Sherri Prentiss loves chocolate. The vice president of marketing for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has taken her fondness for cacao, cocoa and their resultant confections and turned it into a pretty sweet side business called Velveteen Chocolate.
A lifelong chocolate fan, Prentiss began to indulge her sweet tooth in a more serious way last year, traveling abroad to learn about the craft of making chocolate and earning her maître chocolatier certification at the Valrhona Ecole du Grand Chocolat in France. She was smitten and enrolled in the inaugural ArtWorks CO.STARTERS: Kitchen Edition entrepreneurship program upon her return stateside.
“I came back from France a certified chocolatier, but was kind of afraid to launch,” she says. “I was afraid to take that first box of chocolates and go out and pound the pavement and have someone carry it and consume it. That’s very scary.”
The 12-week Kitchen Edition program required three hours of onsite time each week at the Findlay Kitchen, a food incubator affiliated with Findlay Market. (The program is now nine weeks.) Prentiss and her fellow CO.STARTERS learned from a different food entrepreneur every week.
“It was an amazing experience,” she says.
A self-described “micro-batch chocolatier,” Prentiss focuses on two or three flavors at a time when making her confections.
“I try to experiment as much as possible with new flavors,” she says. “I am inspired by a number of things, from the season to a particular holiday to an event I’m creating for.”
As a chocolatier, she doesn’t roast or grind her own cocoa beans, but rather uses the chocolate made from that process to create confections. Prentiss gets her traceable, ethically sourced chocolate primarily from France, Belgium and Switzerland and is committed to using local ingredients as much as possible — Snowville Creamery dairy and spices from Colonel De’s, for example.
Velveteen Chocolate is currently sold at Madison’s and OTR Candy Bar at Findlay Market, where offerings include dark chocolate passion fruit truffles and milk chocolate hazelnut praline squares. The latter’s filling is thick and creamy, with just the right amount of hazelnut flavor and a satisfying crunch of praline. The passion fruit is smooth with a surprise liquid-y filling.
“I’m not into flavor combinations just to be ‘unexpected,’ ” Prentiss says. “They still have to be delicious.”
Prentiss is also committed to educating consumers on the chocolate she sources. She traveled to Costa Rica earlier this year, meeting the workers who help bring her end product to life.
“I spent time on a lot of organic cacao farms and actually harvested some cacao and talked directly to the farmers about their connection to the final product,” she says. “It wasn’t until just recently with the sweep of the craft chocolate movement where these farmers actually got to taste what their beans became.”
Velveteen Chocolate is not available for purchase online yet, and Prentiss is not taking any custom orders, but that works perfectly for her micro-batch business model.
“Making chocolates is fun and exciting, and I think it’s been helpful getting my brand out, but that’s not where my focus is,” she says. “Part of what I learned from going through the CO.STARTERS program is where the white space is in the market, and it’s really around events, tastings, pairings — public and private — and hands-on chocolate-making classes.”
She held a recent chocolate tasting at Skeleton Root winery with local Lamp Post Cheese and she’ll be on hand at this weekend’s Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic and concert:nova’s Bittersweet: food, chocolate + music event Oct. 22 at Dutch’s.
“I sum it up as connecting people to chocolate. My goal is not really to compete but to collaborate,” Prentiss says. “We have an amazing bean-to-bar maker here in Cincinnati: Maverick. We have other chocolatiers in the market, Shalini Latour being one of them. ... I want to elevate the work that (they’re) doing at the same time as connecting people to craft chocolate in general. That’s where I’m really excited about collaboration.”
For more on VELVETEEN CHOCOLATE and upcoming events, visit velveteenchocolate.com.