he also knew from first-hand experience how difficult it was for an individual to track down the best chocolate.
“If you’re not a chef or a hotel, there’s no avenue to buy it. That was my niche in the market — buy couverture chocolate right in the box and then sell it to the chocolate public. My reputation just spread because I was the only guy doing that.”
He stores the chocolate in a wine cellar in the basement of his Lake Forest Park home. He’s meticulous about keeping the supply in good shape. If chocolate mixes with water, for example, it is ruined.
With about 800 clients — including local chefs, bed and breakfasts, and other small businesses — he struggles to keep the business from growing too rapidly even though he’s never advertised.
And if that doesn’t keep him busy enough, there are his various teaching and commercial consulting gigs. In all, Fredericks says he works 70 hours a week during the peak chocolate season — from autumn to early spring — and that’s in addition to his normal 8-to-5 routine at the UW.
“I like it a whole lot.”
Fredericks will be teaching a course on chocolate truffles on Saturday, Feb. 1, as part of ASUW’s Experimental College. For more information on the course call the Experimental College at 206-543-4375. To buy chocolate from Fredericks visit him online at http://www.chocolateman.net.