In the run-up to the high chocolate holy day of Valentine’s, the consumer market for chocolate-based eateries, pastry shops, kiosks and coffee cafes has grown sweeter with each passing day.
Chocolate Bar, a tiny shop in New York City, will add a second location and debut savory items this spring. Waco, Texas-based Showcolate Fondue Express, a start-up kiosk treat concept imported from Brazil, is in the process of opening its fifth outlet after starting just last November. Nine-unit Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe of Portland, Ore., has expanded as far east as Chicago.
“I see chocolate taking the same path that coffee, wine and cheese took,” said Alison Nelson, co-owner of Chocolate Bar. “It’s starting to grow like the coffee chains did in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”
Nelson, who opened Chocolate Bar in May 2002, said, “The idea behind it was my dream of bringing really high-end, quality chocolate to a neighborhood coffee shop-bakery.”
First-year sales of $500,000 have multiplied, totaling $1.5 million in 2006. Chocolate Bar has only 12 seats in 650 square feet.
“Our growth has been exponential,” Nelson said. “We are opening another location in April that will have 20 seats and sit-down service.”
The new outlet, in the Henri Bendel store at 56th Street and Fifth Avenue, will serve savory dishes as well as sweets.
Chocolate’s widespread appeal has spurred the concept’s growth, she added.
“Chocolate is universally loved. There aren’t many people who don’t like chocolate,” Nelson said. “It’s so simple and comforting. It instantly makes people happy, and in the end it’s an affordable luxury. As economies go up and down, there’s always room to spend a few extra cents on a good piece of chocolate.”
Her customers are generally from 19 years old to 55.
“They tend to be locals, but we have a great following through our Internet site and wholesale clients,” she said.
Ricardo Marques, the Waco-based president of Showcolate’s U.S. operations, said the four units open in Texas are an outgrowth of the 82 outlets operating in Brazil. The company started franchising last May, and expects to open outlets in California and Florida this spring.
The Showcolate kiosks only require 63 square feet and offer fondue cups with six kinds of fruit and three kinds of chocolate. They also feature chocolate-covered fruit skewers, chocolate-dipped strawberries and drinks. Prices range from $4.95 to $5.50.
Kinetic features of the kiosks attract customers, Marques said.
“The spinning chocolate wheels are mesmerizing for customers,” he said.
Veteran franchise creator Gary Findley and his franchise company the Findley Group, who grew the Curves International fitness chain to more than 8,000 outlets, have overseen U.S. growth of Showcolate, which began in Brazil in 2003.
“[Chocolate] is one of those hard-to-resist treats,” Findley said. “Chocolate and fruit is a confection that translates across all cultures. I see Showcolate as the next big thing to hit chocolate lovers and retail malls across the country. There’s been tremendous success around the world, and the growth potential here in North America is unlimited.”
Marques said, “The innovative kiosk system, designed for retail malls, is made to ensure maximum profitability in prime locations.”
He said per-location start-up investments range from $99,000 to $150,000. The chain’s U.S. locations feature big-screen televisions for visuals and music.
Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe of Portland, with its foray into Chicago, established a presence on Michigan Avenue.
“American consumers are exploring chocolate the way they did coffee and wine,” said Delmar Fuhrman, chief operating officer of Moonstruck Chocolate Co.
The number of chocolate cafes that now feature more expanded offerings of savory foods is growing as well. For example, Neuhaus Cafe in Dallas boasts a bustling lunch and dinner business.
The 11-unit Ethel’s Chocolate Lounge, based in Chicago, expanded to the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas while borrowing a page from the Starbucks  playbook by creating a place where customers can gather. The company markets its cafes as a “a place to chocolate and chat.”