We were lucky to catch up with Valerie Herskowitz recently and have shared our conversation below.
Valerie, thanks for joining us, excited to have you contributing your stories and insights. So let’s jump to your mission – what’s the backstory behind how you developed the mission the drives your brand?
I decided early on in my career as a Speech Pathologist that I wanted to work with people who had autism and other developmental disabilities. So that is what the journey I embarked on after graduate school. LIttle did i know that my training and experience would come in handy when my own son was diagnosed with autism 15 years later. At that point, my professional and personal became one. I soon realized that there were very few programs for my son and people like him. So my journey led me to starting therapy programs, camp programs and recreational programs for this underserved population. My son, Blake, was always the inspiration. As he grew up, whatever was lacking for him was lacking for others. So when he graduated high school in 2013, with no program available, I needed to figure out what he was going to do going forward. I had just recently trained as a pastry chef and graduated from Chocolatier training, but presumed this was only going to become a hobby, but Blake showed a great deal of interest in making pastry and chocolate. Therefore, with nothing on the radar, we started The Chocolate Spectrum out of my house. Soon more people with special needs adult children heard about it and asked if they could join Blake in my home kitchen. The recreational program morphed into an employment opportunity as I then hired some of our students to become paid staff. They are still with us. Eventually, we grew out of the kitchen and opened our kitchen and shop in 2016 in Jupiter Florida. There, we started a formal chocolatier apprenticeship program for adults and teens with developmental disabilities. We now have a very active chocolate business with a wonderful training program!
As always, we appreciate you sharing your insights and we’ve got a few more questions for you, but before we get to all of that can you take a minute to introduce yourself and give our readers some of your back background and context?
My story of how I got into the business was answered in the previous question. From solving problem perspective, we help to solve several problems by offering training and employment opportunities for the special needs population who are quite underserved. We are unique in that we are a for profit business that also serves our community at large by offering amazing chocolate products and classes for the community.
I am most proud of how we created this business and focused on developing training and employment opportunities for those with autism and other developmental disabilities. This was a second career for me which I started in my mid 50’s. It wasn’t something that I had planned. It just evolved from recognizing the need in our community
Another important fact is that we use the highest quality chocolate and other products to make our chocolate products. I was trained to always do that and it has served us well as our customers are very pleased with our products.
How about pivoting – can you share the story of a time you’ve had to pivot?
The best example of a pivot occurred at the beginning of the pandemic. At that time, we needed to close down our training apprenticeship program and had no idea when we would be able to start it back up. I was not only concerned about the program in general, but for my students who had come to recognize that The Chocolate Spectrum was not only their training ground, but their social line as well. Therefore, I pivoted our program into an online experience for one year. It wasn’t exactly the same, of course, but it did allow us to continue a modified training class and also keep us all socially connected (we allowed some socializing after the class). Additionally, though we had temporarily closed down the retail shop, we kept the kitchen open and sold our products online and curbside pickup for a year. All the staff then had to work different shifts in order to socially distance in our small kitchen. Thankfully, we are all back to working together
We finished our online experience in 2021, and then pivoted back to our in-person program. Hopefully, we will be able to stay on this course in the future.
Can you talk to us about how your funded your business?
Funding is a difficult question. I get asked this all the time. Being that I work with an underserved population, people assume that I can get funding in a drop of a hat. But that is far from the case. In the beginning, when we were working out of my home, I funded all the supplies myself. And at that time, training was free so there wasn’t any revenue from that. When we decided to open the shop, I really didn’t want to borrow money as I wasn’t sure if that would work out, so I self-funded by selling a house that I was renting out. Through the years, I was able to secure some funding for the training programs through grants, but this is not an easy task. I do worry about the future, as our chocolate sales do not cover all of our costs and we do rely on grants (I do not take compensation), but we have made it so far almost 9 years and through a pandemic at that, so I feel we can figure it all out.
- Website: http://www.thechocolatespectrum.com/
- Instagram: instagram.com/thechocspectrum
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheChocolateSpectrum
- Linkedin: linkedin.com/valerieherskowitz
- Twitter: twitter.com/thechocspectrum
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4HxuaUQVda7HiXO_IT4btA
- Yelp: https://www.yelp.com/biz/the-chocolate-spectrum-jupiter
- Other: Online shopping: https://shop.thechocolatespectrum.com/