Being a chocolate geek on the cheap

I know: good chocolate isn’t cheap. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it out. I started getting into fancy chocolate when I was making minimum wage,* so I know it’s not necessarily impossible. It just takes research, planning, and a whole lot of tasting.

Here are some ideas to get you started. They’re targeted mainly at Seattle, but should apply in most areas. I’d love to hear how you got started in chocolate!

Note: this is from the 2017 archive of my previous blog, Seattle Dessert Geek. I’ve updated some of the content accordingly, like Chocolopolis now offers two happy hour tastings each week.

Chocolate tastings – they rock.

Seattle is spoiled super rotten in terms of tastings. Take Intrigue Chocolate. You can walk in every day and get a free truffle tasting, and on top of that they have “after hours” sessions every Thursday from 6-8 pm so you can try even more stuff. (First Thursdays, where they offer Hot Zombie, is always packed. The rest, not so much.)

Intrigue isn’t alone. Chocolopolis has their two happy hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and their options change every week. The staff at Fran’s will often offer you a caramel, confection, or chocolate square. Sugarpill will offer samples, which are often announced on the sign by their door. That doesn’t mean you should just go on a free chocolate sampling spree – please support local/small businesses and buy a truffle to go with that sample?

It’s okay to buy the small stuff

No one is going to give you the side-eye if you only buy one truffle. Really. As someone who worked retail, I can tell you for sure I never cared how large the purchase was – I cared if you were a jerk.

So buy one awesome looking truffle, or the smaller bar. It’s okay. They are usually more expensive per unit, sure, but if you don’t like what you bought, you’re not ‘saving’ any money in the first place.

Punch cards. Use them.

And yes, you can totally bring in 4+ punch cards to get that free bar. I did it the other day. That being said, have a place to store them so you’re not me and lose them in your desk for a month. (Or you could leave the most-used ones in your wallet.)

While not a punch card, Sugarpill in Seattle was offering a CSA card for $40. (I think it’s 15% off five purchases, then a $25 gift certificate.) If that’s still going on, GET IT. I’ve saved about a bar already.

Don’t shop hungry.

I feel like this is obvious, but it’s also easy to forget just how much chocolate shops will smell like chocolate. And then you’ll realize it’s 1:30 and you had a light lunch and now want to buy one of everything. Been there, done that, blown $50 more on chocolate than planned.

Eat lunch, then stare at the treats.

Hold chocolate tastings, potluck style

Why not have a chocolate tasting night? Ask each person to bring one bar, or chip in together on a purchase and have a party. I’d set aside about a half bar total per person, and it’s about 4-5 servings per standard chocolate bar. (Honestly, with a tasting, you can offer more like 10-15 servings per bar, but it depends on the group/time of day/etc.)

This is especially great when you want to order from a company, and there’s a minimum order for free shipping. You can have a group contribute to get to the maximum, save $10-$15 on shipping, and probably spend that on wine instead. (Unless you’re me, in which case it goes towards more chocolate.) 

Buy bulk chocolate – with your friends.

Chocosphere is kind of the unspoken secret of West Coast chocolate. Like, seriously. Every chocolate person knows of Chocosphere, but you won’t hear a peep about them. They sell mainly bulk chocolate, from Guittard to Valrhona, at super cheap compared to grocery stores.

Let’s compare with Manjari, the most popular of the Valrhona feves:

  • Whole Foods: ~$45/pound
  • Chocosphere: $13.26/pound (a 3 kilo bag for $87.50 before shipping)

Um, YES. So much better. Still not cheap, but I’ve traded for all sorts of goodies thanks to having giant piles of chocolate in the house. This is a great way to seriously up your baking game. If Manjari’s not your thing, there are plenty of other options.

Also, while the prices have started to come down in stores, Chocosphere still has way, way more options than any store I’ve found in Seattle for bulk chocolate.

Get on the mailing list.

Look, if you’re planning to buy chocolate, that shop likely has a mailing list. And chocolate makers often offer free/reduced shipping and/or sales. Annnd those sales are likely announced first on their mailing list. Like Chuao has these sales of 100 tiny ‘pods’ for $45, and that used to last me for ages, but they only do that 2-3 times a year, max.

Also, for smaller companies with limited runs, it’s often the only way to get their chocolate.

So yeah, if you’re planning a purchase but you need to budget it out, get on the list and wait a bit. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Sales – shop the big(ger) stores

So while I’m all for shop small/local, if you’re just starting out, grocery stores are definitely where the sales will be. And don’t knock grocery stores until you shop them; they can have some pretty nice chocolate. And these places can and do have sales. QFC will have Theo bars at 2 for $4, Whole Foods occasionally has decent sales on Fran’s and Lake Champlain Chocolates; just watch for them. When I walked into Uwajimaya yesterday, Marou bars were on sale for $6.99.

Also: do your research. The ranges of sales/sale types varies so much. I swear Theo’s peanut butter cups are on sale every week somewhere in this town.

All that being said, bigger stores are going for volume, so the super tiny indie brands won’t be there. Or they might only be available at one store. Pick and choose your battles.

So those are my tips, and I hope you can try some. The only real answer to all of these is to do your research – and hopefully have a friend who knows the local scene. Or will share a bar or two.

*I had pretty much the highest level of privilege while making minimum wage, including that my now-spouse could afford to send me Askinosie chocolate on my birthday. I do not assume that everyone can or should go on an expensive chocolate spree, more that it’s not as horrible as it used to be. And we can and should discuss income and access issues in food, especially when it comes to the chocolate industry.

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