The Sweet Life: Connecting the Choco-Dots with Michael Schneider
Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz said, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt.” If anyone is likely to agree with that, it’s Michael Schneider. It’s an understatement to say that chocolate has both shaped and sweetened his life. We can trace this back to the early ‘80s when he founded The Chocolatier, a first-of-its-kind magazine, which published until 2008. Schneider’s decades in decadence included globetrotting, running pastry competitions, and some pretty sweet collaborations with the Food Network.
In 2008, Schneider, a native New Yorker, took his creative spirit westward and opened Rimini, an upscale chocolate and gelato shop in Beaver Creek and Vail, Colorado. Rimini’s final product is a small, gorgeous looking preservative-free chocolate with a short shelf life (three weeks) that sells for $3 each and comes in flavors such as salted caramel, Italian espresso, and banana rum.
Schneider has found a sweet spot, and the timing couldn’t be better. According to Research and Markets, the global chocolate market will reach $182.090 billion by 2025, compared to $137.599 billion in 2019. Moreover, middle-class populations in developing countries such as China and Brazil have seen an explosion in enthusiasm for the stuff. Research and Markets also reports that competition among the major players remains strong with no signs of slowing anytime soon. WalletHub recently predicted that of the $21.6 billion anticipated in 2021 Easter related spending, $3 billion would be on candy.
Schneider took This is Capitalism on a tour of how things look from the other side of the glass counter. Edited excerpts are below.
Q: You’ve been in business since 2008. How does one “innovate” a chocolate shop?
A: Last year, I decided it was time to try and put them online. And naturally, I decided to do this right before a pandemic. I have to be very careful with the website, and I have to depend on others because I can’t answer questions like: “how does [the website] know where you live to charge the tax? How does it know where you live? What is the weather going to be like at that time?” I’m at the mercy of these kinds of things as opposed to what I know.
Q: What is one of the things about running this business that you grapple with most?
A: I get a little annoyed with marketing things. In the niche chocolate world, we don’t use “bittersweet,” “semi-sweet,” “milk,” or “dark.” Instead, we say “35% bar,” “50% bar,” and so on, which is going to make people feel like they’re knowledgeable.
Principally, chocolate consists of the solids, also known as the liquor, and the [cocoa butter.] If I take two 75% chocolate bars made by different people, they could be completely different in composition. One could be made of 50% liquor and 25% [cocoa] butter, and the other bar could be made with 25% liquor and 50% [cocoa] butter. They’re both 75% as you bought them, but one has a strong flavor, and it’s sort of gritty. The other has a weak flavor, but it’s very creamy. They’re both 75% chocolate bars and could not taste or feel any differently.
Q: What role has access to capital played in the trajectory of your career?
A: I’ve never met the financial person I honestly thought understood what I was doing, and that’s not necessarily bad. I’ve gone to a bank for small loans, maybe $100,000 [but] I’d rather just do it my way. It’ll take longer, but I’ll get where I’m going. I can self-finance but don’t need to as the stores are profitable.
Q: Do you have a business philosophy or manifesto?
A: I haven’t worked for anyone else since 1982 or ‘83. I’m thrilled about that. I knew early in my life I wasn’t built to work for others. I have my own set of values: to never sacrifice quality for price and to [treat employees like friends,] and I’m very happy with how it has turned out. But it’s hard to get the public’s attention, especially in a technological age, and I’m not a technological person. So, I’m going to make the best chocolates I can and, hopefully, sell them in the stores, and that works well. I get about 15,000 different heads a year walking into the store, and it’s a fairly upscale clientele in Beaver Creek and Vail.
Q: The chocolate market has heated up. Where do you see Rimini headed in light of that?
A: I’m not looking to become a major player. In fact, I don’t want to be a major player. My goal is to be a small but appreciated, successful player in the field. I’m hoping someday to sell a quarter of a million pieces to half a million pieces. If I can do that in a year, I would feel thoroughly and completely satisfied.
Q: At some point, every entrepreneur has to grapple with the concept of capitalism. Care to share your thoughts on that?
A: I think capitalism is probably the most important thing we can do as a country philosophy. Capitalism is everything to me. Now, that doesn’t mean that individuals don’t give it a bad name. And it doesn’t mean that Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” concept is necessary. But, I don’t know of anything else that spurs on innovation and allows anyone to achieve [like capitalism can.]