Sweet dreams are what made Tease Chocolates into a vibrant business in Tacoma’s historic Stadium District. In this aromatic shop, chocolatier Julie Farrell¸ with help from her partner Topher Farrell, crafts candy from bean to bar, combining local herbs, berries and other ingredients.
Though Julie has been making desserts since she was six years old, it took a long time before child’s play grew into a blossoming business. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs and an MBA in Process Improvement, she worked for GE as International Sales Manager. Topher received his Audio Engineering degree from the Art Institute of Seattle and has worked for film and music production companies. In the early 2000’s both partners found themselves between jobs. With time on her hands Julie started practicing the craft of chocolate making and enrolled at Ecole Chocolat to study the techniques and process more closely.
One night Julie dreamed she owned a chocolate company. When she woke up she wrote a business plan. With a few molds and some basic ingredients she tirelessly studied at home. Hungering for knowledge and experience, she reached beyond her comfort zone. Her journey took her to Wisconsin where she interned with a big chocolate company. Working a challenging schedule was difficult, but she valued seeing what craft chocolate can be. To further grow her portfolio, she moved back to Seattle pursuing unpaid internships at Cocoa Nymph and Theo Chocolate. “These were great experiences but none of them prepared me for what it’s like to run my own chocolate business,” Julie remembers. While she studied the craft of chocolate, Topher delved into learning the business aspects. He found resources for startups through Washington CASH (now called Ventures) as well as SCORE, an entrepreneurial program offered through Bates Technical College.
The time had come for Julie to put her knowledge to use. She created a batch of chocolate bars to sell at an upcoming Art Walk. At this time, the couple lived in an artist loft space at the Old Rainier Brewery. This historical Seattle company had been affected by the recession and rented out their facilities to tenants of all sizes. The iconic red “R” had been replaced with green “T” for Tully’s Coffee. Capitalizing on the new landmark, Julie named her brand “T’s Candy”. On Art Walk day, she set out her confections, not knowing what to expect. The proof was in the chocolate pudding: she sold out of sweets in the first ninety minutes.
This taste of success bolstered her confidence. Creating several new recipes, Julie and Topher partnered with a local artist to create packaging for their products. The artist gave a saucy interpretation to the brand creating several pinup-style images to represent the new name “Tease Chocolates”. Three original flavors included “Spicy Mayan”, “Geisha’s Pleasure”, and “Salty Mermaid”. Taking this burlesque show of flavors on the road, Julie sold them around the South Sound, vending at as many as five farmers’ markets a week. In 2011, they moved to Vashon Island where they created many connections in the close knit community. Tease Chocolates were sold in grocery and liquor stores and even the local movie theater.
Wholesaling chocolate online was working well, but the business was only beginning its journey. Topher’s job relocated and following his employment they made Tacoma their home, though at the time it seemed to carry the stigma of gritty neighborhoods. The enterprising couple researched the city and when they did not find a suitable commercial kitchen, they decided to start one, planning to rent to other food artisans. After talking with the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, they learned that Spaceworks matches creative entrepreneurs with properties. Spaceworks did not have prior experience with a food business but accepted the challenge. “Spaceworks took a chance on us, which was awesome” commented Topher. “We were able to refocus our business plan because we never dreamed of having a retail space. Spaceworks helped us a lot with that.”
Sometimes the best laid plans pan out in unexpected ways. Julie imagined producing wholesale product at a rented commercial kitchen. Working with Spaceworks, however, the candy makers reformulated their ideas to create a retail space with a kitchen. Completing Spaceworks’ Creative Enterprise Tier I program in 2015 provided them with initial training, including retail layout and merchandising classes. At first, Spaceworks pursued partnering Tease with another business to occupy a large-scale kitchen. This relationship did not develop but Julie’s mind was set, so when she came across a space in the Stadium District with a “For Lease” sign, she recognized the opportunity they’d been waiting for. After independently working out the lease contract, they spent four months converting a forlorn space next door to Stadium Thriftway into an attractive and vibrant chocolaterie.
When Spaceworks developed a new coaching program for more experienced businesses, they invited Tease Chocolates to participate. “We got so much out of Tier I that we immediately jumped on Tier III,” says Topher. Spaceworks’ Creative Enterprise Tier III program matched the company with two coaches who offered specialized advice. Nona Jensen of Professional Business Services demonstrated financially sound ways to build a relationship with a local merchant services company and recommended the appropriate version of QuickBooks for their accounting needs. Miriam Works of Works Consulting helped the business develop policy and procedure documents, and interviewing processes. These tools will help Tease Chocolates hire and train staff, so the owners can focus on their craft.
Julie and Topher’s business is destined to grow as they pursue future developments. They applied to Creative Enterprise program to refine a business plan for a commissary kitchen in Tacoma and are working with Spaceworks to identify the ideal property. This will create opportunities for other food entrepreneurs. Still, their retail shop in the Stadium District continues to bring Tease Chocolates advantages. With unlimited access to a certified kitchen, Julie is able to develop recipes and try new flavors. It provides storage space for wholesale supplies and new products. Working with high schools, they offer educational opportunities to interns who learn about recipe development, customer service, inventory management, and other aspects of operating a small business. Most importantly it creates strong connections to their customers who are excited about a new shop in the area and visit regularly, coming back to taste new bars, truffles, caramels, s’mores, toffees and more. “It’s a tremendous feeling to know that I’m making something people enjoy and get satisfaction from. When I look around and think: Was this my dream chocolate shop? Absolutely not,” Julie laughs “But now that we’re in it, it’s perfect! It couldn’t have materialized any better.”
610 N 1st St, Tacoma, WA 98403
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