Dr. Chocolate’s Chocolate Chateau

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

This is the debut of Unsolicited Advice, a new feature on Heavy Table. Unsolicited Advice columns are brief, focused pieces of constructive criticism from a diner’s or customer’s perspective.

When Dr. Chocolate’s Chocolate Chateau popped onto our radar a number of months ago, it seemed like a mirage: A towering, multi-story temple of chocolate, with educational, retail, event, and other miscellaneous spaces all located in a stately mansion on Selby Ave. in St. Paul.

Open since February, the Chateau is marked by a meek little sign out front. An enterprise this ambitiously wild calls for some combination of neon and glass filled with pumping liquid cocoa, or the visual equivalent. Or, at least, something carved, wooden, and Wonka-looking.  A workaday welcome mat pressed into service as a welcome sign adds to the visual letdown of a visit to the Chateau. Where’s the chocolate fairyland we were promised?

SUGGESTION #1: Underpromise, Over-Deliver

The Facebook page for Dr. Chocolate’s Chocolate Chateau contains the following promise: “Dr. Chocolate’s Chocolate Chateau will be a four-floor chocolate shop, eating establishment, exhibition hall, gift store and event center dedicated to the world’s favorite flavor. Soon you will be able to buy the finest gourmet chocolates, brush up on your history in The Story of Chocolate, our 2000 sq ft interpretive center, and peruse the Doctor’s Chocolate Hall of Fame.”

But the actual store delivers this: a chocolate store and gift shop that wouldn’t be out of place at an upscale mall or airport.

Marketing hype becomes destructive when it sets down expectations that aren’t met. In the case of Dr. Chocolate’s, the marketing strongly suggests a Wonka-like chocolate fairyland, while the shop itself delivers… well, nothing particularly special (see below).

It can be argued that all the wonderful things that have been promised for months are around the corner, but in the world of retail and restaurants, nothing matters but the actual execution. And in the meantime, the brand is associated with a run-of-the-mill chocolate shop in an interesting building, not a game-changing fantasy experience. So, after making a strategic improvement or two (see below), relaunch with what you’ve got: a chocolate shop in a nice house in St. Paul. Build from there. Promise nothing you can’t immediately deliver.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

SUGGESTION #2: Make Something

When we walked into the Chateau, we saw lots of mass-produced chocolate treats and doodads imported from all over the world, but few traces of Minnesota and nothing that was made by the shopkeepers’ own hands. Our first question to the clerk was: “Do you guys make the chocolates?” and what followed was a pair of conflicting explanations: “No, not yet, we’re waiting for a kitchen” and “the owner’s approach is to gather the best of the best from all over the world.”

This is absurd. Dr. Chocolate doesn’t make chocolate? He’s a purveyor of other people’s chocolate, shipped in via UPS? A customer coming to Dr. Chocolate’s should be able to experience something special, something different, something flamboyant, and something house-made. Otherwise, seriously, why all the hype? Why come back? Why come at all?

IN SUMMARY: The idea has promise — all that needs to happen is for the exuberant imagination that created the name and concept to manifest itself in the physical space and / or in something house-made that the public can taste and enjoy. And when either happens, we’ll be the first in line to see what chocolate masterpiece Dr. Chocolate hath wrought.

Dr. Chocolate’s Chocolate Chateau, 579 Selby Ave, St. Paul; 651.379.3676

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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13 Comments

  1. I agree that Dr. Chocolate has a lot of promise but is not there yet. They really need to make at least some their own treats as soon as possible. (The Cities need more serious hot chocolate, and spiked hot chocolates).

    CocoaBella (http://www.cocoabella.com/) in SF is a great example of what Dr. Chocolate could do in terms of selling other companies chocolates. Not a trip to SF goes by where I don’t go to CB. If Dr. Chocolate could sell (their own and others) artisanal chocolates from around the globe across the cost spectrum, I might find myself at the corner of Selby and Dale more often.

  2. I live a block away and had no idea it was even open yet. C’mon, roll out the welcome mat to your neighbors! Don’t hang it on the building…

  3. Ironically I found myself at this establishment earlier today thinking much of what Mr Norton states in his review. Seriously if you stake the claim of representing the best of the best, then deliver. Lake Champlain chocolate and a sprinkling of others is hardly going to get people clamoring to come back. Even the counter bonbons and truffles are not enough to warrant a revisit. I was expecting an ecclectic selection of premium artisanal products. As it currently stands, a visit to Max’s in SLP, Surdyk’s, or France44, would easily outdo this place. Additionally, not a single local purveyor was represented. Alas, these are the beginnings of The Chateau and I can only hope Mr Chocolate realizes the fierce loyalty of MSP to the local foods movement, as well as the more sophisticated and discerning palates of the area’s foodies.

  4. I don’t even live in the area any more but check in with this site occasionally. gotta say that the name ..’dr chocolate’s chocolate chateau’ annoyed me the first time and every time I hear it. it radiates nothing but juvenile silliness.

  5. joe allen03/31/2012Reply

    Mr. Norton,

    I appreciate your frankness in this piece, and willingness to tell us like it is. Thanks, keep up the good work!
    J. Allen

  6. I bet he really only has a master’s degree in chocolate….

  7. And one more thing….Change the ridiculous name! It should be “Chateau Chocolate” (with a French accent!)

  8. buridan's paradox04/05/2012Reply

    this article’s a bit too harsh. granted, the place is still pretty rough since they only have really one level open. but they do have a good selection of chocolates, some of them ranked the best in the country. olive oil chocolate, yummy. curry spiced, great!

    also, the author shows naivety in asking, “do you make any of the chocolates?” there are very few chocolatiers in this country because it’s a very difficult molecular process that requires expensive machinery.

  9. The commenter shows he or she is a troll by confusing the questions “Do you make any of the chocolates?” with “Do you make any of the chocolate?”

  10. Michael Swensen06/03/2012Reply

    I have been to the establishment and I must agree that this review is indeed a bit harsh, though the “chateau” still has a long way to go. I also have a feeling that many of these commenters have spent very little time in the building and didnt bother to ask about future plans, or to talk to Dr. Chocolate himself (who by the way has a PHD in Psychology, for all those questioning the “doctor” title).

    I was given a personal tour by the shop manager, and was able to see the development of the museum and subsequent event levels (the potential of which left me in awe!). It really is a beautiful building and with some dedicated work I have no doubt that it could become a chocolate wonderland of sorts.

    As for the chocolate – from what I understand the chateau has an ever-growing selection, and also now has at least some products made in store… as well as wine, ice cream, liqueur, etc. The manager told me that they were working on creating their own original signature ice cream flavors* (yes plural) as well, but we will see if that ever bears fruit.

    Overall, the building is beautiful, the staff is friendly, and the chocolate is delicious. Time will tell what lies ahead, and you know what they say about Rome…

  11. I just attended their first brunch event and have to say that they have really improved on everything mentioned in this post!
    The food was fantastic and the service was very good. I even had a mimosa!
    There was no welcome mat posted, just welcoming clerks when I walked in the door.
    The only complaint I have is that it was too hot on the third floor. I was really happy to hear they got it fixed!
    I was satisfied and will be going back; I would definitely recommend it to a friend.

  12. Carrie – I attended the brunch in the afternoon ad while the air conditioning was repaired, they had run out of most food, including anything with chocolate in it. They had no plates, cool coffee and cold food.

  13. We also attended the brunch and were completely disappointed and we had even made reservations. They were out of many items including the only chocolate thing on the menu, the chocolate french toast. The rest of the items were either hot if they were supposed to be cold and cold if they were supposed to be hot. They did bring out some fresh eggs however when I tried them they were only partially cooked. They did offer to re-cook them but I declined. At that point we were fed up with entire affair and regretting we went.The only chocolate topping they had was a chocolate pudding. We bave been routing for this place but they just can’t seem to execute. Such a cool concept but they are seriously failing to deliver. I am also curious where Dr. Chocolate himself was? They promised he would be at this brunch and we could meet him. Never saw him. We did stop by once in the past to have a truffle and wine and the service was great. I am still hoping they can pull this place together.

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