To learn more about this St. Louis gem, we sat down with Dave Owen, Chief Chocolatier and Vice President of Taste, to learn what a typical day is like for a chocolatier.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A forest ranger, but I didn’t do that. I went into medicine actually, I left high school and my parents thought it would not be a great idea to go into the culinary field, it’s not what you did 35 or so years ago. So I studied pre-med and physical therapy and a few other things. Then, when I had my own choice, I decided to go into the culinary field and went to school at Forest Park Community College through the chef apprenticeship program there.
How long have you been with Bissinger’s? How did you get into it?
I have been with Bissinger’s for nine years. I come from a culinary background, chef and restaurant owner here in St. Louis for the last 35 or so years. But I had an opportunity to do something different. I like the history of the company, the legacy, the customers and the product they produce. So I thought, ‘This is an opportunity to make a change.’
Was chocolate your specialty before your move to Bissinger’s? Did you have to learn anything new?
I had been a pastry chef at one point in my career so I had a little bit of understanding, but it’s different when you go into the manufacturing world versus how we produce in a little pastry shop or a restaurant.
It’s evident that history is a big part of everything Bissinger’s does, do you still have recipes that are hundreds of years old?
We have some recipes that are 300 something years old, we have ones that are literally days old.
Is part of your role as Chief Chocolatier developing new recipes?
My role as Chief Chocolatier and Vice President of Taste is new product development. So that’s from conception to operations. Additionally, [my job is] helping to troubleshoot and maintain the products we do make. That’s where the VP of Taste comes in. Is this something that Bissinger’s should be making? Are we making it how it’s supposed to be made? So the operations team and I work pretty closely together. Plus in addition to those, I also play the ambassador-type role, the face of the company as much as that is.
So the concept of something new often starts with you?
It often starts with myself. I also work closely with sales and marketing. We are typically looking out 18 months to two years for the new product development cycle. Right now, one of the things we’re working on is holiday 2018.
We’ll look at how the market is looking or what they have a need for, but typically when it comes to flavors, I would do that.
You mean, whether or not certain flavors will work together?
Yeah, you have to have a good understanding of the manufacturing process. I can come up with plenty of things, but can we make it and can we make it affordably.
The thing about manufacturing is, we’re going to come up with a lot of great ideas, but do they make sense financially? I work with the accounting group also to step through the cost of all these new items. So that’s not the really fun part. This is a great piece, but no, you realize you can’t have that because it costs a fortune to produce, so it’s not going to sell.
What is your favorite thing to mix in chocolate?
Fruit and nuts are classic and they pair really well with chocolate. I don’t know that I have a favorite. With fruits and nuts in general, there’s a lot of things that can be done. Something as simple as chocolate and almonds is one of our number one sellers. It’s not very innovative, but some things just work really well.
What kind of new trends are there in chocolate?
Trend towards comfort foods is still big, coconut in everything is still really trending. Savory components in chocolate continues to be a trend — savory spices, savory ingredients. I still see those as trending. We find that comfort still really speaks to people. Things that are recognizable with a little bit of a difference. Right now we have a bar that’s doing really well for us, the Caramelized Blood Orange and Rosemary. It’s just a little hint of rosemary which goes really well with the blood orange and it’s very nice with the chocolate and caramel inside that bar.
We also have gummies; we’ve been confectioners for a long time, so gummies made sense. It may not have thought to make sense since we are so heavily involved in chocolate, but these are really a gourmet gummy, more of an adult flavor, although my kids certainly like them.
(Note: I’ve tasted the gummies, they’re amazing. I’m a fan!)
Anything that’s come up that you had to wonder why it was a trend?
Plenty of things I see all the time, they may sound interesting but I often question if they’ll sell. Turmeric is really hot but I don’t know that it has a place in chocolate. I have not tasted any that were good. It’s not going to find a place here. We know our customer, and our customers trust us with 350 years of history making fine confections. We need to understand what they’re looking for but give them something to push themselves a little bit. They might say they’d never think of spice in chocolate, when in reality that was an original thing put in chocolate. It makes perfect sense, it combines well. It’s just something that people, after so many decades, haven’t been exposed to. It’s hard for someone who is in the food business for so long to not see those things as something that makes sense, but for the regular consumer it can be a challenge.
Do you have a favorite food/meal to pair with chocolate?
That’s a tough one. I was a chef for 30 something years, so all food appeals. But, I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 30 years too, so my dietary selection is a little different. But I’m pretty open to all cultures, all types of food, as long as it’s interesting and tastes good and is well seasoned.
Chocolate is a good way to finish off every meal, or to start off a meal, or a way to include it in a meal.
That’s interesting, including chocolate within a meal is not something I’d seriously consider. How would you include chocolate in a meal?
I have a class coming up at the Dierberg’s Cooking School, we’re going to have a multi-course chocolate dinner. So maybe think about a soup that has roasted chocolate nibs as a garnish or in with the soup, or maybe there is a chocolate used as a sauce or a glaze, maybe used in a salad. It can be used as a seasoning or an ingredient, not just as the main component.
As Chief Chocolatier, what does a typical day look like?
A typical day would involve spending some time out on the production floor. I like to get out and find out what every line is doing, if they’re having any trouble or an issue, or just to see how things are going. They’re not my direct reports, but I like to know what’s going on, what they’re making and is everything being made as it should be. We have a quality control team also, so they take care of a lot of that.
I spend a lot of time with the planning of what we’re making and working with those various stake holders, whether it be marketing, accounting, or sales. Like right now, we have a couple big weeks of events, so I work a lot on those kinds of things. We have the St. Louis Food and Wine event coming up and one of our two big trade shows of the year coming up in San Francisco.
Hands-on chocolate, not so much, or not as much as you’d think. There is a lot of administrative stuff.
I’ll admit, I expected more of you in a chef’s coat, covered in chocolate.
Because of the way we are structured, I have an R and D chocolatier (R and D stands for Research & Development), who would basically be considered to be my sous chef. We work closely together on how we are going to do things and what we are going to do. He then goes and basically executes that. If we’re working on a new line of truffles, and he’s now working on the visual look of those, we’ll take that together, we’ll confer, and then present it to the group — sales, operations, and the rest of executive team. We’ll then decide, okay this is what we want, or no let’s do this or do that, or maybe this should look different. Everybody has a little bit of say to it, so as a group we come together to decide what we’ll bring to the market.
Would a starting-off chocolatier spend more time in the kitchen?
They would be doing that all the time, they wouldn’t have the luxury of staff.
Do they come up with new products too?
Absolutely, my guy has a lot of input on what we do. He and I work together. We meet every morning, plan the day, we have our schedule. Because of how things need to roll out, we have to be really diligent about a schedule to make sure that we go to market on time.
I see several awards up on the wall. What types of awards have you won?
We’ve won some awards, sure, we’re just a small company trying to be the best that we can and gain some national presence.
In St. Louis Bissinger’s is a household name.
Right, we want that to be the same on the west coast, east coast, north and south and everywhere in between.
What do you wish others knew about what you do?
That it’s not always as fun as it seems. Everybody wants the job, but realize there is a lot of hard work and it’s not just tasting chocolate every day. There’s still spreadsheets and desk work versus hands-on stuff. The chocolate stuff, that’s fun.
Want more chocolate? Of course you do! And don’t forget to taste their Gummy Pandas, too. Check out the Bissinger's website to locate one of their stores in the St. Louis area. To discover more about how chocolate is made, the history of the Bissinger’s company, and their commitment to sustainable farming, contact, firstname.lastname@example.org to book a free tour. Be sure to include your name and the size of your party. Tours are held Monday- Thursday at 10 a.m. by reservation only.
Melissa Nordmann is an event coordinator for the City of Dardenne Prairie and currently resides in St. Charles County. When she's not planning events for her local residents, she enjoys attending her sons' baseball games and hiking with her family in many of the area's fabulous parks.
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