By Andy Olin, contributor
⏰ 5-minute read
The Cacao & Cardamom experience begins with the beautiful custom-created packaging that protects the brightly colored artisan chocolates made by Annie Rupani. She colors her creations with colored cocoa butter, hand-painting and airbrushing the chocolates to produce the desired effect. She’s bold and adventurous when creating the unique flavor combinations of signature chocolates such as Strawberry Szechuan, Garam Masala Pistachio, Black Sesame Ginger, Coco Curry, Lychee Basil and Guava Tamarind.
In the summer of 2014, when Rupani opened her flagship store and chocolate lab in the Galleria area of Houston, the Houston Chronicle’s Greg Morago wrote, “(Rupani has) created perhaps the city’s most astonishing bonbons — chocolates of such arresting beauty they might just be too gorgeous to eat.”
Cacao & Cardamom sells artisanal chocolates inspired by the flavors of Annie Rupani's childhood.
That praise has been echoed by others.
In 2015, when she was 26, Rupani was named to Eater’s Young Guns list, which recognizes the food and restaurant industry’s most promising talent under the age of 30. And her chocolates took the prize for “Best Dessert” at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 2013 and 2014.
Cacao & Cardamom made Entrepreneur Magazine’s Entrepreneur 360 list for 2019 and has been featured in the New York Times, Real Simple magazine and on the Today Show.
Her love of food and flavors began in a childhood home filled with the smells of spices like cardamom, cumin and coriander. Stints studying abroad in London and Amman while a student at Boston University and travels through Italy, Greece, Lebanon, Egypt and China further whetted her appetite for the culinary arts. While in college, the future entrepreneur also was crowned Miss Pakistan World 2010. Eventually, Rupani’s interests led her toward chocolate — she read books about making chocolate during breaks from studying for the LSAT — and a week of chocolate-making courses in Kuala Lumpur.
Eventually, Rupani’s interests led her toward chocolate — she read books about making chocolate during breaks from studying for the LSAT.
Rupani expanded in 2018 with a second location in the city’s River Oaks neighborhood. Cacao & Cardamom products can also be ordered online and shipped throughout the U.S.
Though Rupani found success in business at a relatively young age, running a gourmet chocolate shop hasn’t been without some bitter moments. She recently took the time to discuss some of those obstacles and how she turned them into opportunities.
Educating customers about chocolate's complex flavor profiles is a big part of Rupani's business.
Grow Wire: Where did the idea for Cacao & Cardamom originate?
Annie Rupani: I never saw the value of taking my love for chocolate anywhere, but in 2012, after just two months of experience as a chocolatier, I decided to open my own business.
I quickly got my home kitchen ready. Within a month, I had created a logo, started ordering packaging, got my website up and running for online orders and started creating chocolates for sale in commissary kitchens around Houston.
The response when people experienced the chocolates from an aesthetic point of view and flavor was definitely a driving force in the decision to take this venture seriously.
I had also decided against law school at this point, so I needed my chocolate business to be successful. I started Cacao & Cardamom as an online business in 2012, and a year and a half later, I opened up a brick and mortar shop.
GW: Can you talk about some of the biggest challenges you met in starting Cacao & Cardamom?
AR: It seems like the biggest challenge so far is the general lack of knowledge about cacao or fine chocolate. There are a number of people every day who don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into when they walk into the shop because they’ve never experienced a place that is solely about chocolate in many different forms, from bonbons to truffles to dragees. We’re trying to change the common perceptions around chocolate. When someone comes in and claims they don’t like chocolate, it becomes our goal to find them something they would like. It’s almost like wine-tasting, and in reality, chocolate actually has more flavor notes than wine.
I was initially very impatient and frustrated that very few people knew what cardamom or a chocolate bonbon was, but I began to take it as an opportunity for teaching and conversation.
"I was initially very impatient and frustrated that very few people knew what cardamom or a chocolate bonbon was, but I began to take it as an opportunity for teaching and conversation."
I found that most of our customers are very receptive to learning and they tend to purchase more with increased knowledge of our products. [Educational conversations are] also a great way to create a lasting relationship with the customer.
We’ve created a “Spice Bar” [in the stores], which is a counter with 10 different spices to smell and learn about, so that people have an opportunity to experience the spices before deciding if they would like to taste it infused in a chocolate.
We also have cacao pods and canvases illustrating the bean-to-bar process to show customers through pictures how the cacao fruit bears a seed that becomes the chocolate.
I think this challenge will continue with new customers, but it will be our pleasure to share our love of chocolate with them.
GW: What about challenges you faced once things were up and running?
AR: I think presently, as we’re growing, with two locations and double the number of employees, the biggest issues we have is with training , whether it’s in production or customer service.
Ensuring the consistency in flavor and quality of our chocolates is extremely important, and that goes hand in hand with the customer service necessary to understand the depth of flavor of the chocolates.
With an artisanal business, a lot of the knowledge comes from experience, especially in the kitchen. Chocolate is an extremely temperamental ingredient that takes the right level of coaxing to ensure that each one of the five steps of making a chocolate bonbon are done correctly.
But training our kitchen staff is an ongoing challenge. We only hire those who have graduated from pastry schools around the nation, but, overall, it seems like there is a major lack of training in chocolate-making. Because of that, almost every person who joins our kitchen team has to be trained starting with the very basics of chocolate.
GW: Can you describe some obstacles you’ve encountered as an entrepreneur who is a woman?
AR: One of the biggest obstacles I’ve had to face as a woman has always been with establishing a sense of authority, whether it was with a new vendor or a male employee.
I have always felt like I have to dress more professionally and have an authoritative attitude to ensure respect as the owner, which usually means being more aggressive or overly harsh.
"I have always felt like I have to dress more professionally and have an authoritative attitude to ensure respect as the owner."
Being taken seriously as a business owner has always been difficult . But female founders should stay strong on their path of entrepreneurship, not only to be successful in their endeavors but to help create opportunities for other women.
One way we can counter gender bias and pay gap is by taking the reins and pushing forward. At Cacao & Cardamom, we have an all-female team and we love to promote a company culture of strong women.