Unwrapping the Secret to Building a Chocolate Empire
Maggie Louise Confections rules the high-end chocolate market with a $2.2 million business.
Written by Joleen Jernigan
Photography by Leslie Hodge
“Who doesn’t have a bad day at work and think, ‘Oh if I only had a chocolate shop or lived on a beach and worked at a bar’?” Maggie Callahan, founder of Maggie Louise Confections, asks.
Chocolate represents indulgence for some and comfort for others. For founder Callahan of Maggie Louise Confections, chocolate surely must represent a turning point in her life—a complete about-face, in fact. Maggie Louise Confections, founded in 2013, was recently listed by Inc. 5000 as one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States. Callahan spoke to foundingAUSTIN about how satisfying it is to do something she loves and how she began and scaled her business.
Callahan, educated at Virginia Tech and Harvard Law School, was working as a lawyer, first for a top law firm in New York City, then with a San Francisco-based start-up venture capital company. Callahan excelled at her high-paced, well-paying job. However, that metaphorical tiny voice in the back of her mind kept reminding her she had a creative side she was not making time for. Her husband was transferred to Austin, a city abuzz with creative energy, and the tiny voice became louder. She explains, “The city was so vibrant, and I wanted to be part of that energy.”
Callahan left her successful law career behind and started exploring creative avenues to pursue. She enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu Austin. She’d briefly considered attending the one in Paris, but with an 8-month old child at home, that wasn’t ideal. When her class began in on the chocolate lesson, something clicked for Callahan. She noticed that chocolate was not merely delicious, but it was also a sculptural medium. She explains, “you can play with it, shape it, paint it, color it, and tell stories with it. It is so cool, like playing!”
Working with, sculpting, and designing beautiful chocolates was so much fun for Callahan, she was certain everyone was doing it. But she did some research, and really couldn’t find anything comparable on the market. The existing high-end chocolatiers were focusing only on taste, and their chocolate was brown and only came in traditional shapes such as squares, rectangles, and ovals. They weren’t creating and selling what Callahan calls “the full experience.”
As most successful entrepreneurs must, Callahan had identified a gap, a need in the market. She bet on the chocolate market being ready for something more whimsical and fun but still premium quality. Callahan started with some jewel and fleur-de-lis molds, molding the chocolates, hand-painting, and packaging them. She rented space in a commercial kitchen and launched Maggie Louise Confections.
At first Callahan’s product was “a little unplanned” as her creative instincts led her to make luxury chocolates that appealed to her own heart. As many founders report, it wasn’t easy. The commercial kitchen where Maggie Louise Confections was born had space available only from 10 p.m.-2 a.m.. Callahan worked this night shift without proper equipment, making and painting her precious chocolates using the highest-quality ingredients, creating gorgeous looking and delicious gourmet treats. She admits with a laugh, “It was horribly inefficient.”
Though Callahan may have left her law career behind, she retained her razor-sharp intelligence and keen mind for business. She kept on plugging away, concocting chocolate goodies by night, working on the actual business by day. She is grateful that this model gave her time to focus on both aspects of her business, no matter how physically tiring it was. She warns, “You can get in trouble as a maker if peak times are spent making and not building.”
Her chocolate collections expanded from jewels and fleurs-de-lis to include crowns, fans, lipsticks, and chocolates with hand-painted personal messages on them. She spent her days growing the business and marketing. Callahan attributes early marketing success to a few factors: Her design background and history of volunteering at museums led her to package the chocolates in a simple, elegant white box with black stripes on the side. She photographed her chocolatey creations against a stark, white background with an aesthetic that nodded at Parisian style and screamed “luxury.” She made full use of visual marketing on Facebook and Instagram, back in the glory days of organic reach. Because the chocolates themselves were so pretty and the packaging so simple, they looked fantastic in photos, and they got posted and reposted a lot.
As important as it is to start with a solid idea that fills a market need, scaling quickly is equally essential to building a business. As other businesses left the commercial kitchen, Callahan took over their slots. She knew scaling was crucial and admits to being impatient—an asset in this case. Her previous job experience helped, as Callahan already knew how to manage both a product and a team. She worked hard and went all in. She started hiring people to help her out. Her husband left his job in 2014 to join Maggie Louise Confections. Now Maggie Louise Confections employs around 50 people, and her clients include high-end brands, including Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Amazon, and Dropbox. She adds, “I don’t paint chocolate or work in the kitchen anymore … the business would be in trouble if I did.”
Callahan also emphasizes that outstanding customer service helped propel Maggie Louise Confections forward quickly. The company promises a 100 percent guarantee on products and does a lot of custom work for clients. Callahan knows customer service is key. She communicates with clients the way they want to communicate: phone, online chat, however they initiate the conversation. Her formula, combining creativity, a modern aesthetic, a beautiful, high-quality product with outstanding customer service is working for Callahan and Maggie Louise. The founder is a force to contend with in the luxury chocolate market and is destined to remain on top.