It’s fair to say that Jonathan Grahm, known in some circles as “the chocolate prince,” is big in Japan. Years ago, the Los Angeles-based chocolatier won a competition in Tokyo – the only American in a sea of Old World European expertise – and has been racing to keep up with demand there ever since. His refined truffles are available in department stores across Japan, and this year he had 72 Valentine’s Day popup shops.
Chocolatier Jonathan Grahm, president of Compartes
“In Japan, they thought American chocolate was M&Ms, and it’s nice to shatter those stereotypes,” says Grahm.
While other international projects – including a Shanghai store opening in 2013 – are on the horizon, the 28-year-old Grahm would like to see his stateside business catch up. In spite of a thriving business in Japan, he has just one store in the United States, on South Barrington Avenue in Los Angeles. But he’s moving into a larger new factory this winter, where he’ll be tripling the number of employees. And while coy about identifying specific players, he says nationwide brands have expressed interest in carrying his chocolates. “Now, with a bigger factory, I can start considering those offers,” he says.
Long before Grahm went to Tokyo, Compartes was building its brand. Founded in 1950 by Grahm’s grandmother and joined by his father, Compartes offered organic chocolates, handmade daily. An L.A. institution, Henry Kissinger, Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe have reportedly licked their fingers at the Compartes counter.
Grahm started working in the shipping department when he was 15. “My dad and grandma didn’t want to hand me anything on a silver platter,” he says. Four years ago, the business was stagnating and for sale –with no immediate takers. Jonathan was full of ideas, so he bought out his family members and set to work overhauling the entire operation.
“I kept the name the same, but reinvented the recipes and branding,” he says. The company was reborn, moved from being in the red to the black, and the good press started rolling. Grahm says Compartes is the only chocolate that has ever received a perfect score from Bon Appetit, and was rated “top of the nation” in Food & Wine magazine. He has supplied chocolates for the Academy Awards and supermodel Heidi Klum.
Current offerings at Compartes are hard to describe without drooling. Grahm offers a range of products, including chocolate bars, marshmallows, toffees and over 200 varieties of truffles – all, he says, influenced by L.A.’s “melting pot of cuisines, cultures and global elements.” Think: mango and saffron, kaffir lime and lemongrass, strawberry and balsamic, blackberry and sage, olive oil and rosemary. One of his specialties is the fusion of chocolate and salt, including smoked sea salt and honey peanut butter and sea salt. “I think the salt really enhances the flavor,” he says. “Even when I make brownies at home, I sprinkle of pinch of sea salt over the pan.”
His first creation for Compartes came at the age of 18, when he invented Love Nuts — hand-roasted nuts, caramelized in Tahitian vanilla bean, covered in sea salt and wrapped in single-origin Venezuelan chocolate and coated in extra dark cocoa powder. (Grahm credits his mother, who died shortly before his 18th birthday, with the refinement of his young palette.) Love Nuts ended up in Food & Wine magazine as one of the best food buys in America.
The artisanal chocolate market is extremely competitive, even saturated, but Grahm says his creations sell because of both his inventiveness and his old-fashioned commitment to chocolate. “I evoke nostalgia,” he says. “There’s a movement towards the vitamin-izing of super-bitter chocolate, and it’s great that it has these healthy properties. But for me, chocolate is a pleasure and that’s why people crave it.”
Grahm hopes to satisfy those cravings, and that’s where his Japanese business comes in. He’s using his Asian success story as a testing ground for his American expansion. “There are a lot of lessons I’m learning there that I’m probably going to apply to my expansion here,” he says, noting flavor combinations, transit issues and seasonal product variation. He is testing certain products in the Japanese market –cakes and cookies based on some of his mother’s old recipes – that he hopes to bring to his American clientele.
Meantime, Grahm is amused by his lopsided success. “When I go to Japan, people want my autograph, and in L.A., people come in and ask me if they can speak with the owner,” he says. He would like to have a store in New York City by 2014. “I want Compartes shops all over the country,” he says. “Gourmet chocolate was always something people looked to the Europeans for, but now I’m putting an American face on it.”