Change in ownership at Chocolate Necessities showcases open collaboration and careful craftsmanship
Never underestimate the power of your custodian. The person who is making your building clean, safe and operable also may be sourcing world-class ingredients for use in creating the finest chocolates and truffles for Whatcom County. That’s exactly what Kevin Buck did 37 years ago. After long workdays of swabbing floors and cleaning classrooms for the Ferndale School District, Buck meticulously built his business — after school hours — and named it Chocolate Necessities.
In the same way he carefully built up his esteemed business, Buck is easing out in a planned transition. He sold his iconic Bellingham-based business to new owners Rose Vogel and Michael Howell, but Buck remains involved, in person and daily, during this transitional stage. Together, to date, these three entrepreneurs have invested five months of study, information-sharing, training and collaboration. Their careful attention to detail and mutual regard for each other reveal leaders — one exiting and two coming up — committed to deep, rich success in business and personal relationships.
The handcrafting facility of Chocolate Necessities is sited at 4600 Guide Meridian, the highway that cuts north/south, connecting Bellingham to Lynden and the Canadian border. On the Guide, a large cocoa-colored sign with the truffle logo beckons Whatcom residents, Canadian friends and travelers to chocolate inside the charming, European-style shop and tasting room.
Behind the storefront and tasting room for customers at the Guide Meridian location is the handcrafting facility. Here, slabs of chocolate are received from overseas suppliers. Tempering machines are calibrated to slowly meld ingredients. The chocolatier and her assistants artfully concoct truffles. Hundreds of finished chocolates rest on stainless steel trays, slotted into specially made chocolatier carts.
A second retail location is at 1408 Commercial St. in downtown Bellingham. Across from Mount Baker Theatre, a just-right-sized shop features cases of chocolates and rows of truffles, individually nestled in crinkly wrap or available for bundling in gorgeous, luxe packaging. The owner and chocolatier, true aficionados, offer seasonal creations — rich cups of hot chocolate in winter and scoops of gelato in summertime. This winter, a new blackberry passion truffle debuts, with a passion fruit chocolate center and Samson Estates blackberry wine inside of a dark chocolate shell with yellow stripes. For seasonal giving, there is a Mexican hot chocolate truffle — a new combination of milk and dark chocolates with cinnamon and Fireball cinnamon whisky in dark or milk chocolate shells and topped with cocoa nibs.
All these delicacies, a rich and top-sourced array imagined by Buck, will continue. And new owners Vogel and Howell are especially passionate about being part of thriving downtown Bellingham. Business Pulse talked to all three owners — the selling partner and the two new owners. Here is their story of transition.
Business Pulse: Rose Vogel and Michael Howell are the new owners of Chocolate Necessities. Can you tell the story of how they identified your business and how you came to the decision to sell?
Kevin Buck: Their daughter had capably worked for me, pulling espresso shots and describing the different kinds of chocolates for customers. So, we knew each other through their family. Rose and Michael called me up, asking, “Are you interested in selling the business?” With 37 years of ownership, I had begun exploring how to do that. For me, the most challenging part of selling was figuring out how to value every piece — from the handcrafting facility to the marketing. I sought outside help to do that valuation, which was a great benefit.
BP: You differentiate between what might be described as flat-tasting American chocolate candy and the handcrafted, high-end-sourced chocolates at Chocolate Necessities. Can you describe your difference?
KB: We are an ingredient-driven company. I started sourcing chocolate from the finest places: the Barry Callebaut factory, north of Brussels, Belgium. I visited, and it was a cultural moment for me. Those chocolatiers are perfectionists. It was there that I found my culinary focus.
BP: What makes your chocolate taste different?
KB: With chocolate from the world’s best sources, it’s important to understand the precise balance of sugar, cocoa butter and cocoa beans. The marketplace has promoted profitable sugar, so the chocolate you choose at the store probably has too much sugar and not enough of the high-quality ingredients. I wanted to arrive at the top of the quality mountain. What are the kings and queens enjoying that we don’t know about?
BP: What other attributes attracted you as new owners to this business?
Michael Howell: This is an iconic, local, Bellingham business. We share Kevin’s same passion for quality and community. We would have been disappointed if Kevin retired or sold to a large conglomerate. We’re grateful to continue his legacy.
BP: In this transition, you described working side-by-side — new owners with selling proprietor. Can you describe what must be the immense value here?
KB: I would describe this side-by-side training as almost perfect. Michael has absorbed every detail. Already, he comprehends almost everything and has a deep understanding of the process. Each day, a couple of excellent questions will pop out.
The value created by Kevin Buck
BP: Central to any business plan is an exit strategy. For the benefit of other Whatcom business owners, how has your strategy worked?
KB: Three years ago, when COVID-19 came along, we didn’t overreact, and we became super-efficient. We closed the downtown store for six months but stayed at the location. And our customers were amazing. One woman picked up a box of almond bark every week; she gave it away to friends and helped me keep in business, too.
My workload had become six days a week, so I began thinking about selling. I analyzed each step and moved slowly. But I had the opposite strategy in finances, where I directed a fast-buying-and-paying-on-time rhythm. I was careful about not going into debt.
BP: You started this business with savings from your school district job. Did you set out to create a signature chocolate in Whatcom?
KB: For 10 years, I worked as a custodian at an elementary school in Ferndale. When I started Chocolate Necessities, I only invested $200, and I paid as I went.
No, I didn’t set out to make a signature chocolate. I wanted to make something that I really liked — no shortcuts. I found my source chocolate in Europe. I used different grades of the Belgian Callebaut, and I tasted my way into our current offerings. We now offer many different chocolates, in milk, dark and white.
Years ago, I took a personality work profile assessment. My interest was not in making money so much as serving our community. That’s how I see my work at Chocolate Necessities. I found a way to give our community what you might never discover: European-inspired, high-end chocolates.
BP: Looking back on 37 years — what could be described as one generation in your business — what have been the keys to your success?
KB: I’m an information guy. I enjoyed the complexity of creating a world-class chocolate. Cocoa butter is the most expensive ingredient, and I never skimp on this important component that melts. Friends tasted what I was concocting, and they said, “You could sell this.” Getting good equipment was important, too.
BP: As a longtime owner of an established business, what are the benefits of doing business in Whatcom County?
KB: Customer loyalty to our small business has been emotionally fulfilling and almost overwhelming. Across all economic strata, customers enjoy our chocolates. I’ll never forget the day the president of a locally owned bank pulled up in his fancy car to purchase chocolates from us.
Our chocolate can be found at the Community Food Co-op, San Juan Island Roasters in Friday Harbor, Skagit’s Own Fish Market and under private label for several area organizations — Samuel’s Furniture, PeaceHealth and many nonprofits.
Continuing the legacy
BP: What would you like readers to know about your experience or connections to the area?
Rose Vogel: I was born in Bellingham, and I was raised in Guadalajara, considered to be the cultural center of Mexico, with its museums, galleries and cuisine. I’m well travelled, so I’ve tasted chocolate throughout the world, and I’m quite proud of the selection at Chocolate Necessities.
I work in Bellingham, support local businesses, and didn’t want to see Chocolate Necessities close. Michael, my husband and business partner, and I reached out to Kevin because we want to keep the business alive, keep downtown vibrant and colorful, and offer quality for our community.
MH: I received my ecology degree at the University of Georgia. After traveling the country for a year, I found it difficult to leave Bellingham. That was in 2004.
I have a lot of experience in residential construction and remodeling, designing and building custom spaces. My science background led me to a specific strength: I always put function before form. After getting to know Kevin, I found that we shared that same value. The quality of the ingredients is the primary function and cannot be compromised.
I am extremely thankful to Kevin for guiding us so we can avoid errors moving from understanding to commercial application.
BP: What is the role of the chocolatier?
RV: For almost a year, our chocolatier, Valentyna, has worked with Kevin, learning his recipes and the nuances of commercial equipment. Valentyna is from Ukraine and has an extensive background in confection, baking, chocolate, ganache, desserts and aesthetics. She is a flavor confection connoisseur, constantly creating new flavor profiles that wow our customers. This week, she made caramel and hazelnut cashew bites that are amazing! I ate six — not sure that was good for business, but it certainly made me happy.
BP: Can you describe the business model?
RV: Provide exquisite chocolates and gelato, be the employer of choice, serve downtown by helping to keep it vibrant, and support local business.
BP: What has your learning curve been like?
RV: Michael has a background in science, while my experience is in business. Currently, I’m taking an intensive chocolate course in Vancouver so I can support staff and have fun with chocolate! I’m taking another chocolate course in Chicago.
MH: Applying knowledge and understanding during this initial training phase, especially for a commercial production, is critical. We don’t have the liberty to come in and make mistakes. We’re enjoying this intensive learning process.
BP: Will you keep both of your current locations (handcrafting/production on the Guide and retail store in downtown Bellingham, on Commercial Street, across from Mount Baker Theatre)?
RV: Chocolate Necessities began at the Guide Meridian location. That handcrafting facility is the heart of the business, and we have no plans to leave any time soon. For our Commercial Street location, which opened in 2018, we just signed a long lease, and we are working with a local architect to create a fun, lively outdoor area — coming soon!
BP: Will you be hiring in the coming year? What kind of employees are you looking for?
RV: Yes! We will hire for our busy season — Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. We are looking for good humans who love people, chocolate and good coffee and who are proud to be part of our downtown Bellingham community.
BP: What kind of event and marketing presence are you planning?
RV: We plan to offer wine and chocolate wafer pairings as well as charcuterie plates with wine and chocolate before and after Mount Baker Theatre shows. Chocolate wafer tastings are in the works. We have a myriad of chocolate chips — Ecuadorian, Colombian, Arriba Martini, Dulcey blond, ruby chocolate — all for melting, baking or snacking. In October, our gelato supplier will teach our staff how to elevate one of our favorite desserts to be an authentic Italian gelato. After the Christmas rush, we’ll host tours at the factory. And Valentyna is working on a monthly chocolate truffle feature.
BP: How do you want to maintain current clients?
RV: We’ll upgrade the website and online inventory for intuitive experiences, and we’ll be active on social media. At our downtown location, we plan to offer outdoor seating, change store hours to serve morning coffees, partner with local brewers and bakers, and host special tastings/hours to coincide with Mount Baker Theatre and downtown events. We want to partner with local businesses to offer our chocolate for their baking, desserts and custom gelato flavors.
BP: How are you thinking about planned growth?
RV: We want customer feedback. We plan to offer the same experience for current customers and share that with new customers: locally roasted espresso, handmade gelato, Italian sodas, affogatos (espresso, gelato, liqueur), traditional European hand-rolled truffles, Dutch-process cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, housemade trail mix, local and regional beers, excellent wine varieties, and the largest selection of curated chocolates in North America. ■