Employees: 10, with an influx during holiday seasons
Industry: Food & Beverage
Founder and owner Robin Autorino's artisan chocolates are as colorful as they are tasty.
Autorino was working as a pastry chef at The Brown Palace, where she'd occasionally distribute homemade molded chocolates to colleagues. In February 2008, a local florist called Autorino out of the blue. "They'd gotten a sample of my chocolates from somebody I worked with, and asked if they could place an order for Valentine's Day," she recalls.
The request gave Autorino an idea: "I'd always wanted to own my own business, and I thought, 'I'm going to do it.'" But it wasn't exactly the business she'd set out to start.
After studying classic French cooking techniques at a culinary school in Colorado, Autorino initially wanted to become a savory chef. "I was hoping to start a catering company or work as a personal chef," she says.
But when the serendipitous opportunity presented itself, Autorino jumped at her chance to be a chocolate entrepreneur. A decade later, she continues to craft some of the most striking sweets on the market.
At first glance, it's clear that Autorino's chocolates are not your basic brand of boxed candies. In fact, many of her products look more like art than food. That's because the manufacturing process involves airbrushing molds in dyed cocoa butter before casting them with tempered dark chocolate. "There are some really big names that got me hooked on airbrushing," says Autorino, rattling off a short list that includes the chocolatier's "main influence," Kansas City-based Christopher Elbow.
It takes two to four days to make each individual chocolate, and the process is "very involved," Autorino says. "You can't just melt chocolate in a bowl and keep up."
Machines are required for mass production, and Autorino uses an automatic tempering machine along with an enrobing belt in order to keep up with demand during the busy season between Christmas and Valentine's Day, when she produces upwards of 3,000 pieces of chocolate a week.
Robin Chocolates aren't just pretty -- they're delicious, too. That's because she uses high-quality chocolate made by Valrhona, a premium supplier based in France, and handpicked ingredients ranging from lavender to lime curd.
Autorino uses organic items when possible. "We also use a lot of local products, including local liquors and spirits in our truffles, and L.R. Rice honey," she adds. For customers who aren't big on food coloring, Autorino offers a few chocolates without airbrushing.
For her first three years in business, Autorino sold most of her product wholesale, through a company in Longmont. "They were going out of business, plus the kitchen I was working out of had been rented out to a barbecue company. I had to either find a place of my own or quit," she says.
Thankfully for chocolate lovers, she didn't quit. Instead, Autorino found a storefront big enough to house both manufacturing and retail operations in late 2011. With an open kitchen concept, customers can even come in and see their chocolate being made.
Autorino still sells most of her stuff to Coloradans, both wholesale and direct-to-consumer. "Shipping is hard," she explains, adding, "We typically lose money on shipping because we use an insulated box, and those are not cheap."
Challenges: Building a brand is tough for any small business, and Robin Chocolates is no exception. "The main challenge is marketing," Autorino admits.
Real estate is another: "We can only do so much in our current space," says Autorino.
Opportunities: Robin Chocolates hasn't really tapped into the Denver market yet, but Autorino hopes to expand south soon, possibly with a second retail location.
Needs: "We're always looking for great talent," says Autorino. "It's hard to find people who want to work for a small company."
She makes her chocolates with the help of an assistant, and she also employs a pastry chef to create wedding cakes, cookies, and pastries. For her shop, Autorino hires local high school kids. "For a lot of them, it's their first job," she says.