The Sweet Smell of Success"It was a lot of people offering help that didn't need to, which just reminded me of what a great community I live in and how supportive everybody is and so willing to help."
Valerie Conyngham's website is spare, elegant and to the point: Vianne Chocolat exists "because no one should waste their taste buds on bad chocolate."
Conyngham's business style is similarly smart and refreshingly down to earth. A full-time marketing professional, Conyngham has built her upscale chocolate business through hard work and good old-fashioned networking: She let her Boston neighbors and friends know what she was up to, and apparently they liked her enough to help.
There was the pastry chef at her husband's friend's restaurant who let Conyngham show up for the 4 a.m. shift twice a week to help with — aka learn — the baking business. In so doing, the chef inadvertently introduced Conyngham to the absolute and meditative joy of making chocolate.
"It's one of those things you can really zone out when doing it, and it's relaxing," Conyngham says. By zone out, she means "stay intently focused on the job at hand." Chocolate is fussy, she explains. "It's easy to make good chocolate go bad."
There was also the neighbor who invited a professional chef to one of Conyngham's block parties, just so the two could meet. They planned a private chocolate-making session that reinvigorated Conyngham's interest. (A pregnancy-driven aversion to chocolate and the demands of motherhood had sidelined her passion.)
And there was the babysitter who forwarded a Craigslist ad about a Boston company providing chocolate tours and classes — a tip that led to a teaching gig for Conyngham.
In addition, a photographer and artist each offered to assist with her Web launch.
"It was a lot of people offering help that didn't need to, which just reminded me of what a great community I live in and how supportive everybody is and so willing to help," she says.
If people are a product of their surroundings, it's Boston that gets credit for her original interest in cooking, too.
Raised in upstate New York, Conyngham says she had "a mother who worked and who loved her crockpot." After earning a marketing degree from the State University of New York, Conyngham followed a now ex-boyfriend to Boston. "He didn't last, but Boston did," she says. "I loved the city."
Later, another boyfriend, now her husband, showed how a bachelor eats: out. At Boston's finest restaurants, Conyngham discovered eating well.
"That was the defining point when I realized, 'Wow, I've been eating crap food all my life,'" she says.
Evening culinary school followed, then the early baking sessions, the weekends covered in chocolate, and so on.
Combining savvy marketing with an opportunity to give back to Boston, Conyngham uses, and promotes, local ingredients.
She buys her cream from Shaw Farm, in Dracut, Massachusetts, and her butter from Maple Farm Dairy, in Mendon, Massachusetts. The cost is not appreciably higher, except in time. Conyngham must make a 90-minute round via local mass transit to fetch the ingredients from a Somerville market.
The cream and butter are rich, and they improve the taste of the chocolate, she says. "It's worth it."
"There are tons of dairy farms in New England, and I have no idea why people are having their milk shipped in from Wisconsin," she says. "I hope if I start buying from these dairies, hopefully they'll get more exposure and it will be easier for people to go into their grocer and find these items."
Check out Valerie's Boston.