Holy Cacao!

A year ago, El Rey’s chocolate was unknown in the U.S. now it’s chip-ping away at the competition.

May 1996By Comments

A FEW MONTHS AGO I RECEIVED A DESPERATE CALL from a friend with a serious sweet tooth. He had just finished reading about a fantastic new Venezuelan chocolate, and he insisted that I immediately call the 800 number for the company—Chocolates El Rey. “Maybe they have an office in Texas,” he suggested implausibly. “Maybe you could go to Venezuela and do a story. Maybe you can get samples.” Sure, right, I thought; at least it was a toll-free call. And that is how I discovered that the person behind the chocolate that is causing a sensation in restaurants from coast to coast is a Texan and that the company’s North American headquarters is located—quite implausibly—in Fredericksburg.

Several weeks later I found myself in the tiny offices of Randall Turner, the president of El Rey America (the U.S. division of Chocolates El Rey), looking at three of the biggest chocolate bars I had seen in my life—more than two pounds apiece. I picked one up and a sultry fragrance insinuated itself into the room. “Smells great, doesn’t it?” Turner said. I bit into a chunk of the bitter chocolate, and a dark, intense, saturated flavor filled my mouth. Then I tried the milk chocolate—a wimpy type I usually disdain. It was, in a word, magnificent: nutty, aromatic, complex, and ravishingly rich. Yes, I thought to myself. Yes!

If any company can be said to qualify as an overnight success, that company is El Rey. A year ago the company (whose name means “the King”) was unknown outside the chocolate industry. Now, in one bold move, it has invaded the territory of the two giants of the commercial chocolate business—France’s Valrhona and Belgium’s Callebaut. It is as yet being used in only a small number of restaurants, but a sampling of those reads like a list of America’s Most Chichi: Bouley, C.T., Restaurant Daniel, JoJo, Mesa Grill, Oceana, and Park Avenue Cafe in New York; Chanterelles and Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia; Frontera Grill and Le Français in Chicago; Campanile in Los Angeles; Rubicon in San Francisco; Norman’s in Miami; assorted Coyote Cafes; Jeffrey’s in Austin; and Restaurant Biga and Cascabel in San Antonio.

Chefs are raving. Serge Decrauzat, the Swiss-born pastry chef at New York’s Vong restaurant, says, “Their milk chocolate is the best I’ve had in my life. When I tasted it, I fell in love.” Jeffrey’s chef David Garrido says, “This chocolate is complex and really different, almost as if it had spices in it.” Dissenting voices can be found—several chefs thought El Rey’s flavor was “acidic” and not as refined or subtle as that of Valrhona, which many consider the best in the world—but detractors are in the minority.

Looked at from the outside, El Rey seems to have come from nowhere. But its seeming overnight success has in fact been carefully planned, and the person in this country who is ramrodding it is Rand Turner, a slow-talking Texas businessman who grew up in Maracaibo and Caracas and says his friends there call him the Venezuelan Texan. One day this past February I visited with Turner over lunch at the Peach Tree, Fredericksburg’s see-and-be-seen dining venue. A slim, moderately tall man in boots, neatly pressed jeans, and a leather vest with Indian head—nickel buttons, the 47-year-old Turner looked every bit the modern urban Texan. In between handshakes and hellos from acquaintances, he told me his story. “My parents are from Houston,” he began, “and back in the forties, Dad was an administrator with Humble Oil and Refining Company, the predecessor of Exxon.” Shortly after World War II his parents were transferred to Venezuela, and in 1949 Turner was born in Maracaibo. “My father made a point of speaking Spanish to me from the time I was an infant,” he said as we finished lunch with ice cream in Ghirardelli fudge sauce (“Wrong kind of chocolate,” he observed ruefully). But while his family valued a bicultural heritage, they didn’t want him to lose his American identity. So he attended summer camp in the Texas Hill Country, and when he was fourteen, he was sent off to Webb School, a prep school in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. It was there that Turner met Jorge Redmond Schlageter, with whom his fortunes were to become intertwined some thirty years later.

“Jorge and I became instant chums,” said Turner. Redmond’s father, a chemical engineer with Humble, had grown up in Louisiana, attended Rice University, and married a Venezuelan woman of French descent. It seemed of no consequence at the time, but Redmond’s mother’s family happened to be a minority shareholder in a domestic chocolate company—El Rey. After high school, the two friends parted but kept in touch. Turner got a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from South Texas School of Law in Houston. He married, started a family, and went to work for Sutherland Properties in Houston, a real estate development firm. Then, in 1989, he recalled, “Jorge phoned and said, ‘Meet me in New York. I want to discuss something with you.’”

What Redmond had in mind was becoming a major player in the chocolate industry. Some years before, his family had bought El Rey, and Redmond now wanted to expand its already considerable domestic business into the international market, supplying top-quality chocolate to restaurants, candymakers, and consumers. As the president of the company, he would oversee all operations, and he wanted his old friend to plan El Rey’s North American campaign. Turner didn’t have to think twice before saying yes.

Over the next six years, Redmond brought in a Swiss chocolate master and installed the finest European equipment, and he and Turner decided that their key marketing tool would be promoting the inherent superiority of Venezuelan cacao. The vast majority of the world’s chocolate is made from a variety of cacao known as Theobroma cacao forastero. Hardy and adaptable, forastero will grow anywhere from Africa to Malaysia to Brazil and produces vast quantities of so-called bulk beans, which make a basic but essentially boring and un-nuanced product. What gives chocolate its heady, intoxicating taste is the inclusion of small quantities of flavor beans, which come from two other varieties—criollo and trinitario—finicky types that thrive only in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia and on a few Caribbean islands. El Rey is made exclusively from flavor beans, and that fact has proved a persuasive selling point. In a final bold stroke, the company decided to price its upstart, unknown chocolate higher than every other commercial brand except Valrhona.

The plan is going like gangbusters. Last year El Rey took some thirty journalists and chefs to Venezuela to visit cacao plantations and inspect the company’s new $12 million plant. Over the past several months it has been giving chocolate seminar-dinners at fancy restaurants around the country and at the prestigious James Beard House in New York. This spring and summer Texas will begin to get El Rey’s pointed attention. And—good news for consumers—El Rey chocolate bars should be in specialty food stores later this year. In 1996 the company’s goal is to sell between 200,000 and 300,000 pounds of chocolate in North America. That amount is a mere chocolate drop compared with the millions of pounds sold here by a giant like Callebaut, but, as Turner says without blinking, the plant’s capacity is around 7 million pounds, and another production line can always be added. El Rey doesn’t intend to stop until it’s the king of the mountain.

El Rey accepts mail orders at 800-357-3999.

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