By Jeffrey Buck
Pete Steffy moved thousands of miles away to teach English only to find a deeper enjoyment and passion for something he’s always loved – chocolate.
After graduating from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio in 2008 with a degree in Sociology only to discover a sour job market back home in metro Detroit, Steffy chose to take a teaching fellowship in the small city of San Cristóbal de las Casas in southern Mexico. While there, he befriended a fellow American who would offer him the chance of a lifetime.
“I had a friend there, another American guy, he was really good at making friends with everybody and would get super excited about ideas and get other people excited too,” said Steffy. “He made friends with this guy (Iván Arce) who ran a small chocolate shop in town and it was awesome. They had truffles, really good hot chocolate and coffee.
“He made friends with the owner and convinced him to give a private class to a hand full of people. He asked if I wanted to take the class very last minute, and I like food and I like chocolate, and like learning how to make new things, so I did it. It was a week where we would go to this guy’s shop everyday and learn about all of the stuff he did. We each paid him like $50. And it was awesome and very fun.”
Steffy had no prior formal training in making chocolate other than making an ex-girlfriend a box of truffles for Valentine’s Day once. When he returned back home, he turned to the notes and knowledge that he gained in Mexico and experimented in his Hamtramck duplex, equipped with a simple residential kitchen.
“When I first started doing it on my own I did a lot of experimenting and trying different flavors,” explained Steffy. “I read some books, read stuff on the Internet and focused on the hand rolled truffles, which are kind of unique because usually at chocolate shops you get molded or dipped truffles where it has a hard shell and soft ganache on the inside.”
Although Steffy was taught how to make hand-rolled truffles-unique because you don’t see many in typical chocolate shops-he decided to continue his formal education and enrolled at Schoolcraft College.
“I ended up experimenting with molded truffles and stuff on my own and then took a class at Schoolcraft College at the culinary school,” recalls Steffy. “I took chocolatier courses and we actually never touched on hand rolled truffles, but we did do molded truffles, centerpieces and other fancy things made out of chocolate.”
Hand rolled truffles are difficult to find, but Steffy said they’re actually not that hard to make right at home. He’s even had people make comments to him about how they’ve made them at home before. But what they fail to realize is that Steffy focuses his attention on the ingredients he uses, the “key” according to him in standing out amongst others.
“It’s all about doing it with good quality ingredients, working on recipes and doing it well,” said Steffy. “I try to use local organic quality ingredients. I use Michigan cherries. My mocha truffle is flavored with coffee from HenriettaHaus, a coffee company out of Wyandotte.
“I also want to learn more about Fair Trade Chocolate. There are a lot of human rights issues in the chocolate industry. It’s hard to know where it comes from, where the beans come from. It’s also very expensive to get Fair Trade chocolate. I’ve read about Rainforest Alliance certification but am having a hard time finding where to get certified chocolate locally. When my business grows and I make more money to support that I will. I plan to switch a soon a I can afford it.”
Selling chooclate out of a residential kitchen was at one time illegal but the Cottage Food Law has made it possible for people like Steffy to bake and cook out of residential kitchens not inspected by the Department of Agriculture. This law allows him to sell his chocolates at events such as farmer’s markets, craft shows like Ferndale’s Rust Belt Market and other special events. He cannot, however, wholesale any of his products and must state on his label that his chocolate is made in a kitchen that has not been inspected.
“It used to be illegal to sell anything that wasn’t made in a certified kitchen,” explains Steffy. “The law is for mostly people who sell at farmer’s markets, events and stuff like that. There are limits as to what you can do. I don’t think you can do pickled stuff and other things that have a greater risk of making people sick. The only thing you need to do is make sure you label it. All of my stuff has a label on it that says ‘Made in a kitchen not inspected by the Department of Agriculture’ and has printed ingredients lists. I can sell in markets and to special events, but I can’t wholesale.”
Steffy has catered for several special events put on by local businesses. He has worked with Team Detroit and the Burton Theatre. Last December was a very busy month for Steffy who had to fill one of his biggest orders, a holiday party, while still fulfilling previous commitments to other clients.
“I was working two jobs, almost 50 hours a week,” said Steffy. “And they wanted around 500 truffles for almost 600 guests and a couple hundred chocolate mousse cups. They also wanted a couple hundred chocolate covered strawberries, plus I was filling other orders people had placed. So I think there was a week in December where I slept like four hours and was constantly in the kitchen when I wasn’t at work.”
As more people have tried his chocolates, word has started to spread around town about where and how to get them. The news on his chocolates seemed to really spread in the beginning when several friends were buying and passing them on to other friends. Steffy’s friend, Courtney Smith, was a large promoter in the beginning.
“Courtney Smith, who works at Café D’Mongo’s, was a big promoter,” recalls Steffy. “She bought boxes and gave truffles out to customers and people she liked at the café. Toby Barlow had tried my stuff and liked it. He organized some other events. I’ve relied on word of mouth spreading. I received a ton of orders online without doing any sort of formal advertising. I can’t take online orders and ship stuff through the cottage law though. People can pre-order online and either have them delivered by me or pick them up. I sold over 100 boxes online without doing any promotion at all. It was all word of mouth.”
With such a high demand growing Steffy is pleased with his company’s positive growth rate. The cost of chocolate is rising but obtaining it through a local source has proven to be much easier than he had initially anticipated. Working with vendors out of Eastern Market, only a couple of miles from his home, Steffy is able to buy large quantities of ingredients needed.
“I go through it (chocolate) pretty fast,” explains Steffy. “I can get it from the Hirt Company. It’s a cheeses and meats business. They have a warehouse space open during week and I didn’t need to setup an account. I was really excited when I found that out because it was sort of overwhelming at first where to get stuff and if you have to set up an account. To find a place two miles from my house that I can just drop in at any day was great. I don’t have to buy a certain amount and the chocolate comes in 11 pound blocks.”
A coffee shop selling chocolate, espresso and hot chocolate is something Steffy sees in his future, just not anything immediate. He is enjoying the pace of his growth, but would like to get a commercial kitchen in order to start excepting wholesale orders. With time and hard work, something he has already poured plenty of in, he hopes to one day call this his full time job.
“The main reason I want to (expand) is because then I could wholesale,” said Steffy. “I have had several different places approach me asking about ordering my chocolate to sell, but I can’t do it now. That may not be anytime soon. I am content with my setup now. I’m focusing on getting good steady business and maybe do this as a full time job. Eventually having a store front, more like a coffee shop, is something I would like to do, but I’m not pushing for that now. I like this sort of organic growth as people find out about it and get excited about it. I have a good customer base.”
Steffy’s work doesn’t stop in the kitchen and getting to the point of opening a small storefront or getting a larger kitchen space requires other work that many may overlook. The boxes, labels and other material items do not create themselves. Nights are spent printing labels, assembling boxes and stamping logos all while catching a movie.
“I do everything myself,” said Steffy. “There are nights when I’m sitting in my apartment for four hours watching Twin Peaks and stamping and folding boxes and printing labels.”
The logos and all writing were done by a friend who helped him create something that was much different than what the majority of people associate with chocolate.
“It was all Sammy Lewis, who is a friend of mine,” said Steffy. “I had a little bit of graphic design training and I made my own packaging and it looked okay, but then I asked her to help me out and I’m really happy with what she came up with using brown kraft boxes and stamps to put my logo on them. She drew the text and the little truffle man. I chose to go with that sort of aesthetic because I dislike the usual types associated with them like cursive “
It’s very apparent that Steffy loves chocolate. He’s traveled through Europe, entrenched himself in the culture, kept notes and brought back ideas for new recipes. He’s on a mission to make a high quality product for the everyday chocolate lover.
“It’s an exciting luxury good but it doesn’t have to be all fancy and high brow,” explains Steffy. “You know…chocolate for the people (raising fist)!.”
For more information on Pete, his chocolate company and where you can get his truffles click here