Forte Chocolates: A luxurious experienceJan 20th, 2012 | By Editor | Category: Community, Features, Food
by Jessamyn Tuttle
Karen Neugebauer, chocolatier and owner of Forte Chocolates, entered the chocolate business purely by accident. With three business degrees and 11 years working at Costco, she wasn’t looking for a new occupation. But when a back injury sidelined her she was forced to do something else to allow herself time to recover. She decided to try culinary school, and converted her husband (a chocoholic) to the idea by suggesting she concentrate on pastry and chocolate.
She hadn’t thought much about working specifically with chocolate until the first time she made a ganache, a mixture of warm chocolate and cream that melds and becomes more than the sum of its parts. She felt an instant connection. “There’s something magical about ganache, like having a baby or getting married. I knew we were going to spend the rest of our lives together.”
Her new vocation was deeply motivating, and by the end of the year-long program her back was healed, she had received awards for her work, and had job offers at the Seattle Hilton and Caesar’s Palace. Instead she went back to work at Costco and started a small chocolate company on the side, just to see if she could.
Five years later Forte Chocolates is a thriving business with a commercial kitchen in Mount Vernon and a small showroom, soon to be expanded and open to the public. Her chocolates are carried in stores around the Northwest, available for order online and sold at local farmers markets, an especially important outlet for Neugebauer. She and her husband try to personally attend the last market of the season in Bellingham every year. “With wholesale you lose that connection with the consumer. I treasure the markets.”
Neugebauer says it’s important to her to remain a small, focused, artisan business with roots in the community. “Our clients are our friends and our family.”
She keeps her small staff on their toes with her insistence on quality, but does her best to keep a work-life balance for all of them. “I do business my own way. I have my kids with me all the time, and I encourage my staff to bring their kids in.”
She also works hard to teach and encourage other people. She welcomes observers into her kitchen, offers home classes on chocolate use and appreciation, works with Skagit Valley College’s culinary program, and each year takes one apprentice and trains them to start their own shop. “I want to inspire others,” she said, knowing how hard it can be to start a business from scratch.
Forte makes many different award-winning chocolate products, from raspberry truffles to chipotle caramels, plain chocolate bars and delicate dark chocolate tulips (designed for Neugebauer’s son, a borderline diabetic).
She chooses chocolate from all over the world, based on its flavor and working qualities. Like wine, the quality of cacao varies greatly from one year to the next. She creates blends to keep her chocolate bars consistent, but allows terroir to shine in her single-variety truffles. “There’s good chocolate everywhere. I seek out the best chocolates regardless of who makes them,” she said. An extremely rare variety of cacao, called Fortunato No. 4, has recently been discovered in Peru and Forte is one of the few chocolatiers in the country selected to work with it. “Our chocolate is a luxurious, sensual experience. Instead of using heavy roasts, we source the beans that are complex and subtle,” Neugebauer said.
Despite what she calls her “roundabout way of getting here,” Neugebauer is happy with the work she’s chosen. “I have an artistic background. Chocolate gives me the opportunity to sculpt, as well as a chemistry set to play with… it allows me to do my art in so many ways. I would never turn back.”
Forte Chocolates can be reached at (360) 629-6500 or 1400 Riverside Drive, Suite D in Mount Vernon. For more information, visit www.fortechocolates.com.