Alumni Brothers Spice Up Chocolate World
Move From High-Tech to Chocolate Spells Success for Chuao Chocolatier Founders
Ioana Patringenaru | March 10, 2008
Chuao Chocolatier co-founders Richard and Michael Antonorsi in their Carlsbad store.
Eating Chuao Chocolatier’s “firecracker” bonbon is a multi-sensory experience. Popping candy rings in your ears and crunches in your mouth. Meanwhile, a dash of chipotle chili pepper ignites under your tongue, while fudgy caramel smoothes your palate. The overall effect is fun, disconcerting and yummy.
These are precisely some of the feelings that Chuao’s co-founders, who also are UCSD alumni, said they wanted to bring about with their chocolate concoctions. Michael and Richard Antonorsi opened their first chocolate store, in a small mall off Highway 101 in Encinitas, in 2002, after facing what Richard calls a mid-life crisis and Michael a “mid-life revision.”
“We try to make multi-layered, avant-garde offerings,” Michael Antonorsi said. “But it still has to be delicious.”
In addition to traditional confections mixing chocolate, cream and nuts, Chuao Chocolatier offers some original creations that mix unexpected ingredients. Here are a few examples:
Cinco de Mayo: Lemon tequila dark chocolate ganache topped with preserved lemon chip.
Chevere: A goat cheese and Pear Williams buttercream enhanced with a touch of crushed black peppercorns inside a dark Venezuelan chocolate bonbon.
Modena: Dark Venezuelan chocolate bonbon filled with a soft caramel deglazed with strawberry pulp and balsamic vinegar from the Italian town of Modena.
The brothers had worked for high-tech ventures in Venezuela for years. Then, they decided to team up and start a chocolate-making enterprise. Richard would handle the business side, while Michael would create the company’s products. They named their company Chuao (pronounced chew-WOW), after a famous cacao-growing region in Venezuela. Today, Chuao brings in about $2.4 million in sales, said Richard Antonorsi. The company has about 30 full-time employees, as well as a host of part-timers working its six cafes.
The brothers’ business acumen allowed them to strive where many others fail, said Darren Solomon, a regional director for Pacific Community Ventures, a nonprofit organization that worked with the Antonorsis in the past. Chuao also is doing well because it delivers a unique, high-quality product, he added.
“They bring a lot of their culture and flair to the business,” Solomon said. “It’s a fun place to work and also a fun product.”
Asked how he gets ideas for his bonbons, Michael Antonorsi, Chuao’s master chocolatier, replied that he pretty much always thinks about food. Every time he tastes something new, he immediately thinks about how he could use it in his creations, he said. And he gets his ideas from all around the globe.
On a trip to India last April, he sampled a snack of fried lentils. “It was really crunchy and full of proteins,” he recalled. Back in San Diego, he mixed the fried lentils with roasted fennel seeds and coriander seeds in a bonbon that felt like a healthy and tasty granola bar, he said. He called it “300 yoga,” in honor of his driver in India. Uncle Surit, as Michael called him, would often say he knew “300 yoga,” then demonstrate some yoga positions.
Other Chuao creations were designed around a mood rather than a flavor. It took Michael Antonorsi two years to perfect his “firecracker” bonbon, which was released for this New Year’s celebrations. The chocolate maker wanted to evoke the holiday’s festive mood by using popping candy. But he could only find flavored candy, which wouldn’t work for the bonbon he had in mind. It took him two years to secure a manufacturer that would provide the unflavored variety.
“All your senses are engaged,” Michael said. “That’s entertainment.”
In addition to bonbons, Chuao also sells chocolate bars, hot chocolate, snacks and other goodies. Its cafés serve up beverages and cakes. “Chocolate makes you happy,” Michael Antonorsi points out, when asked why he gave up his career in high-tech. Of course, there is more to the story.
The brothers’ story
Richard Antonorsi lends his business savvy to the family enterprise.
Richard and Michael Antonorsi graduated from UCSD a year from one another in the mid-1980s, in computer science and bioengineering, respectively. Then the two brothers went back to their native Venezuela to pursue business ventures. After many years, they decided they needed a change. So Richard headed for Miami, where he ran an Internet bank, and Michael for Paris, where he enrolled in cooking school.
Then came the dot-com bust, which derailed Richard’s business. At the same time, Michael realized that life in the kitchen of a five-star restaurant, with its 16-hour days, was not for him. But he liked to make pastries and chocolates, a business that required a more reasonable time investment.
Michael Antonorsi points to one of the chocolate boxes featuring his creations.
Around the same time, the brothers also decided to move back to the United States, as a crime wave gripped Venezuela. “We all have children and families, so we wanted them to be safer,” Richard explained. The Antonorsis decided to come back to San Diego. Richard’s wife, also a UCSD alumna, is originally from San Diego and still has family here. In fact, Richard and his wife were married on campus, on the Sun God lawn, in 1990, surrounded by about 50 of their friends.
Once in the United States, the Antonorsis found financial backers and opened their first store in 2002. They saw it as an R&D shop, where they could test their bonbons and fine-tune their flavors. They wanted to make a statement that their brand would offer sweets that were different, unusual, but delicious, Michael said.
Cacao runs in the Antonorsi family. The brothers’ family used to grow the plant in Rio Caribe, one of Venezuela’s cacao-growing regions, known for its strong-flavored criollo beans. But the plantation, called Aguasanta (“Holy water” in Spanish) was neglected, like many others, once oil replaced cacao as Venezuela’s most-coveted resource.
Michael Antonorsi drying cacao in Venezuela.
The Antonorsis are trying to make up for that neglect by buying a cacao plantation in their native country. This would allow them to better control the quality of the cacao that goes into their products, Richard Antonorsi said. For now, Chuao has been buying chocolate from Venezuela and transforming it into various confections in a factory in Carlsbad.
Meanwhile, Aguasanta lives on as the name of the brothers’ sustainability initiative, which they are funding through proceeds from their chocolate sales. The Antonorsis are working with non-governmental organizations in Venezuela to provide training in cacao-growing techniques and medical services for isolated communities. Back in San Diego, Chuao also is providing jobs for low-income communities in its Carlsbad factory, said Solomon, the non-profit regional director.
Today, most Chuao stores are located in San Diego County, from Encinitas to University Towne Center. But the company also has a lone outpost in Irvine and another even farther away, in Florida. The company also has forged a partnership with the Coupa Café chain, with locations in Beverly Hills and Palo Alto. Its products also are showing up on shelves at Whole Foods, Ralphs and Safeway, among other retailers.
Chuao’s goal now is to launch a chain of stores statewide, targeting major metropolitan areas, said Richard Antonorsi. The goal is to help customers understand what Chuao is about – a story that’s much easier to tell in a full-blown café than on a few inches of shelf space, he said.
The brothers’ business has been so successful that a professor at the Rady School of Management, who also is a family friend, has asked the Antonorsis to mentor a group of students who wanted to start a gelato company. Richard Antonorsi said he would love to get a class going at Rady and talk to a younger generation about what it takes to create a successful business.
“In the end, street smarts prevail,” he said.
1984-85: Richard and Michael Antonorsi graduate from UCSD.
2002: The brothers open their first store in Encinitas.
2003: A second café opens in UTC.
2005: Chuao extends its reach beyond San Diego County, with a café in Irvine.
2007: The company opens its newest café in Coral Gables, Fla.