Nathan Miller Interview with Adam from Fog City News in San Francisco

We're excited to share our first California Partner is Fog City News in San Francisco! Adam & I had the pleasure of meeting during the Good Food Awards 2015 trip. He was interested in learning more about our company so he could spread the word to his team & customers, we thought you might like to learn a bit about us as well. 

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ADAM: Hi Nathan, as part of introducing your line here, I would love to run an interview with you in my store newsletter. We consider it part of our mission at Fog City News to - not just offer a broad selection of the finest chocolate we can find - but to educate customers about chocolate and the producers we sell... I want them to know how your company came about and what the mission is. I did some research online but didn’t find as much as I was hoping for. Do you think you would have time in the next couple of weeks to answer some of these questions?

NATHAN: Adam, these questions are great! Sometimes when your life is a company or industry, it’s difficult to come up with the questions our partners & customers may have. Thank you.

BEFORE NATHAN MILLER CHOCOLATE

ADAM: I read that you had always loved playing with your food and it sounds like you knew what you wanted to do right out of high school. Can you tell me more about that experience at the bakery in Germany? Did that shape the direction you ended up going in? Are there things about how you run your business now that point back to that bakery?

NATHAN: The Bakery Uwe Behnisch where I apprenticed in Strehla, Germany was my first dive into pastry after high school at a three-generation traditional bakery. There, I was put through a true first year apprenticeship experience. My job was to do anything Uwe & his father, Johannes asked. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of time cleaning before graduating to assisting the bakers. When I was entrusted with forming rolls, breads, donuts, & cakes this was my first experience working independently in the pastry kitchen. What I didn’t anticipate then was that I would ultimately become a pastry chef myself. Years later, the foundation that I started building in Stehla shaped my career & passions as a chef. Uwe & Johannes taught me the value of hands on production, a core value in my pastry kitchen today.

ADAM: What had been your exposure to fine chocolate prior to arriving at the CIA? Most people in the chocolate business have had a chocolate epiphany somewhere along the way; a chocolate they tasted that changed the way they thought about chocolate forever. Did you have a moment like that?

NATHAN: Before attending CIA, European travels to France, Belgium, & Germany served as my foundation education on fine chocolate. It wasn’t until years later that I tried Michel Cluizel’s single estate chocolate, the complexity of flavor transformed me instantly. Immediately, I knew I had no choice but to leave my station as Pastry Chef at the Kitchen in Boulder, Colorado & become a chocolate manufacturer. That day I began planning what now is Nathan Miller Chocolate.

ADAM: And then, I assume, that good quality chocolate was just part of the equation at the bakery, in cooking school, and at the restaurants you did stages at. Did you witness much familiarity with the bean-to-bar chocolate making process? Were there chefs you worked with who had an interest, but perhaps not the time or equipment?

NATHAN: Good chocolate was always part of the equation at bakeries, in school at CIA, & restaurants I did stages at. At the time, the world of coverture chocolate was dominated by Valrhona & Barry Callebaut. There was no understanding of the bean-to-bar process in the kitchen. Chefs traditionally were dedicated to meticulously formulating recipes, long before the time of recipe labs where chefs now have the opportunity to put their scientific creativity to work with emersion circulators, freeze dry machines, oil extractors, & vacuum ovens. I will stop my dream lab list there, it could continue on for some time. Now, the world is full of equipment & information about where ingredients are sourced. This evolution has contributed to chefs growing involvement in ingredient sourcing.

ADAM: So then how did your chocolate making come about? Was it something you were doing at home? or did the restaurants where you were working actually have some of the equipment to do this with?

NATHAN: While working at the Kitchen in Boulder, I build a miniature basement chocolate laboratory in my house. I spoke to an investor early on but decided to go it alone & began sourcing machines from friends, other chefs, & online. I didn’t have much to spend & pieced together a bare bones operation to get started. This project quickly grew into a business & I joined a community kitchen in Boulder to produce chocolate & create my brand. The Kitchen was my first client & their commitment to building a community through food was a big part of Nathan Miller Chocolate’s early success. The Kitchen continues to stock our bars in Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, & Chicago. JJ from JJ’s Sweets Cocomels helped me along as well, consulting on dipping for the popular chocolate covered coconut caramels in between Nathan Miller Chocolate’s orders in the early days. I also was at Wholefoods part time for awhile, it was a really good experience for me to interact with food from a consumer perspective when I was getting started. 

ADAM: I assume that as you grew more passionate about chocolate, you tasted a lot of what was on the market. Are there other bean to bar chocolate makers who were particularly inspirational for you? I think that Scharffen Berger essentially launched the artisan chocolate making movement in the U.S. - were they on the radar there in PA in the late 1990’s?

NATHAN: I encountered Scharffen Berger when CIA opened the Apple Pie Bakery where pastry students worked towards the end of their program. Michel Cluizel was my first inspirations, from there I tried a lot of chocolate. I have a lot of respect for Steve De Vries, Patric, & Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolatier.

THE LAUNCH OF NATHAN MILLER CHOCOLATE

ADAM: Was the focus more on opening a cafe, with chocolate making on the side, or vice versa?

NATHAN: We relocated our manufacturing operation from Boulder, Colorado to make chocolate. We opened the café to sell our bars locally & build a relationship with the community. My pastry chef reflexes kicked in, now we have pastry, dessert, & weekend brunch. We owe our entire espresso menu to two cases of good beer, two cases of bad beer, & Oak at 14th. The owners, Brian & Steve are friends of mine from my days as a pastry chef & gave us the espresso machine in trade (after months of hounding).

ADAM: When you told friends and family that you were starting a chocolate making operation did they understand what that meant? 

NATHAN: No one was surprised. My dad is here helping out in the kitchen as I write this, my parents are very supportive of my goals. My friends gave me the nickname ‘Chocolate Nate.’

ADAM: Had you been involved in a startup before? I try to explain to people that being an entrepreneur is sort of like being in a club. You can’t really understand what it’s like to start a business unless you’ve done it yourself. 

NATHAN: I’ve had the pleasure of opening teams for many companies & consulting, this is my first time as the ringleader. 

ADAM: We often hear stories of entrepreneurs being discouraged from starting chocolate making businesses - that it's not as glorious as it sounds. It can be real physical work! One chocolatier told me the idea originally sounded fun but also "scary" at the same time. Did family and friends have the same reaction? 

NATHAN: After almost 20 years in the restaurant industry, I knew what I was in for. The scary part for me was paying out of my own pocket & making sure I could survive the start up years.

ADAM: For as much design, planning, and testing that you might have done, it’s just a big unknown when you first open the doors. What was the response like? Did sales pick up as quickly as you anticipated?

NATHAN: Our design was simply to bring out the original architecture in the historic industrial factory now housing the Café, event room, & manufacturing kitchen. We had nothing to go off of for demand as Chambersburg didn’t have much in the way of artisanal manufacturing in the community. Truly, we had no idea what to expect. Our first week I had to bring out the weed wacker, we were getting killed! The community really embraces our focus on sourcing café ingredients locally & having us in town.

BUSINESS SO FAR

ADAM: Your business does many things at once - chocolate making (which involves being a cacao trader, a machinist, and a chemist too!), confectionery, bakery, a retail location, a restaurant -  and kitchens and staff to oversee!  Is there any one area that is more enjoyable than another? 

NATHAN: Making chocolate & dreaming up new ideas.

ADAM: How do you divide your time between those areas? 

NATHAN: Adam, I am not sure how to answer this. Chelsea & I do most of the work, we have four employees that help out part time on the café side that also washes molds & helps us keep the kitchen ‘Red Up’ (ready up) as they say here. Pastry production happens every morning for an hour or two, then I switch to chocolate mode. I roast, winnow, temper, & mold every bar that leaves our kitchen. Calls, emails, & research happen while I wait for chocolate to temper. Chelsea, my fiancée & business partner runs the front of house, designs the labels, oversees the team, & handles the books. Our employees, family, & friends wrap the bars by hand in house. I like to spend any free time I come across pranking the team, it’s important to have fun.

ADAM: Is it an uphill battle trying to wean customers off Hershey’s chocolate? 

NATHAN: Initially the locals were suspicious of a couple of newcomers selling chocolate bars for significantly more than Hershey’s price, we offer complimentary tastings and this slowly has won over the community. We’re very lucky to be close to several major cities such as D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, & New York City where bean to bar chocolate manufacturing has an established place in the market.ADAM: Is there a growing culture of food appreciation in PA? Do you think your chocolate making is playing a part in that? 

NATHAN: I think so, we do our best to make our customers aware of other local good foods & they bring us company recommendations as well since we like to work with craft producers. I think we have the farm to table movement to thank for the changing landscape of small business in the food industry; it’s helped us out.

ADAM: Either where you are now, or over the course of your years doing stages, have you noticed a change in the mentality or the sophistication of the chocolate consumer?

NATHAN: I work hard to give connoisseurs good chocolate that’s made by people who are being treated well. I think a chocolate connoisseur today is more aware of sustainable & responsible sourcing than they would have been 20 years ago.

ADAM: Do you have a favorite bar? Or is each like a child and you love them all for different reasons?

NATHAN: Now that you mention it, I designed my chocolate bar menu like I would design a dessert menu. I carefully selected bar flavors to please a variety of palate, taking care to make sure each is exactly right. The chef in me is constantly dreaming up new bars & evaluating the line. For instance, you had a wonderful idea to try the Chili + Streusel dark chocolate bar with our 55% Buttermilk chocolate. We’re going to play around with this in the kitchen & send you some of the test batch to taste.

ADAM: Have there been any bars that surprised you, either as successes or failures?

NATHAN: The Gingerbread bar has been a surprise favorite; I didn’t anticipate the high demand. The Ghana 70% dark chocolate bar we were a winner with for 2015 Good Food Awards was a customer favorite, so we took their input & sent it in, great surprise there! Our limited run batches can get some crazy results, there was a Nicaraguan mini batch that ended up tasting like stale nuts, bad surprise!

ADAM: Any particular reason why your Madagascar bar is 73.5%

NATHAN: It’s a little ridiculous & silly, we’re okay with making fun of chocolate a little bit so long as it tastes good. It’s a great bar with tasting notes of blackberry & pomegranate; I think that extra .5% gives it that something special.

ADAM: Most of your cacao seems to be organic and/or fair trade cacao. Is that important to you?

NATHAN: Yes, working with farmers that are treated well and focused on great quality seems natural. We’re small producers trying to make a great product, we work with small farms that are working hard to make good ingredients. We are focused on sustainable & responsible sourcing such as Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Organic, IPM (integrated pest management), & such for all ingredients.

 ADAM: My staff loves the cloth wrappers on your bars. What’s it actually made out of, and how did you decide on that?

 NATHAN: My friend Carin Reich in Boulder is a great designer & brand specialist who helped me figure out the initial look of the bars. She also helped me dodge a really poor name choice, Massive Chocolate. I’m very thankful to Carin for her help. We met at the local craft paper shop, Two Hands Papery & selected the Lotka paper. The feel & colors were too good to pass up. It reflected the look I wanted, rustic & a little elegant. The paper is made by hand in Napal.




Nathan Miller
Nathan Miller

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