Couple's Sweet Tooth Yields Sweet Success
As a kid, Deborah Langsam used to stare in the windows of the bakeries in Brooklyn, New York, and dream of what delicacy she would buy if she had all the money in the world.
As co-owner of Barking Dog Chocolatiers, an artisanal chocolate company in Charlotte, North Carolina, Langsam, a former associate professor of biology, no longer has to fantasize about indulging her sweet tooth. With husband, Joal Fischer, a retired developmental pediatrician, she stirs up vats of silky chocolate and handcrafts it into mouth-watering truffles, barks, ganaches, and pastries in a state-of-the-art home kitchen.
Langsam, a botanist, retired after twenty-two years at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Fischer officially shuttered his medical practice fifteen years ago to focus on SupportWorks, a nonprofit clearinghouse he founded to help people find and form support groups and research medical information.
Before retiring from science and medicine, the couple took a six-week pastry course at the École Ritz Escoffier in Paris, alongside professional chefs. It was in the basement of the tony Ritz hotel that they fell madly in love with the process of making chocolate. Not surprisingly, it was the science that intrigued them--the methodical experiments and technical precision needed to ensure a ganache that was smooth, not grainy.
Eventually, they journeyed around the United States, Canada, and beyond to train with expert pastry chefs and chocolatiers, honing the techniques of framing, molding, and panning. Finally, they began designing their own chocolates.
Their tempting morsels were a resounding success with friends, who pushed the couple to make chocolates to sell. In 2000 they officially started Barking Dog Chocolatiers, naming it in honor of a favorite pooch that barked only when she was hungry.
Annual candy sales fluctuate each year, but the sweet news is that all profits (neither Langsam nor Fischer earns a salary from Barking Dog) go to meet SupportWorks's annual budget, as well as other local charities that assist people with food or medicine.
It's a small business, and the couple aims to keep it that way. The chocolate making is still a two-person operation. In spurts, they might spend fifteen hours a day swirling up their elegant chocolates to fill customer orders from their website--sampler boxes, wedding novelties, or special orders with custom logos. And their candies and pastries are served as dessert at the Bonterra Dining & Wine Room, a Charlotte restaurant.
Their latest confection: The St. Bernard Collection, decadent milk chocolate truffles. The new candies sell for $20 for a box of ten truffles, but they can also be purchased at a $5 discount, "a mitzvah price" for those ordering for anyone with a very serious illness.
"For someone who is going through chemotherapy, for instance, or someone who is having trouble chewing, the truffles are easy to eat because they melt in your mouth," Langsam explains. "We created them for a dear friend who was battling cancer. The feedback has been amazing. And that's exactly why we do what we do."
There's plenty of downtime for Langsam to spend on her fabric art business, called Barking Dog Fiber Art, which has taken off with juried and solo art gallery shows. All profits from those sales also go to charity. Plus, there's allotted time for Fischer to tend to SupportWorks, as well as for the duo to travel and take more chocolate courses. "We don't measure our self-worth by how much money comes in," Fischer says. "We don't want to get caught up in the American way of always getting bigger and bigger."
Langsam's decision to retire from academia stemmed in large part from "the constant pressure to do more," she says. "There was always another paper to write, a bigger grant to be awarded."
Deciding to leave her faculty post, even with full retirement benefits, wasn't easy. "I liked what I did very much," she says. "My identity was as a professor." Yet an early health scare with cancer, when she was in her thirties, had taught Langsam how short life can be. Was it really worth working so hard to be named a full professor?
"It was an ego thing for me," Langsam says.
Sensible spending suits the couple's sweet new lifestyle--and they had always made do on modest salaries. They both drive fourteen-year-old Volvos and don't splurge on designer clothes or fancy jewelry.
"There is no way we could have planned this adventure," Fischer says. "It started out as a kick--something fun to do together. Now all we have to say is that we make chocolate and everyone smiles!"
What's Next author Kerry Hannon chats with Deborah Langsam and Joal Fischer about their transition to chocolatiers.
KH: What did the transition mean to you personally?
DL: At first it scared me because it meant I was giving up my identity as a professor. But the career change has allowed me to enjoy my work and the process of creating something. Every once in a while I'll be on a deadline, and it reminds me of how much my life was once controlled by deadlines. It reminds me of how much I get pleasure from what I am doing now.
JF: Now we have second acts where we are able to work hard when we want--and then take a break. A couple years ago, we worked eighteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, getting the candy out. It keeps us really busy, but for relatively short periods of time, and then we're done. We love it.
KH: Were you confident in what you were doing? Any second-guessing?
DL: Once I left the university, there was no second-guessing. I have never regretted it for a minute. I've missed certain things. One of the things I really loved about my university work was teaching. But now Joel and I do chocolate tasting and teach chocolate-making techniques in small groups, so I get to do some of that in other ways.
KH: Is there anything you would have done differently?
JF: No. Well, there's always . . . wouldn't it have been nice to have started this a year earlier?
KH: Any unexpected rewards or surprises?
DL: There have been so many. I had no idea that things were going to open up for me as an artist. I had no idea that I would be doing shows or that one of my pieces would be used as a publicity shot for a gallery show. The biggest joy has been seeing doors open that we hadn't planned, seeing doors appear that we never thought about. Like having an article about us in U.S. News & World Report!
JF: This whole adventure has been a surprise.
KH: What role did financial rewards play in your decision to make a move?
DL: None--in the sense that we didn't need to make money to live on, so it wasn't as stressful. Even though we took a financial hit in our retirement accounts, we still feel we have enough saved to meet our needs. We live responsibly. We are able to say no to things that don't work for us and say yes to things that would be a good adventure. As a child of Depression-era parents, I had to get over my fear that we didn't have enough saved before I left the university job. But we're doing fine. It's all about giving back.
JF: Money is important in many ways, but it's not always the answer. For example, Costco contacted us about selling our chocolate, but we felt it would create too much stress and work. So we said no.
KH: How did you prepare for the change?
JF: I stepped out of my practice in stages and was able to gradually learn about cooking and making chocolate. We traveled and studied chocolate making by taking classes from masters. That was a no-brainer. Why not learn from people who have been doing this for thirty or forty years? It was obvious that we needed to do some kind of training, and the training was fun. Through various connections, I was able to volunteer at Dean & Deluca, making chocolate. I happened to be there on the day they needed an extra hand, and I just stayed on.
We overplanned things financially so we could afford to make the change. The planning allowed this to be an adventure that could take on a life of its own. We're able to make chocolate for people who are sick--that's fantastic.
DL: I want to add that we started small. At the very beginning we made chocolate for friends and relatives. Then we sold it at the restaurant here in Charlotte. Then we thought about starting a Web site. It has all evolved in its own time.
KH: How do you measure your success?
JF: We don't take it for granted.
KH: What do you tell others who come to you seeking advice about starting a new career?
JF: You want to make chocolate? Great! Do you like to wash dishes? Any business has day-to-day details that are repetitive in nature. So pick a profession where you can tolerate the grunt work the best. I really do like to measure! And I don't have a problem with dish detail.
KH: Any resources you found helpful?
DL: The Internet. Online chat groups and shopping online vendors for all the resources we need to fuel our passion.
JF: Our biggest resource was and is each other.
Read more about What's Next? in Mark Miller's column.