After long stints in the US Navy and Information Technology, Robin found her gift for creating beautiful, unique, and delicious individual chocolate masterpieces.
Tell us a little about your background…
We were a fairly “normal” family. My dad was a Methodist Minister and my mom worked as a nurse’s aide until she returned to college and graduated at 40 with her RN and later got her Master’s in Geriatric Nursing. As a kid, my interests were all over the place. I took ballet and wanted to be a ballerina, then an actress, and even thought about robotics. When I went off to college, my major was theatre arts.
Unfortunately, college did not seem to be the right fit for me; I was in too much of a hurry to start my life. So after freshman year, I quit and moved to New York City, sharing an apartment with 4 other would-be actors. When I finally realized that interviews would not pay for groceries and waiting tables did not cover the rent, I took a job as a receptionist. That led to a job as a sales assistant at a radio advertising company.
While working there, a client encouraged me to apply for a copywriting and commercial production job in nearby Danbury, CT. I got the job and moved back to the country. I wrote commercials and produced them myself. It was fun but when I met “the love of my (very young) life,” I quit my job and moved to Greenwich, CT where he opened a running shoe store. He got me into running and I in turn got my mom into running.
However, young love being what it is, it ended and I moved on to my first job in the food industry that wasn’t as a server. It was for a private publishing house. I applied there as a secretary but didn’t type fast enough so they offered me a job running the private kitchen. They had asked if I could cook and I said of course! I mean, it couldn’t be that hard, right?
The weekend before I started, I bought the book I have always been interested in fashion. I carried a purse at the age of 2, convinced my mother that she had to buy me a purple velvet top and skirt from Saks Fifth Avenue at the age of 9, and fashioned a denim mini-skirt using scraps of old jeans at 12. I moved to New York City at 17 to attend Barnard College and spent weekends scavenging through racks in vintage clothing stores and frequenting the trendy stores Fiorucci and Reminiscence as often as possible.
I bought the book The Professional Chef by The Culinary Institute of America. I showed up for work at 4 am and made a gourmet mac and cheese recipe for the daily lunch special—I remade it 3 times before I got it right. After a year, I realized I needed to move on and away from the area.
The sunny state of Florida was next. It was not a good move. I didn’t like the direction my life was going in—no career plans, no real future plans, and a lot of my friends were into drugs and alcohol. Shortly after my 24th birthday, I signed up to join the US Navy for journalism, but an opening came up to be trained as an electronics technician sooner—I jumped at the chance.
When did you start to think about making a change?
After spending 12 years in the Navy in many locations around the world—and also getting married, having a baby, and getting divorced during this time—I found myself in Guam. My son would be headed for high school by the time my tour of duty would be finished. I knew I wasn’t going to end up going to Officer Candidate School, like my original intent, but I also knew that I didn’t want my son to have to change high schools often. I decided to get out of the Navy, take my satellite and electronics training, and attempt it on the outside world.
My son and I resettled to Northern Virginia and I got a job in Information Technology (IT). While it was not a passion of mine, for the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t worried about paying my bills on time or providing well for my son.
Was there something that precipitated this change of course?
I did have somewhat of an “aha” moment. I had been working for SUN Microsystems in Virginia and remarried to my husband, Chris, in 2003. Shortly after my wedding, I got sick and ended up on disability for about 6 months. After I returned to work, I realized that I wasn’t getting any younger (45 at the time) and that after all these years, I still wasn’t doing anything that I was passionate about.
My mantra through life is passion; it has to apply to who you love, what you do, and who you are, every day. After 10 years in IT, with my son now grown, I realized that I was finally in a position to apply my mantra to my work too.
What is your next act?
I own Robin Chocolates. We make artisan chocolates, confections, and pastries. Everything is made by hand from scratch using as many all-natural and organic local ingredients as possible. My store is in Longmont, CO, and we make our creations on site, in the kitchen behind the retail area.
I don’t have a single “best” creation—all my chocolates are masterpieces to me—but our best selling chocolate flavor is Chocolate Caramel Fleur de Sel. Customers will come in and get a 12-piece or larger box with just that flavor. Our most unique flavors are our Blackberry Sage, Rosemary Caramel, and Thai Green Curry. Over the years, as I learn and experiment more, my chocolates have changed. Chocolate Caramel Fleur de Sel is very different now than the first one I made—better in a very good way.
While most of the business is retail, we also do some wholesale and Internet sales. We have many regular customers—some are weekly, some monthly, and then there’s the every-other-day ones!
We differentiate ourselves with our creamier, bolder flavors. Inspiration for our flavors comes from many places. I read a lot; I ask employees to come up with ideas; I’ve even had contests for customers to name some flavors they’d like to see. I try things—some work, some definitely don’t! I’m thinking of the times I tried Blueberry, Roasted Chestnut, or Peanut Tsire (spicy herb and peanut).
I love the creative challenge, plus I get the added bonus of making people happy—it doesn’t get better than that!
The funny thing is that growing up, I was allergic to chocolate—one chocolate chip cookie and I’d itch for hours. I could, however, eat white chocolate, which definitely brought my sweet tooth to life. I don’t crave chocolate but caramel is my downfall. However I watch my weight very carefully, I don’t ever want to be a chocolatier who looks like she eats all her product! Plus, after years of doing marathons, triathlons and now kickboxing and walking, I like staying in shape.
How did you go from IT to starting a chocolate business?
SUN Microsystems moved Chris and me to Colorado in 2005. Later that year, we attended a home cooking class at Culinary School of the Rockies in Boulder (recently bought out by Escoffier). When I heard their briefing about the professional program, I was hooked.
While I lived in foreign lands working for the US Navy, I’d often hosted dinner parties for sailors and their families. I’ve always loved caring for people, and while I couldn’t handle a field like nursing, feeding folks was a good alternative.
So, at age 47, I started a 6-month savory program at the culinary school, with the intention to either become a personal chef or work in catering. I studied classic French cooking techniques using locally produced, seasonally available ingredients.
I spent the last month of my coursework in Avignon, France, where I studied with master chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants and worked at a local patisserie. I was required to taste all my creations and discovered, thankfully, that I was no longer allergic to chocolate! As it turns out, it seems I’m only allergic to some types of chocolates, maybe having to do with their ingredients or their processing.
After culinary school, I took the time to explore my options in various pastry kitchens. I started in restaurants, working at Flagstaff House in Boulder, CO. I learned a lot from working for Chef Mark Monet. Besides speed, I learned respect and care for ingredients—don’t waste a single drop, EVER! It was interesting but didn’t allow me to be creative.
I moved on to try my hand at hotel cooking, in the pastry kitchen at the Brown Palace in Denver, CO. My focus was on afternoon teacakes and cookies; it really honed my interest in small desserts that looked great and tasted better. But I didn’t like working at the Brown: The executive pastry chef never gave credit to any of the staff. However, I learned a lot about the type of manager and boss I would eventually want to be.
At home, I was making molded chocolates, experimenting with flavors and artistry, and giving them to friends. I was also brewing the idea of starting a business, to be named A Little Something, that would cater afternoon teas at people’s homes. But one day, in January 2008, I gave some of my chocolates to a friend, who shared them with her sister, who in turn shared them with her employer, a florist shop owner in Broomfield, CO. I got a call shortly after from the florist, asking if they could order some for Valentine’s Day.
I turned in my notice at the Brown and looked for a rental kitchen. That first order was 12 four-piece boxes and included four flavors: Chocolate Caramel Fleur de Sel, Raspberry, Espresso, and Orange Spice Caramel. I kept the original name, A Little Something, for close to a year before I changed it to Robin Chocolates—the title just had to say something about what I was actually doing!
How supportive were your family and friends?
My mom was excited about my new business, partly because she was a chocoholic and partly because she always believed that I could do whatever I put my mind to. My husband was also supportive, although he was more realistic and pointed out some of the hard things I would face. He is also an entrepreneur and knew way more than I did about all the legal paperwork I would face.
What challenges did you encounter?
The hardest challenge was—and still is—not having an income. When I started, I had some savings, but those dwindled to $0 rather quickly. Luckily, my husband covered day to day living expenses, so I was able to concentrate on growing my business. The first year, my company’s sales and income were tiny; the second, they more than doubled; and the third year, they doubled again. We still see an increase every year—although not quite as dramatic.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Yes, and I still do from time to time. Without seeing a paycheck, my only reward right now is praise—it pushes me to improve. I’m getting closer to being able to pay myself, but my employees and ingredients come first. Without either of those, I would no longer have a company!
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
A lot. I have learned how to work with chocolate, mostly through books, since culinary school was all about savory. I have found that I can learn new things—so much for old dogs—and that I do have what it takes to strive to the top.
My husband once said that I give 150% to anything I pursue. Whether it’s bodybuilding (I won a couple of amateur contests in Spain while in the Navy), competing in triathlons, working in kitchens, or working with chocolate. I don’t like to be told I can’t because, deep inside, I know I can.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
Be prepared—financially, emotionally, and physically.
To be prepared financially, I saved up for years to be able to pay for culinary school outright, no loans. Everything I have goes into this business.
Be prepared emotionally. Much of my part-time retail staff is high schoolers. I have to be a boss, a mom, a shrink. It’s really hard and lots of times I flounder. Lots of times I make mistakes. My best move was advancing my pastry chef (who also changed careers) from an underling to top of the pastries in my kitchen. I’ve learned to let go and let her do her thing – and her thing is not only tasty but fun and beautiful.
I still have a lot to learn about being a boss and chocolatier and sometimes it really discourages me. On those days, you slog through and hope the next day is better.
The physical part is also hard. When it’s chocolate season (mid-October through Mother’s Day), I work 80-90 or more hours a week, 7 days a week. My illness from many years ago came back to haunt me in the form of rheumatoid arthritis. Many days, I just want to stay in bed but I can’t. Once I get moving I’m good, but some days, I just wish I didn’t have to.
Study your craft. I read – a lot – about working in kitchens, on pastries and chocolates. Try to get some internship experience. Lots of times, a kitchen will let you do a stage (mini internship); basically, you work your butt off for a few days and don’t get paid. When I was in culinary school, I did a 2-week internship at Tru Restaurant in Chicago, whose Executive Pastry Chef, Gail Gand, I had long admired. I learned about quality ingredients, beauty, and taste.
And never stop learning, experimenting, searching out for others to hit ideas around with. When you try new things (I do this with new flavors), get lots of opinions—my customers are always willing to be guinea pigs for new products!
What resources do you recommend?
A great book about kitchens is by Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (P.S.) It shows some of the sordid sides of kitchens and lots of the vices (drinking and drugs) that can abound in this life.
The best chocolate recipe book I ever used is by Peter Greweling, Chocolates and Confections at Home with The Culinary Institute of America The first ganache recipe I ever tried was from him. This past Christmas Eve, he visited my kitchen—his sister lives in the area and is a frequent visitor. I was like a teenager meeting a pop star. And the most awesome part is that he invited me to visit his classroom. He is the chocolates and confections chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. I dreamed of going there once.
I have several books on chocolate. I don’t read them cover to cover but instead look through recipes. I’ll try a recipe word for word and then redo the recipe and put my spin on it. Another favorite book is The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs
by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. It pairs flavors and can be a great source of inspiration. One of my customer’s favorite chocolates is Blackberry Sage. The idea came from that book.
What’s next for you?
If I do have a next, I wouldn’t mind teaching. I like helping people learn, if they are passionate about it, detail oriented, and willing to put in the time. One of my employees started as a dishwasher when she was 19. She has since become my right hand person, making all the confections and helping me with chocolate. After 3 years, she is moving on and it will be hard to replace her!
Another wonderful employee started in retail and moved into assisting with chocolate. She now attends culinary school and comes back on holidays. It’s been wonderful to watch her grow up and see her passion develop.
If I won a huge lottery (although I found out you have to buy tickets!), I would still do this, only it would be to help people. For the afternoon retail kids, this is their first job. For the older ones, it’s a means to an end to help pay off school loans, pay rent and food, etc. It’s nice to be able to provide jobs for members of the local community. I also want to do volunteer work at animal shelters and homeless soup kitchens, just something to help others.
Contact Robin Autorino at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit the store, Robin Chocolates, 600 S Airport Rd in Longmont CO. 720-204-8003. And check them out online at www.robinchocolates.com