Jacques Torres earned the nickname “Mr. Chocolate” in the kitchens of Le Cirque, concocting sublime desserts for the rich and famous. He left his stove to pursue the world’s best cocoa beans -- and to become rich himself.
“From the beginning I always loved chocolate. Then it became more of a passion, until the day it became almost an obsession,” said Torres, a fishing aficionado who often spends evenings on his boat docked near Jersey City.
“My goal is to sell to as many people as I can,” he said with a thick French accent during an interview in his Hudson Street shop in downtown Manhattan. “If you sell only to the rich, you get rich. If you sell to everybody, you get richer.”
Raised in Bandol, France, a small town in Provence, Torres took a job with Michelin two-star chef Jacques Maximin at the Hotel Negresco in 1980, starting a relationship that took him around the globe.
After a year-long stint in 1988 with the Ritz Carlton hotel chain, Torres was poached by the keen-eyed Sirio Maccioni for Le Cirque, one of New York’s premier eateries. For 11 years, he served presidents, kings, oligarchs and, of course, the ladies who lunch dramatic concoctions like a minuscule chocolate stove with edible trays, pots and even a tiny cake.
He left in 2000 to open Jacques Torres Chocolate in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, and became one of the first artisans to travel the globe in search of the perfect cocoa bean.
Torres has already expanded to workshops and retail-only boutiques in Chelsea Market, Rockefeller Center, and on the Upper West Side all in Manhattan. Prices at his outlets range from 50 cents for a piece of candy to a box of chocolates that goes for $66, and even higher for specialty items.
As he prepares for the Valentine’s Day rush -- it’s the fourth-biggest day for U.S. sales of chocolate -- Torres is looking to expand his retail operation into other cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago.
“Chocolate sales are always better in places with colder weather. I would love to grow in those cities,” says Torres, who has written three books and makes frequent television appearances, including two long-running series.
No competitor to behemoths like McLean, Virginia-based Mars Inc. and Pennsylvania’s Hershey Co., Torres has steadily grown his business to an 80-employee operation. Torres says he has close to $10 million in annual sales, with an expected gain between 10 and 15 percent in 2011.
That exceeds total U.S. retail chocolate sales growth of 6.6 percent in the 52 weeks through Jan. 22 to $8.07 billion, according to data from Chicago-based market researcher SymphonyIRI.
Swimming With Sharks
An adventurer by nature, the hyperactive 52-year-old swims with sharks off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, a favorite spot. He’s not afraid of competition nor of escalating raw materials costs.
“Not only are the costs of maintaining farms rising,” Torres said. “More and more countries like China are discovering chocolate and that could be huge. India is also growing very fast and people in these countries are getting richer. I have no doubt that the price of cocoa will go up.”
From Bean to Box
This fall, Torres will start a partnership with Belgian chocolate manufacturer Belcolade, based in Brussels. Torres will control the raw materials needed to design giant chocolate-coated frogs or lips as sensual as Marilyn Monroe’s.
He will also determine harvest time, ripeness, fermentation and other attributes for the prime cocoa beans grown on a farm in Mexico, where he’s reserved one section for himself.
To get the annual 100 tons he needs, Torres hedges his cocoa needs with a broker, and he also hunts for rare beans grown in far-flung places like Venezuela, Trinidad and Madagascar.
“These countries produce very high quality cocoa beans but the quantity is very small,” he said. “Everybody is fighting to get their hands on them.”
BTV airs an interview with Jacques Torres on Feb. 14 at 8 p.m. Eastern time. Check local listings.
(Marvin G. Perez is a commodities reporter based in New York.)