Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:23 pm
Indulgence Chocolatiers LLC
211 S. Second Street, Milwaukee
6538 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa
4525 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood
INDUSTRY: Artisan confections
EMPLOYEES: 30 to 35
Sometimes, timing is everything. When owner Julie Waterman started Indulgence Chocolatiers, her message of being a local, artisan confection-maker was more likely to be met with confusion than acceptance. But a decade later, consumer attitudes have shifted.
“I think I started at just the right time, because people were just starting to think 10 years ago about artisan food and the local food movement and just starting to open their minds to it,” Waterman said.
Those changing attitudes, combined with attention to detail, have helped Indulgence grow to have three retail locations and products being shipped to nearly 400 wholesale customers across the Midwest, including grocery stores, gift shops and wine stores. Indulgence makes truffles, chocolate bars, toffee, chocolate-covered fruit and cocoa mix.
“The facade of chocolate is that it’s beautiful and it’s delicious, but we hope that people recognize all the additional thought and detail we put into it, from ingredient selection to the presentation and every detail of the experience,” she said.
The experience at the company’s kitchen and pairing bar in Walker’s Point starts from the minute the doors open, with the smells from a less than 2,500-square-foot kitchen that produces 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of confections a week greeting visitors.
The equipment in the kitchen isn’t overly complicated. A couple warming plates to melt chocolate, specialized bowls to hold it at specific temperatures, molds to create individual pieces and a packaging station. While the kitchen isn’t overflowing with extra space, Waterman says she’s confident there’s room for more production, especially if there were additional storage available.
Waterman tries to rely on local products like cream and butter whenever possible and when it comes to chocolates, she emphasizes those that are grown in sustainable and socially responsible ways. The process differs depending on the final product, but the goal is to make it look and taste good.
The journey to being the founder of a local chocolatier was a little bit backwards, Waterman said. She joined the Army at 17 and was a military intelligence analyst. She planned to return to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for music education, but had a summer off following her deployment. She spent the time backpacking around Europe and fell in love with artisan food – and chocolates, in particular. After trying different recipes for some time, she decided to launch Indulgence during her senior year at UWM.
“The first couple years were definitely a challenge and there’s a huge learning curve when you start a business,” Waterman said. “I don’t wish to ever revisit that time, but it was definitely an incredible experience that I gained so much from.”
It was about five or six years ago that the company hit its stride. Waterman said the wholesale business had gotten stronger and the company was able to open its first retail location.
“Really I think people connected between our company and the fact that we’re a local Milwaukee chocolatier and things just steadily kept growing and taking off from there,” Waterman said.
Retail locations in Walker’s Point, Shorewood and Wauwatosa give Indulgence the chance to educate consumers, whether it’s where a chocolate came from or how best to pair it with wine, beer, cheese or whiskey.
Wholesale, on the other hand, is the bread and butter of the business.
“It gives us a lot more diversity in locations and types of people we can reach with our chocolate and just greater opportunity to spread out without spreading ourselves too thin,” Waterman said.
Continuing to grow while maintaining high quality and an artisan touch is among the challenges for Indulgence.
“It’s one of our biggest struggles because that takes space and it takes manpower and it’s a constant balancing act to keep everything in motion,” Waterman said. “We’ve got a really fantastic team here and I think being surrounded by good people is absolutely what makes everything click.”
Waterman is aware the food industry has a reputation for employees being overworked and underpaid, while also being difficult to turn into a career.
“It’s our goal to break that food industry stereotype,” she said. “I want this to be a place and an environment where people can make a career, make a good living and still do what they’re passionate about.”
Each year, Waterman holds a meeting in January with full-time employees to discuss where the company is headed. She said she has a few ideas for future growth that are partially driven by giving employees an opportunity to grow with the company.
“We’ll grow as much as the Milwaukee community will let us,” she said.