A Finessed Touch: Elaine Hsieh of EHChocolatier

Interview by L. Valena; Photography by Canyon Twin

Elaine Hsieh is co-founder of EHChocolatier, an award-winning small batch chocolate shop in Cambridge, MA. We talked about the amazing journey she and her business partner Catharine Sweeney have been on since they started in 2010.

EHChocolatier enrobing machine

How did you get into this? How did it start?

I always liked to cook. In my other career I was a practicing physician. I cooked a lot during that time, because I didn't really enjoy practicing medicine, so I needed an outlet. I ended up deciding to leave clinical practice and move into consulting work, so my time was more flexible, and with that I decided to go to culinary school. I did that for about a year. The school that I went to had a combined savory/pastry program. I thought I would be more on the savory side since that was what I enjoyed doing at home, but I had an incredibly inspirational pastry instructor who was very encouraging and pushed me towards focusing on pastry. After I left clinical practice and finished culinary school, I still consulted in the healthcare field and at the same time I started a dessert business.

Around the same time, I met Catharine Sweeney, who is now my business partner. She and I had a mutual friend who asked if we would make her wedding cake together which we did despite not knowing each other. It was beautiful and exquisite and had these edible shells which we ultimately ended up creating with chocolate.  It was a nice way that she and I connected, and it was clear that we got along very well. When I started my dessert business, Catharine was working at Harvard University in Admissions and Financial Aid. I’d ask her for help when things got busy in my dessert business. We became much closer friends over the years while working on food related projects.

A couple of years passed by and my husband and I had twins and had to deal with health-related issues.  I closed my dessert business and continued with the healthcare consulting. When the kids were in first or second grade, things had settled down and that was around 2009.  Catharine and I had become good friends.  We’d get together to make holiday gifts for our friends and family. It was around that time that I was thinking of finishing up my consulting work and Catharine decided to take an early retirement.

We ended up both finishing our work around the same time. I was always drawn to starting my own thing. All of my work were start-ups: starting my own practice, and then moving to a VC-funded mixed traditional and non-traditional medical practice. Catharine had never thought about being a small business owner.  She had worked at a very stable job at Harvard for 30 years so it took some convincing to get Catharine to thing about starting a business.  We decided to spend a year together testing the waters, producing chocolates and confections for a monthly Friends and Family Chocolate Club program.

What drew you to chocolate in the first place?

Oh, it's a beautiful thing. There are so many things you can do in dessert and baking- there are so many things I like to eat! But I felt like for me- I wanted to be very good at one thing. And chocolate was something I naturally gravitated towards. There's a lot of science behind it- as with all baking and pastry, but there's just something about chocolate. The craftsmanship or artistry really requires a more finessed touch than a lot of the baking I had done in the past. For me, that finer work was very appealing. Part of it was the medium was really great to work with, but also when you were done with it, it could be really quite beautiful.

During that first year, we developed more of our voice in terms of our aesthetic brand. It's funny, people say "Oh, you must eat a lot of chocolate!" While I do enjoy chocolate, that's not the reason we work with chocolate. It tastes good, but there's just so much you can do with it. It's just kind of an amazing ingredient.

In some ways, that first year back in 2009 was like an informal Kickstarter. It was pretty amazing- people paid us for this nine-month membership, and that gave us this “egg”. We got to work out so many things- how to do it, what flavors, how to perfect our technique. Also, some of the more basic things like shipping. What do you do when it's hot out? It was really a great year. And I think part of it was also seeing whether Catharine and I would still be friends at the end of it.

EHChocolatier labels

Catherine and I weren’t best friends when we started, but we considered each other close friends, and didn't want to lose that part because of the business. It was a pretty extraordinary year in a lot of ways, because I think it allowed Catharine to kind of feel it out without committing, and by the end she was quite committed to doing it. Which was a great feeling for me. And not only do we get along, but we work well together- we're kind of opposites of each other. People gave us incredible feedback, and we figured out a model that would work for us. It was a great year, because we had money, which was kind of important- we didn't have to take any personal money or borrow. In retrospect, we really couldn't have planned that better!

By the time we decided to really get it going in 2010- make it an LLC, and all the parts of creating an actual business, we were looking for a space. We had looked at all the shared spaces, but chocolate is very temperamental. I admire the chocolatiers who use shared space- I think Catharine and I were too old to be that flexible. We were like "we have to carry our stuff in and out?! And lock it up near smelly things?!" We looked for months for a space. Just as we were thinking that we would have to make the leap right into retail (which would have been a stretch), I saw a little post on Craigslist from Taza Chocolate offering up some space. We were very lucky, and it was amazing because we didn't need a lot of space, and Alex (Taza Co-founder) was great. Super helpful, super supportive, and also since he does chocolate, he totally understood the need for climate control and things like that.

What has surprised you?

When we started, it was just Catharine and me. A pleasant surprise was finding out there were quite a few people who were willing to volunteer or intern for us for no money, which was amazing. It was not difficult to find people to help us and I don't think we could have done the first three years without the help. On the other side, when we started hiring people, it surprised me how hard it was. We're so particular about our hiring process. We ask for a fairly high level of ability before they come into the kitchen and they have to fit in well since we’re such a small group.

I would say we've been very lucky- if people have left, they're left on their own volition, it's not because we've fired them. But people do leave at a higher rate from this type of work than in my previous work. In my previous work, it wasn't unusual for someone to be there for years, even if they weren't competent. So for someone to come in for six months and then say "Okay, I'm done", we're always like "really?" And as time has gone on, it has gotten harder and harder to hire.  That is surprising for me- how hard it is to hire someone good.

We're such a small operation- we all really have to get along and be professional. So far, we've typically had kitchen people who've stayed consistently for a couple of years. Ariel, who is our main chocolatier, has been with us for four years. We're also lucky that we enjoy each other's company- that is huge. Especially when we're really busy, if you don't like the people you're working with, it just makes it miserable.

The biggest surprise for me has been that I always thought that if you make something great, that's really all you need to do. I didn't appreciate that it's not that it doesn't matter, but customers are always looking for new. And soon enough, you'll be old news. So that means that we have to create products regularly for each holiday, which in the beginning wasn't a big deal because we didn't have a big menu. But now we have such a big menu, and if we make something, we make it because we love it- they are kind of like our kids. I know from a business standpoint we should retire them as we bring in the new stuff, but I just don't have the heart. I'm the numbers person- so I'll run the numbers and say, "says here we should give up the Chew", and Catharine's like "What? They just don't know it! They just don't know the Chew!"  Isn't it good enough that we deliver an excellent consistent product every time? Do you know how hard it is to make the same product over and over and over again and have it come out the same? We do things in small batches, and there's some variation, but people don't really want variation. The rocher they fell in love with is the rocher they want.

Chocolate piping

So that's actually been a big surprise for me, and I can just see from a wholesale standpoint, our numbers have come down. And it's mostly just because we're “old”. We're not the latest, greatest, hippest, coolest, eight years in. It's hard because you spend all this time developing a product, which is hard work, and then customers may not buy it, but they do want to see it. So, you do the new things- the shiny new things, just to get them to come back, and then they don't really need the new thing after all.

I've had so many people come here from Somerville and say "oh, I really miss where you were- it was so cool, trying to find you", but then I tell them that nobody could find us! And because not enough people could find us, it was kind of a hard business model to sustain. And then they say "ohhh". We didn't move because we just wanted a change in scenery- there was a business reason why we are now on the first floor with big windows. I think people have these fantasies- chocolate, it's so romantic. Two days ago, I literally fixed my toilet. I ordered a part, I looked online, and I saved us $200 by not calling a plumber.

That is exactly it. When I owned my shop- the amount of time I literally spent on my knees under a three-bay sink or something was amazing.

Totally. You realize quickly how much you can fix with duct tape.

Given all the details and loose ends in this business, how do you keep track of everything?

Chocolate molding

Literally it's because I have a partner- Catharine is no shirker. There are some things that we overlap on, and we always check in with each other about anything to do with our brand messaging, or financial decisions. But then we divide and conquer. She has strengths in areas that I have zero strength in, and vice versa. We never fight over sections of work to do- either one of us is strong in something, or we just hate it less than the other person.

I will say that there is always a sense of a loose end. There's always something that can be fixed, or something you can do better. Catharine tends to be the cup half full person, I'm more of a cup half empty. Aside from the regular maintenance stuff, in the back of my mind there's always percolating that there are so many things that could be better. I'm never at a point where I feel like it is perfect. You think that you'll get to a point where you can just keep doing what you're doing forever, and it will be great, but it's just never that way. That's how we manage the chaos such that we're moving in a forward direction, but I would say that there are always things that need to be taken care of, it's just a matter of what's squeakier. No matter how well we prepare for things, or we think we're going to be ahead of the game, in the end things just come up. It's like whack-a-mole.

Is there anything else you want to say here?

Ignorance is bliss. The less you know about starting a food business, the better.  I think if we knew what we were getting into, I never would have been able to convince Catharine to do what she's done. She'll say that this is the hardest she's ever worked in her life. At this point, even though we've been around for a while now, I think “old” is good. Part of staying and succeeding in business is actually having the ability to stick with it even when it’s incredibly hard.

EHChocolatier enrobed

EHChocolatier is located at 145 Huron Ave, Cambridge MA.