Vosges CEO Katrina Markoff: ‘You Just Keep Trying Until You Get Yes’

By Phil Rosenthal
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  When it comes to dedicated women in business, Chocolatier Katrina Markoff is up there with the best.  Markoff founded Vosges 18 years ago, bringing an adventurous sophistication to premium chocolate.  Almost two decades later later she has six boutiques and a booming e-commerce site. Persistence Pays!

Chicago Tribune

For many, the first taste of a Vosges Haut-Chocolat truffle is a leap of faith.

Defying convention, these creations combine top-flight chocolate with candied violet flower, or wasabi and ginger, or horseradish and lemon zest, or some other seeming mismatch. That there’s harmony in the discordant notes can be a revelation.

“That’s the most powerful kind of experience you can have,” said Katrina Markoff, Vosges’ CEO and chocolatier. “You’re going to have favorites and ones that aren’t your favorites and it almost doesn’t matter because the experience is so rich and interesting.”

Markoff founded Vosges 18 years ago, bringing an adventurous sophistication to premium chocolate, and today has six boutiques and an e-commerce site.

Her Chicago headquarters produces not just truffles, but a line of Vosges gourmet chocolate bars and the sister Wild Ophelia brand of chocolate (available nationally at Walgreens, Target and Whole Foods), as well as some private-label product.

Vosges has relied on Markoff’s unyielding confidence in her own abilities, instincts and vision to get this far. She has come to realize, however, she will have to rely more on others to take it farther.

This too will be a leap of faith.

Just how great a leap is evident in the privately held company’s recent hire of Michael Brennan, formerly chief operating officer of digital grocery service Peapod.

Brennan will be Vosges’ president and COO, titles previously held by Markoff’s husband, Jason Scher, a Lifeway Foods director with a background in real estate and construction.

“I’m trying to really grow the business and to do that I have to trust other people to execute the vision,” she said. “This is a challenge for me. But going from $30 million (in annual business) to $100 million is going to be a different game.”

Expansion plans include a joint venture in Dubai that Scher has been shepherding, and perhaps opening its headquarters to visitors as a tourist attraction.

Markoff recently spoke with the Tribune. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: I imagine there was a lot of discussion between you and Jason about bringing in Mike. What went into that decision?

A: We’ve been doing this for 10 years. We work intensely. All we do is talk about work and we wanted to have some space to not talk about work.
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There’s so much more in the world. He’s really brilliant. He’s going to be on the board. He’ll probably run another company or something. But this is good for us and hopefully it will be even better for our relationship.

It seemed right to have a fresh new person. Mike is very proven. He grew Peapod from $7 million to $700 million. He’s a rock star in that world. He’s a super-seasoned professional manager of people.

Q: How tough an adjustment will it be for you to delegate more?

A: There are high-vision people and super-detail people and there’s that middle zone of managing execution. That whole middle area is not where I live. I’ve got to learn how to do the other-people thing. I’m a lone-wolf kind of person. So I’m getting the leadership team in place. That’s an area I’m not good at. I’m not great at managing people.

Q: Well, you also haven’t had much experience at it. I don’t know how many with your background could have made a company like this work. It’s not as though you have formal business training. Did you just pick things up along the way?

A: I was always creatively problem-solving. I would never accept no. I still have a hard time with no. There’s always a possibility. You just keep trying until you get yes. When people tell me I can’t do something, I’m like: “Yeah? Let’s see.”

Q: You’ve talked before about your entrepreneurial mother influencing you and your siblings to all become entrepreneurs. How’s that?

A: It’s part of the way we grew up. She’s a work-hard, driven woman. She’s smart. She just figured stuff out, and it was never: Should I or not? So I grew up with that, and am very good at making quick decisions because I’m so tapped into my into gut, my intuition, the signs. I had that kind of DNA growing up because my mom was always, “You can do whatever you like.”

Q: When you got your college degree in chemistry and psychology but decided you wanted to study cooking, she didn’t discourage your around-the-world odyssey that included time at Spain’s legendary El Bulli. So much cutting-edge food culture connects to what Ferran Adria was doing at El Bulli. What was that like?

A: Here was someone who thought so differently. He said to me, “You have a really good base, you don’t need to waste your time going to Michelin three-star restaurants.” He said, “Use your imagination and your palate as your guide.” To have someone say that to you and you to believe it is really powerful.

Q: How is it you didn’t become a chef?

A: Along my journey, I realized I didn’t like being in the kitchen, to be honest. There’s a very strong hierarchy. I felt like, as a woman, you had to decide how you were going to play it. You had to either be tough as nails or coquettish because you were always flirted with, and I didn’t like either choice. So it was like, “Oh crap, what am I going to be now?”

Q: The founder of a high-end chocolate company, as it turned out. And it didn’t get derailed in the economic downturn. Your chocolate wound up to be the sort of indulgence people decided they’d still spring for when money got tight, like Starbucks coffee.

A: Affordable luxuries. They’re expensive for what they are. But people still want to treat themselves to something. They’re not going to get the car. Maybe they don’t go on vacation. But they’re still going to get things that make them feel good. So even in 2008, when things were really bad, we still grew 3 percent. Some people are predicting a downturn in ’17, ’18, but I feel like we’ll be OK.

Q: So you’ll get your leadership team in place. Then what?

A: I won’t need to micromanage. With that comes some freedom to do the things that I was best at from the beginning, which involve imagination and storytelling and the ethos of the brand. I’m on that journey now to the next version of me and Vosges. But I’m not there yet.

Q: But it wouldn’t be very interesting if you were, would it?

A: I guess not. The struggle is the best part, isn’t it?

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