Photos by Jessica Banks and Nick Horvath
It’s First Friday in Kansas City, the one day of the month when the Crossroads are flooded with food trucks, street music, and sidewalk vendors. Christopher Elbow’s team is busy preparing for the 5 o’clock rush. Behind a glass separator lies their glittering and colorful wares.
Elbow is selling works of art at his flagship store on McGee Street; more accurately, edible works of art. When people begin trickling into the store to stand in line with more than an hour to spare before the sale begins, they aren’t lining up for anything they can hang on their walls or wear around their necks.
They’re lining up for chocolate.
Elbow dreamed up the idea for Christopher Elbow Chocolates more than 15 years ago, well before #foodstagram had found its way into our vernacular.
“There weren’t a lot of people making the kind of products we were making—the painted chocolates and truffles,” Elbow says. “We were sort of pioneers, the first to do it. We took it and ran with it.” And when the doors to his shop opened 15 years ago, Elbow and his team did more than run: they sprinted. Elbow says their biggest struggle since day one has been to keep up with the demand for their products, particularly around the holidays, which is their peak selling season. “We turn away business every year because we physically can’t make that much product,” Elbow says.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Quality comes first at Elbow’s shop, so meeting the demand for his chocolates didn’t mean getting sloppy or outsourcing the work. All of the production is still based out of Kansas City. Instead, they did their research and invested in technology from chocolate hubs like Switzerland and France to get the job done as efficiently as possible.
“We’ve gotten a couple of machines that have been game changers for how we do production and how much and how fast we can make things,” says Ethan Taylor, the shop’s operations manager. “It’s not changed our quality.… It’s just changed our output and our ability to meet the demand.” Their efforts paid off. Taylor says this is the first year they have gotten through peak season without having to turn away business.
MORE THAN A SWEET TREAT
While dedicated fans and new customers alike may be drawn into the store by its dazzling display of chocolates, the ever-changing cast of intriguing flavors like Rosemary (caramel infused with fresh rosemary), Ginger Caramel (buttery caramel spiced with fresh grated ginger), and Port Wine Fig (caramel blended with figs and infused with aged tawny and port wine) keep them coming back. While these flavors might earn a raised eyebrow or two, Elbow’s goal isn’t to come up with these unusual combinations just to be different. In fact, most of the flavors featured are often inspired by his travels, or interesting food combinations he notices at restaurants.
With a background in savory cooking, Elbow doesn’t feel limited to sweet flavors when he’s working on recipe development. While innovation and creativity are at the forefront of what Elbow and his team does, coming up with flavors that will wow and satisfy their customers remains a top priority.
“Every time we try to develop a flavor, I always try to keep in mind that I want this flavor to be somebody’s new favorite,” says Taylor. “There are some people that come in and get the same things all the time, but I want to make it harder for them to always have the same thing.”
For new customers who have yet to try Elbow’s chocolate and pick a favorite, retail manager Rachele Vigh is happy to offer assistance. She and her staff are well versed in the flavor profiles of everything offered in the shop, and are ready and waiting with suggestions. Vigh describes visiting the shop as more than just an opportunity to buy chocolate—it’s an experience.
“You walk in and your mood is instantly changed because of the smells and the sights and the sounds and the experience here,” says Vigh. With crisp air and décor that mainly consists of brown, white, and glass accents, the atmosphere is high-end and luxurious—consistent with the luxe chocolate offerings, which go for $2.50 a pop. Despite the high-end vibe and pricey products, Vigh wants anyone who’s interested to take a chance and walk through the door—the air in the shop might be chilly, but Elbow and his team’s welcoming attitude is warm.
“It is an expensive product, but we don’t want people to be scared to come in here or intimidated to come in here,” says Vigh. “We want people to feel welcome to ask questions.” For just about anything guests are wondering about, Vigh and the other retail employees will have an answer. Want to know how they make the chocolate so perfect? Lots of practice, cocoa butter mixed with FDA-approved food coloring, and a spray gun, according to Taylor. Questions about options for people who are vegan or on gluten-free diets? They have plenty of options to choose from. For chocolate fans who are sold on the idea, but not the price, there’s always room in line during First Friday, when each delectable chocolate bonbon goes on sale for a dollar. Just be sure to get there early.
Christopher Elbow Chocolate is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.