Noe Valley Voice February 2004

Chocolate--the First Act for a New Cabaret

By Laura McHale Holland

Chocolate, a familiar Valentine's Day gift, has morphed substantially from its ancient beginnings. Called xocalatl by the Aztecs, it began as a spicy, frothy drink consumed exclusively by the upper classes of ancient Mezoamerica. Derived from cacao beans, it was purported to promote energy, wisdom, and understanding.

Montezuma, emperor of the Aztecs from 1480 to 1520, drank xocalatl from goblets before entering his harem. This spawned the belief that chocolate is an aphrodisiac. Modern researchers have found a plausible basis for this: chocolate contains a very high concentration of phenylethylamine, the chemical the brain produces when a person is in love.

Whether or not it's a love potion, chocolate has definitely increased in popularity over the past couple of years. And dozens of fine chocolate makers have popped up on the culinary landscape. In keeping with this delicious trend, Noe Valley resident Timothy Childs and his partner, Rob Polevoi, founded Cabaret Foods in April of 2003.

Two entrepreneurs with significant high-tech expertise but no prior food-industry experience, Childs and Polevoi designed their first product, Cabaret Dessert Chocolates, with Feb. 14 in mind. The warm red, VHS video-sized box, adorned with a retro cancan dancer, contains nine .4-ounce diamonds of chocolate, made from pure Venezuelan cacao and fresh cream. The box sells for $15.

"The impetus for the company was Rob's," says Childs, a former NASA contractor who has lived on Jersey Street for eight years. "He saw that the American palate had grown more sophisticated in terms of coffee, wine, bread, and cheese, and he thought chocolate could be the next thing."

Polevoi, who was at the time a lawyer turned 3-D animation expert, did extensive research and found that the finest cacao is grown in Venezuela. He wondered what would happen if he made confections from 100-percent Venezuelan cacao. He ordered some online and spent months experimenting in his Berkeley kitchen until he came up with a process for turning brittle cacao into chocolate that melts on the tongue. Then he approached Childs with the idea of starting a business. Their paths had crossed at a start-up company during the dot-com boom.

"I thought he was crazy and too far afield from what either of us was doing until he brought some chocolates over. I tried them and was absolutely floored by the quality of the taste. To make sure I wasn't mistaken, I tried the chocolate out on my neighbors, who are by far some of the biggest foodies I know, and they loved it, too. I figured there was some 'there there,' and I started helping him with business concepts. I was also working on the space shuttle at the time, but then my contract got put on hold, and I suddenly had some free time, and we worked out the logistics of the company," Childs recalls.

Many Noe Valleyans have already tasted the samples Childs passes out when he posts himself beside the tulips and other flowers in front of Flowers of the Valley on 24th Street near Castro. "I was pleasantly surprised by how many people will taste our chocolate and buy it right there on the spot. We've used our technology background to formulate a chocolate that has a tasting profile that releases flavor in three distinct waves of pleasure as it melts in your mouth," boasts Childs.

Childs has also received sound advice and encouragement from his neighbors and from a host of local merchants. "I don't think we'd have been able to have as much growth if it hadn't been for that. We've tested concepts locally, to see what works, and taken a lot of the feedback and put it into the product and packaging. Noe Valley's been like our 'beta' [final-stage testing] area," says Childs.

For now, Cabaret Foods is headquartered on Jersey Street and rents time at a candy factory in Oakland for production. "If I have my way, we'll someday do chocolate production on 24th Street," says Childs. "When the smoothie shop [Juice-It] closed at 24th and Sanchez, we wanted the space, but it was too expensive. Hopefully, we'll find a landlord who wants a chocolate store and will help us out." (The space in question was rented by the clothing store Dharma, but Dharma recently folded as well.)

Cabaret's growth has been fanned by extensive media coverage, including spots on MSNBC and CNN. But the company is still small enough so that both partners have a hand in every aspect of the business.

Polevoi, the company's lawyer and designated "food genius," is creating a line of chocolate caramels and toffees right now. Childs will help test and perfect the recipe and figure out how to manufacture it. In the future, they will branch out from chocolate into other "ultra-pure, luxury food products," Childs says.

For Valentine's Day, Flowers of the Valley will give away a box of Cabaret Chocolates to every customer who pre-orders a dozen roses. And on Friday, Feb. 6, Bliss Bar, on 24th Street, will offer Cabaret martinis, where the inside of the glass is lined with melted chocolate and a piece of chocolate is dropped into the drink as well. Childs also will be on hand passing out free chocolate samples.

"This is by far the most enjoyable business I've ever done. My partner feels the same way, for sure, " Childs says. "We love giving out chocolates to friends and neighbors. We also like to give chocolate to local groups for fundraisers because we believe in the concept of giving something back. It's so great to make people happy."

Cabaret Dessert Chocolates are currently available in the neighborhood at Isabella's Ice Cream & Dessert Cafe, Martha and Brothers Coffee, Café XO, and Flowers of the Valley. They are also sold online at www.cabaretchocolates .com. For more information, call 866-99-CACAO. m