<em>Experience</em >: CHOCOLATE Logo

Chocolate lover hits home

Beacon Hill Times
Boston, Massachusetts -- November 1, 2005

by Colleen Walsh
reprinted with permission from the Beacon Hill Times

Suzanne Oakley is living a Willy Wonka dream in her corner apartment on Revere Street. That's where the former Wall Street analyst and high tech executive with an MIT business degree now devotes her life to chocolate.

"Chocolate is definitely a basic food group for me," said Oakley as she prepared a cup of gourmet hot chocolate in her bright kitchen on a cold Monday afternoon. "It always has and always will be."

Comfortably relaxed in a fitting milk chocolate colored sweater, Oakely, 42, said she was ready for a change from the corporate world and eager to do something fun. So she launched Experience: CHOCOLATE™ in September. It is a company that takes chocolate lovers to a new level with specialized chocolate tastings that navigate them through the finer points of the confection.

"I just got to the point where I wanted to do something fun and have my own business," Oakley said, adding, "it's a refreshing change from calculating the financial implications of layoffs."

A native of Pleasantville New York, Oakley said she remembered her mother, a chocolate lover, always had some kind of chocolate around to munch on as a kid, and taking regular trips to the neighborhood store for candy with her father where she headed straight for the chocolate section. "I always went for the pure stuff, even when I was little chocolate was a big part of me."

She graduated with Georgetown University with an accounting major and a minor in computer science in 1985. Two years later she moved to Beacon Hill for a job with Deloitte Haskins & Sells (now Deloitte & Touche) in its broadband cable division. In 1989 she and her college sweetheart Rick Villars, who she met the second week of school, were married. They have been fixtures on the Hill ever since.

Villars, vice president of storage systems research for IDC and a regular block captain for the Hill's holiday decorating day, has also become a valued advisor for Oakley in her new role as chief executive.

"He certainly has been a huge champion of me doing the business," she said of Villars, who she considers part of her board of directors. "If I have something in my mind, even if it's 11 at night he's very good at talking things through and providing his viewpoint."

Much like a wine tasting, Oakley sets up shop at people's homes or corporate events, brings a variety of different chocolates with a mix of flavors to sample as well as cheese, crackers and strawberries to cleanse the palette. The color, mouth feel, smell, even the sound of the chocolate as it breaks are all part of the experience as she discusses the history, beans, proper tasting techniques and makeup of white to dark chocolate and every grade in between.

"It's really become like wine," Oakley said of the complexities of chocolate, "with different bean types, where they are grown, where they are processed." Tasters are also supplied with evaluation worksheets so they can keep track of their own personal favorites.

In addition, Experience: CHOCOLATE™ has boxed sets of chocolates custom designed according to taste with selections of chocolate from around the world as well as other high-end gourmet chocolates and chocolate products available for sale.

Years of travel with her previous jobs exposed Oakley to a wide range of fine chocolate. That, combined with her own lifelong love affair with the candy and her realization over the years that different chocolates were right for different times of day and different occasions, helped put the idea in motion.

In preparation, she conducted market research with focus groups of men and women asking detailed chocolate questions. She also spent time on the West Coast at vineyards in Napa Valley, California, to pick up some tips on wine and chocolate together and to visit local chocolate manufacturers.

The work and the business plan have paid off. After just a couple of months business is booming. Oakley said she is already booked through November and has been taking reservations for 2006.

"If this pace keeps up I will be looking for someone to help me in the New Year," she said. "My goal is to grow it and franchise it."

Her biggest challenge she admits with a guilty smile, is keeping inventory in stock. "Inventory shrinkage, me going and eating my own inventory [is trouble]," she laughed. But despite supply issues, Oakley said her newfound career is a perfect fit. "I can't tell you how much fun it's been," she said. "I'm just happy to share really good chocolate with people who love it as much as I do."

When she and her husband aren't busy with work, Oakley said "we love to travel, we love to go hiking and we love to enjoy new chocolate in new places."

Chocolate pieces