Have you ever wondered what the colour turquoise might taste like? Jacqueline Jacek, owner of Jacek Chocolates, has, and according to her it tastes like blueberry jasmine tea. I first became acquainted with Jacek and her chocolates at a Poppy Barley design event and I was instantly smitten. The vibrant colours, the exquisitely tempered chocolate, and Jacek’s sparkling personality drew me in. I wanted to know more so I visited Jacek at her current location, where I got a sneak peek at where the magic happens.
The chocolate “studio” is tucked away amongst industrial buildings on the west end of Sherwood Park, near Baseline Road. It used to be a bakery but now is done up in a Parisian style, with pale blue accents and a glittering chandelier. In the back, three chocolatiers were busy working on the Christmas collection and stirring thick melted chocolate that would soon be poured into moulds and made into bars. I was given a tiny spoon to dip into one of the vats. At first the silkiness of dark chocolate was all I tasted, followed by a powerful kick of ginger. It tasted good, but it would be even better once the chocolate was properly cooled.
Jacek’s chocolates are more stunning to look at than many fine chocolates you’ll find in Edmonton, though what really sets her apart is her fashion business model. Each season she and her team come up with a collection of six new chocolates. Says Jacek, “We don’t have a static product line, we’re always designing. We are not a factory.” Sometimes they’re inspired by the fashion runways of that season, sometimes by a cocktail menu in a San Francisco speakeasy (the most recent collection was called the Roaring ’20s) and sometimes by a thought like “What would colour taste like?” Though it’s hard work creating new chocolates all the time, Jacek assures me, “We have so many ideas. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of ideas.”
Jacek has always had an entrepreneurial spirit; her first business was making and selling designer hats at the age of 11. Later, after finishing a marketing degree and spending some time in the corporate world, she realized that her true calling was to start a business of her own that would make people happy. And the best way to make people happy? Chocolate.
While chocolate is pure delight for most, to many of us its enjoyment is fraught with knowledge of the major economic and human rights issues often inherent in its cultivation. Jacek chocolates are not advertised as fair trade. So, as responsible consumers, can we feel good eating them? Jacek’s answer reflects the standpoint of her suppliers, Valrhona — one of the most luxurious chocolate producers in the world — and Cacao Berry: “Fine chocolate companies need to buy the best beans. To buy the best beans you have to work with the farmers to help them create the best beans. And you have to pay the best price. So, by virtue of getting the best chocolate, you are supporting the farmers who are working hard.”
Why doesn’t Jacek advertise the source of their chocolate? “We don’t use a lot of the ethical sourcing piece in our marketing because I think that’s a minimum standard for doing business. I don’t think that’s something we should be proud of, I think that’s an absolute minimum everybody should do.”
In keeping with this theme, Jacek tries to buy local whenever possible. While the majority of their ingredients cannot be found in Alberta (cocoa being the prime example as it only grows near the equator) the team recently spent three days juicing beets from Kuhlmann’s farms for the Magenta chocolate in their summer collection.
Besides their ingredients, Jacek seems to have an unofficial policy of teaming up with other local businesses. She donated her time and her chocolate to Poppy Barley’s event, and she hired two local designers to develop the new store: she’s their first customer and is eager to help them get their own business started. Her online marketing and web design — two things that would be easy to outsource — are provided by locals Bluetrain and Paper Leaf. These choices are obvious to Jacek: “It’s so intrinsic to who we are.”
While their chocolates are carried in a number of Edmonton stores now, the new store on 104 Street will make them even more accessible to their fans, and Jacek can’t wait: “I’ve always loved 104 Street. It’s my personal favourite street.” The only location she considered when thinking about expanding, Jacek believes that the charmingly upscale feel of the street fits their brand and put the business right in the thick of the foodie scene in Edmonton. Being uniquely positioned on the spectrum between retail and food, Jacek said she trusts she has a good chance of surviving where other stores have struggled. The risk is outweighed by the chance to be close to customers, to provide them with the service they deserve, and it’s “more reflective of who we are” than their current location. And with new chocolates coming out every season, customers have a reason to keep coming back.
Jacek graciously gave me a box of the summer collection to try and I barely managed to suppress my squeal of glee before leaving the store. Each one was an adventure of visual beauty, taste and texture. The dark exterior of the Chartreuse gave way to a brilliant green pistachio filling. The sweetness of the cassis in the Periwinkle was softened by the blonde ganache and the crisp dark chocolate. The Magenta tasted like beets and the Tangerine tasted like oranges, while the Turquoise lilted gently between blueberry and jasmine. Unlike many chocolates I’ve tried, the flavours didn’t overwhelm or steal attention from the chocolate, but blended seamlessly with it. A well-made chocolate should snap when bitten and melt gently on the tongue, and these do both. After such a satisfying experience, I will be sure to return each season to see what new marvels Jacek and her team come up with.
The new store will be open mid-July if all goes well and buying local chocolate will be easier than ever. As Jacek puts it, “I think buying local’s important, but we shouldn’t expect people to buy local just because it’s local. They should buy local because it’s a better product.” Thankfully here in Edmonton we have plenty of businesses that are setting the bar high and making shopping local the easy choice. Jacek Chocolates is one of them.
Editor’s note: You can read about more hidden gems in most of the city’s independent retail hotspots in Marliss Weber’s post about various shopping districts in town.