Estee Farber spends her days surrounded by chocolate. Seriously. She’s the marketing director of Madelaine Chocolate, a company started by her grandfather. At work she deals with a little bit of everything – product and business development, packaging design, social media strategy – but in the past two years her priorities have been getting her MBA and rebuilding the Madelaine factory, which is located in Far Rockaway and was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. When I asked Estee what she likes about the chocolate business, she said, “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a business. But ultimately you’re providing an affordable luxury – it’s not a serious product. It’s fun.” For more sweetness, read on!
Can you describe what you do?
I’m the marketing director of Madelaine Chocolate. I do everything from product development to packaging design to website development to communications to business development for the customers. We’re trying to better understand our customer base and how we can better service them. It sounds very basic and obvious, but our company was started over 65 years ago by my grandfather, so we’ve grown and developed so much, and our customer base has grown and become very diverse, and we never used to do that. Ten years ago, we didn’t have a marketing department the way we do now.
You said your grandfather started the company 65 years ago. Can you tell me that story?
My grandfather and his brother-in-law came here from Europe in 1949. They wanted a better life and to build families. They had a small loft apartment on Broome Street, and they were making handmade chocolates. They were making box continental chocolates, which was very much in fashion then.
Like a Whitman’s Sampler?
Exactly. That was very much the mode then. You bought a box of chocolates, and they were all different, little bonbons in a paper cushion. They eventually wanted to open up stores and build an upscale European chocolate brand. That’s how they chose the name Madelaine. They wanted a European, feminine name. My grandfather – this is funny – had a crush on a British actress at the time named Madeleine Carroll. That’s where the name came from.
Why chocolate? Was there a family history in confectionary?
Yes. That’s how they learned the craft. They moved from their place on Broome Street to a very small building in Brooklyn. They were growing their business, growing their customers. They were providing chocolates for other shops. And then they were commissioned by a small division at the Nestle company to produce foiled chocolate eggs. And it completely changed the nature of their business. From there they went full force into foiled, seasonal, novelty chocolates. Everything’s foil now except for the chocolate covered nuts. It changed the entire direction of the business, because as they started working in Easter eggs and Christmas balls and mini-Santas and mini-snowmen and little Easter rabbits, they were fulfilling the niche in the market for bulk novelties. It wasn’t about these little handmade pieces anymore, it was about volume.
You guys don’t have retail outlets, right?
No. We supply retailers. We’re the wholesale manufacturer and the distributer to retailers. A lot of our business is white label. A lot of our customers come to us because we’re so customizable. We’re very accommodating – all of our products are available in any kind of package you would want, you just have to put your name on it. But we also do a lot of Madelaine branded products, and that’s what I’ve been focusing on more lately.
Do you eat chocolate every day? How do you not explode from chocolate everywhere?
I think it’s like anything. I go through phases where I’ll just be cramming it in my face all day. And then I’ll go through phases where I don’t eat a piece for a month. And then I’ll go through a phase where I’m only into dark chocolate, like a caramel or a peanut butter. We have caramel filled chocolate balls that are amazing. They were making them the other day, and I grabbed a whole bag of them. I bought a bag of pretzels, and I was eating them together.
That sounds really delicious.
That’s my flavor of the month, and I’m going to eat that and probably gain five pounds. And next month I won’t eat anything. It sort of depends on what they’re making out in the factory. When you walk into the building the smell hits you, and it’s amazing. In the winter your sweaters smell like chocolate, which is lovely. It’s fun.
Do you have a favorite flavor?
Right now I’m really into our caramel. We have a really nice salty, almost butterscotch type caramel. And then when you mix it with the chocolate you get a little bit of that salty/sweet. Otherwise I really like our hazelnut truffles, which are dark chocolate and milk chocolate molded together. When they’re melted down we add a little bit of hazelnut paste, and it’s just incredible. It’s a ganache, it has a lower melting point in your mouth – it’s amazing.
So I try to avoid dairy for the most part. Do you get people asking for vegan chocolate?
That’s not really our niche in the market. When someone thinks about chocolate Santas, or our chocolate turkeys that have been part of their family tradition for 25 years, they’re not thinking about what’s in the chocolate. I know customers of ours, and I know friends and family who say it’s not Thanksgiving without our chocolate turkey on the table, or it’s not Christmas without our snowmen in their stockings. I don’t even know if anybody eats it. It’s an emotional thing, and it’s for a holiday, a gift, a season, it’s not you going into the deli saying, “I want something sweet but I don’t want to fully indulge.” That’s a completely different purchase.
It’s very much in keeping with what your grandfather intended. It’s about family, making it a part of your emotional family life.
When people ask me what I do, I say I work with chocolate. When they ask me the name of the company I say, “Madelaine,” and they say, “Oh, I think I’ve seen that.” Then I start describing some of the product, like the chocolate turkey or the mini-Santas, the footballs, the crayons, the mini racing cars, and they say, “Oh my god, I’ve been eating them my entire life. My grandmother loves them.” That’s the challenge for me, on the marketing and branding side – to connect the two. It just confirms that people have been eating our stuff for years, and it’s been part of their family tradition for so long.
What are three different products you’d like to make?
- Because I’ve been eating pretzels with chocolate and caramel all day every day for the last week, I really want to find a way to take a pretzel and completely enrobe it in our caramel and chocolate and replicate that gooey, salty-sweet bite that I make. It’s basically impossible.
- A few years ago, I wanted to come out with a jewelry box that would have different chocolates in each of the different drawers. I wanted to do it for Easter, because we have so many different flavored eggs. We have milk, dark, white, crispy, peanut-butter-filled, caramel-filled. We had a milk chocolate truffle and a dark truffle.
- I would like bring back our Duets line, which we had before the storm. The peanut butter and raspberry reminded you of childhood. It was like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but it was a little more sophisticated, because we had raspberry jam and a smooth peanut butter, and our chocolate is very rich. It was like an escalated peanut butter and jelly sandwich.