Chocolate has become a staple of our culture for holidays, birthdays and afternoon snacks. However, few people are more familiar with the making — and business — of gourmet chocolate than Jonathan Grahm, CEO of L.A.-based Compartés Chocolatier. Jonathan took over the company at 21 and bought the business from his family at 24. Since then, he has grown Compartés from a neighborhood fixture to a global brand renowned for its innovative flavors — like smoked salt, raspberry rose and Macallan Scotch and chocolate — and artful packaging.
We caught up with Jonathan to learn more about how he’s expanded the business over the last 15 years, why he remains personally involved in all aspects of the company, and what advice he would give to entrepreneurs who find themselves on a similar professional journey.
“As an entrepreneur, you want to create a space where you can be successful, not just strive to be average.”
You started working at Compartés at 15. What prompted your interest in the business at such a young age?
When Mrs. Comparte started the business in the 1950s, she wanted to make European-style chocolate, a process which involves using more dark chocolate in favor of the milk chocolate that was common here at the time. It was through my grandfather, a songwriter who wrote music with Mr. Comparte, that my family first got to know the chocolate business. He eventually bought the company from the Compartés and it’s been in my family ever since.
When I began working there in high school, it was still a traditional, old-fashioned chocolate shop. Because of my passion for food and art, I started to play around in the kitchen, decorating the chocolates with different colors and looking for new flavors that I thought would go well together. Being creative in this way allowed me to build a niche for Compartés, which helped us find success.
After a few years, you began to advocate for some changes to the chocolate and the family business. How receptive were customers and your family?
I wanted to experiment with things that were unique and different. For example, I created truffles with flavors like mango saffron and raspberry pink peppercorn. At first, the family wanted to maintain the status quo, but I had a big win when Food & Wine magazine deemed Compartés’ Love Nuts as one of America’s Top Foods. That recognition was encouraging and paved the way for change.
Later, when I bought the company from my family at 24, I changed everything from the cocoa we used to the logo — a total rebrand. Our customers have always been supportive because they’ve been on this journey with us. They get excited to see Compartés in new places, like in the airport or in J. Crew while they’re out shopping, and they always want to try the newest thing we’re putting out.
What’s the inspiration for Compartés’ packaging?
I wanted to create a brand that reflected me. As an L.A. native, I’m surrounded by this great melting pot of cultures, styles and flavors. Upscale chocolate tends to be packaged in a gold wrapper and can feel kind of stuffy, but I wanted Compartés to feel fresh and young. The packaging for our bars is always colorful, and sometimes includes my own drawings or photos from my travels. When we first came out with black boxes for the chocolates and truffles, we initially took some flak from the industry; but I wanted the colors on the chocolate to stand out more than anything else.
To that point, Compartés has often challenged the industry status quo. Why do you think it’s important for entrepreneurs to blaze new paths?
I believe that you have to create something that is different in order to offer value. As an entrepreneur, you want to create a space where you can be successful, not just strive to be average.
Compartés chocolate is now sold in 700 stores around the world. How do you stay true to your unique brand as you expand?
Recognizing what makes Compartés different, and relentlessly committing to that standard, allows us to stay true to our DNA as we grow. For example, our chocolate bars have always been made by hand: If you come into our shop, there are two women scooping them out individually. We also include unique ingredients (such as fresh donut crumbles for a local bakery), which are carefully selected depending on the type of chocolate bar. Because of this dedication to our craft, no two bars are exactly the same. It’s labor-intensive and it takes a lot of time, so many companies couldn’t maintain that degree of effort amid a global expansion, but that’s what makes our product great.
What additional advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
Take your time. Pick a focus and stick with it, because nothing good comes easy. I take a lot of time to make a decision. Sometimes, I feel like I might have missed an opportunity, but I always feel like I missed it for a reason. There’s a benefit to being deliberate: I find that when I can limit distractions, I’m able to stay focused on what I’m most passionate about — and that translates to the product.