Truffle is her Business

“This is such a fun job,” says Jean Joyce Thompson ’82, CEO and co-owner of Seattle Chocolate Company, “because I’m completely my demographic. I’m a forty-something woman who loves chocolate, so it’s really easy for me to market it.”

Take the six-month-old Chick Chocolates line, which Thompson created as a counterpoint to the staid elegance that characterizes her competition. Among premium mass-market brands like Godiva, Lindt, and Ghirardelli, “nobody is really having much fun with chocolate,” Thompson says.

“It’s always so serious and so gifty,” she says — an approach, it’s true, that remains key to her firm. “Why do we have to wait for chocolate as a gift? The reality is that most women eat chocolate every day. We want it. We need it.”

Hence Chick Chocolates. If Lindt and company are the Three Tenors of chocolate, these Chicks are the Go-Go’s — colorful, whimsical, casual enough for everyday and yet substantial where it counts.

The Chicks come in three flavors, each with its own identifying cartoon woman on the lipstick-shaped box. Nutty Chick has toffee and almonds; Strong Chick is calcium-fortified to benefit the bones; and Extreme Chick is dark chocolate, 55 percent cacao vs. 37 percent for the others, and embedded with roasted bits of cocoa bean.

“She’s really good,” Thompson says

Many have likely said the same about Thompson herself. In spring 2003, just months after taking the Seattle Chocolates helm, she shook things up by landing the contract to produce Bon-Macy Frangos, sweets beloved for nearly a century in the Pacific Northwest.

For about a decade, another firm had made these filled chocolates for Bon-Macy’s, a department-store chain originally called The Bon Marché. (Bon-Macy’s Frango, it should be noted, shares a lineage but not a recipe with the Midwestern Marshall Field’s Frango.)

“At Christmastime, here in the Northwest, everybody gives everyone they know a box of Frangos,” Thompson says. “It’s a tradition, and there’s only one place to buy them, and that’s at Bon-Macy’s. So Bon-Macy’s became my biggest customer.”

The move brought a vital revenue stream to Seattle Chocolates, which employs about 40 year round, and made Thompson a chocolatier to watch. “It increased our sales last year by 55 percent,” she says. “That gave me instant credibility with my employees, with the rest of the industry — they were like, ‘Oh, wow, she’s really a player.’ “

The company’s core business is truffles, those bon-bons with the rich meltaway center protectively clad in harder chocolate. The Seattle Chocolates aesthetic is European — the literal engines of the firm, in fact, are truffle machines from Italy and Germany. The firm puts less sugar into its chocolate than many American brands, and uses all-natural premium ingredients, including chocolate imported from Germany.

Already enjoying a longstanding beachhead with the hip&cool Target chain, Thompson aims to build a year-round, nationwide appetite for Seattle Chocolates. In addition to hatching Chicks and wrangling Frangos, she has put chocolates in resealable “everyday” bags and introduced Skinny Truffles, sweetened with a sugar alcohol to appeal to the low-carb and diabetic markets.

Now majority owners, the Thompsons — husband Rick Thompson ’81 is a Microsoft vice-president — had been longtime investors in the firm, which was 10 years old when Jean went there in 2002. A former marketing specialist for Microsoft, she had just volunteered to apply that expertise at the chocolate company when the CEO abruptly quit and she assumed that role.

Thompson has learned to do some of everything at the chocolate factory, paying her dues on the production floor in lab coat, hairnet, and booties. “This is sort of a liberal arts job,” she says. “I have that diversity of challenges, and I’m surrounded by people of all different backgrounds, skill sets.”

Kind of like Bates? “Exactly,” she says. “Bates was truly four of the happiest years of my life, and now I’m feeling that sort of joy at coming to work every day.”