As Valentine’s Day looms, we spoke to entrepreneur Rachelle Dalva Ferneau who has built a successful online artisan chocolate boutique.
by Sue Tomchin
“Gaining skills that were not part of my innate talent has been the hardest part. I had to take an active role in things that I thought I wasn’t capable of doing,” says Rachelle Dalva Ferneau. Founder of the online artisan chocolate boutique, Dear Coco, Ferneau is almost entirely self-taught—in the realms of both chocolate and running a business.
Based in Bethesda, Md., Dear Coco occupies a distinctive niche in the burgeoning chocolate market: Its products are vegan, gluten free, and eco-friendly, in addition to being kosher. “As a small business owner, I have the privilege of making the best choices possible in all areas I’m passionate about—these include being an environmentally and socially responsible business and choosing fair-trade chocolate and many organic/non-GMO ingredients,” Ferneau says.
When we spoke to her, she was up to her elbows in chocolate getting ready for Valentine’s Day. Her special truffle collection for the holiday (order by February 3) features two intriguing flavors: Paraguay Passion Fruit (passion fruit, dark chocolate and organic hibiscus flowers) and Saigon Fireball (Vietnamese cinnamon, dark chocolate, chili powder, cayenne pepper and natural cocoa). That’s in addition to Dear Coco’s Around the World Truffles Collection, Toffee Bar Global Gift Box, Hot Chocolate Spoons other intriguing confections. Her new Idaho Potato Caramel Turtles—a sweet bite of buttery salted caramel, rich dark chocolate, crisp kettle-cooked potato chips and French grey sea salt—are a far cry from drug store-caliber turtles.
Early in her professional life, Ferneau, now 50, certainly didn’t foresee starting her own business. She studied psychology in college, worked in human resources and took classes toward a graduate degree in Organizational Psychology.
She and her husband chose to keep kosher and, and, while home with the first of her four children, Ferneau honed her cooking and baking skills. She became especially proficient in creating pareve (non-dairy) desserts and, when her youngest child started to school a decade ago, she began selling cakes and other dairy-free pastries. Both individual customers and kosher caterers loved her products but it was the chocolate side of her business that generated the most requests, especially for finger-food-sized confections that could be served at large, upscale events. As she began to delve more deeply into the world of chocolate, she was hooked.
“My initial years in pastry naturally transitioned into chocolate,” she says. “For me, chocolate is the most challenging and rewarding medium in pastry. It offers endless learning and creative opportunities and is absolutely my true passion.”
Whether making chocolate ganache for her truffles or developing buttery caramel for her new line of turtles, creating confections with a creamy texture and depth of flavor without dairy is a huge hurdle to overcome. Ferneau’s go-to ingredients are generally coconut milk, soy milk and vegan butter.
“I have learned through trial and error how to successfully work with ingredients that don’t include butter and heavy cream, staples in the mainstream pastry and chocolate worlds,” she notes, adding that her products have won awards even when competing against those that include dairy.
Ferneau loves to travel and relishes how beautifully chocolate meshes with the various international flavors and spices she has encountered.
“I can visualize in my head how a product should taste,” she says, whether that means combining chocolate with Chinese Five Spice Powder, rosewater, lavender, Earl Grey tea leaves or an array of other spices, fruits and nuts. She devotes her summers to testing and perfecting the recipes she envisages.
Thirty-eight flavors of truffles rotate throughout the year, depending on the holidays (both Jewish and secular) and the seasons. Many Jewish customers seek her out especially for Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Purim.
Each confection is handmade, usually by Ferneau herself. “It takes a great deal of time to create things individually,” she says. The truffles are hand-poured and each of her nine flavors of toffee chocolate bars, inspired by flavors from such locales as Istanbul, Shanghai and Madras, is fashioned from a mosaic of ingredients. “I’m a visual person and believe in artistry.”
While coming up with creative product ideas is her favorite part of the process, that’s only one aspect of running a business. “I wish I had taken more classes in business,” she says wistfully, but admits that she doesn’t shy from learning things on her own. She had to read extensively and talk to other entrepreneurs in order to understand insurance issues and local, state and federal regulations as well as to gain a grasp of her competition and how her products compare. “Many of these areas are relevant to all small business owners,” she notes.
“Gathering information and putting the pieces in place to start your business can be very taxing,” she adds and isn’t ashamed to admit that failure is a part of this process and has taught her many lessons.
“There are highs and lows in every business, so you have to celebrate the milestones. Being an entrepreneur takes endurance,” she says. “You have to be good to yourself in the process.”
“I believe perseverance and patience does pay off. My goal is not to be Hershey’s. I’m a Jewish mother who loves to feed people. It’s exciting to send my products out into the world.”