For years Turlocker Valerie Lamke was stuck working a professional job, dreaming of chocolate.
But this year the award-winning chocolatier Lamke hopes to turn her hobby into a full-time profession, leaving her desk job behind to focus on her start-up chocolate company Zuzu Candies.
Lamke admits she wasn’t always this obsessed with chocolate. But she grew up around food and sweets, with the dos and don’ts of cooking ingrained at an early age.
“My family was in the baking industry and my great-grandparents were master bakers from Vienna, Austria,” Lamke said. “It’s probably a little bit in my blood.”
The chocolatiering started as a hobby, something Lamke says she “dabbled in.” As the years dragged on Lamke became more and more focused on her chocolates, which she sold at the Turlock Farmers Market for part of last summer.
In 2012 Lamke decided to take her interest in chocolate to another level, studying at the renowned Callebaut Chocolate Academy in Chicago. The academy offers more chocolate training in a week than most pastry chefs receive in a full multi-year program.
That program opened new doors for Lamke – and an opportunity to compete in a top-tier chocolate competition.
Lamke submitted just one confection to the contest: a french honey caramel, made with a Turlock alfalfa honey Lamke found at the Turlock Farmers Market. It’s a creation emblematic of Lamke’s chocolate style, which focuses on using only the freshest, most-flavorful, locally-produced ingredients.
The chocolate earned rave reviews from the most discerning of chocolate judges, medaling in five of six categories.
From that one confection, submitted to one show, Lamke was named one of the Best Chocolatiers and Confectioners in America for 2013, earning a four-star Award of Excellence from the International Chocolate Salon and TasteTV.
But 2013 represented a make or break moment for the fledgling chocolate company, now demanding more time than Lamke could commit with her day job.
“Zuzu has just taken on a life of its own so I thought, okay, it’s time to go,” Lamke said.
So Lamke left her day job, and is now turning her sights toward the next challenge: opening her own chocolate-making facility, allowing her to produce larger production runs and fill bigger orders.
To this point Lamke has been operating out of rented commercial kitchens. Those kitchens are far from ideal for chocolate making, which requires strict climate control, packaging areas, and lots of shelf space.
Lamke has a light-industrial spot picked out in Turlock, with floor plans drawn for the ideal chocolate- kitchen.
“Now it’s just a matter of making sure I have the funding,” Lamke said. “I don’t have a big fat daddy who can lay out the cash and buy it all for me.”
Banks aren’t lending. And though a microloan helped Lamke get some needed equipment, that funding isn’t enough for Lamke to fund a chocolate-making facility.
So Lamke turned to Kickstarter, the popular crowd-funding website. Through Kickstarter, average people can invest from $1 to $1 million in Lamke’s project, in exchange for tasty rewards ranging from naked vanilla bean caramels to Belgian chocolate truffles and those famous French honey caramels.
“It’s not about begging for money, it’s about looking for microinvestors, and funding creative projects,” Lamke said. “It’s a great concept.”
All Kickstarter funding would go toward tenant improvements, permits, and basic equipment like a refrigerator, commercial sink, and convection oven – making Zuzu Candies’ facility a reality.
So far, Lamke has earned $205 of her $8,500 goal. Per the terms of Kickstarter, Zuzu Candies has until April 3 to reach its funding goal. Otherwise, Zuzu Candies gets nothing, and donors are not charged.
Regardless of how the Kickstarter turns out, Lamke has big plans for Zuzu Candies.
She’ll be selling at the Modesto Farmers Market this year. One day, she’d like to see her chocolates sold at gourmet grocery stores like Sprouts Farmers Market and Whole Foods Market.
Zuzu Candies has already made inroads into the posh Los Angeles market, selling at farmers markets in the city. To qualify for the certified organic market, Lamke had to prove her chocolates were natural, preservative-free, and made from ethically-sourced chocolate. Even her dish detergent had to be green.
But no matter what the future may bring for Lamke, whenever she’s working on her chocolate, it doesn’t feel like the daily grind of her old job.
“It’s not just a job,” Lamke said. “It’s an artistry for me.”
To see Zuzu Candies’ Kickstarter, visit http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1593402809/zuzu-candies-big-fat-and-luscious.
For more information on Zuzu Candies, visit http://www.zuzucandies.com.