Dude, Sweet's Katherine Clapner Wants to Grow Her Chocolate Empire, and "Not Where You'd Normally Think"
Katherine Clapner is much more punk rock than your average chocolatier. After spending decades in some of the best kitchens in Dallas and across the globe, Clapner has settled into a chocolate-covered takeover of Dallas-Fort Worth with her Dude, Sweet Chocolate shops. Since opening in Dallas' Bishop Arts district, Clapner has opened two more stores, one on Lower Greenville and another in Fort Worth.
Steve Visneau " It wasn't that I never wanted Dude, Sweet to grow. We were just surviving."
Now Clapner is looking toward the future. I sat down to talk with the creative queen of Dude Sweet about how her business has changed in the last few years, working with some seriously weird ingredients, and what she's planning for the future of her funky chocolate shop.
When Lauren Drewes Daniels interviewed you for the Observer in 2011, you were pretty swamped dealing with the operations side of Dude, Sweet Chocolate. Has that changed in the last few years?
Yes and no. I don't have to do all of the packing anymore, but as we've grown, the work has changed. Now we have three stores, a much better online store, and more events and wholesale customers. As you grow, you have to hire people so that you can continue to do what you do. We have a larger kitchen now, let's just start there. We've changed locations, and that's been the most fundamental difference. We got the guys into a kitchen where they can actually spread out a little bit. We got the people who were packing the chocolate into a space where they weren't just packing boxes on a 6-foot table.
It's not just the physicality of actually making the chocolate, you have to put it in a bag. Then put it in a box, put on a sticker, separate it for stores, and handle the wholesale orders. At that time, I was a part of everything until around early 2012. At that point, lots of things were changing, we moved to the new factory. If you want to be able to concentrate on the things that you're good at, then you need to let your employees do the things that they're better at than you. I would never be able to do my job - create the menus, figuring out new products and just handling the vision of Dude, Sweet without my team -- because I wouldn't have had any time. My time is different now. I'm not as obligated in some areas, but I'm still busy. The busy is just different now. I'm not flying by the seat of my pants as much, but there's some of that. But I like this a lot better. I'm better at that than talking to customers.
I would imagine that your customers are always wanting to talk to you about chocolate. Is that draining?
It can be draining, but it's really, really nice. My biggest flaw right now is that I don't spend enough time at our locations on Lower Greenville and in Fort Worth, and I need to do more of that. I like talking to our customers, and I think it's really good for the staff too. There's a story behind each of our chocolates, and I think people like to hear that. It's only hard when I'm under the gun and I'm really concentrating on molded projects. I still do some projects out of the Bishop Arts store, and it's really hard because I don't want to be rude or dismissive. But if I have a moment and the chocolate is at the right temperature, I either have to go for it, or I have to wait another two hours to make it. And that's a total buzzkill.
When you started Dude, Sweet, was there a specific vision that you had for expanding your brand into different places and doing different things culinarily?
Not at all. It started as a collaboration with my business partner. I never envisioned us having more than one store, much less three. I never thought it would be possible to have three stores and a great chocolate factory. Now I can say, "I want to open 20 stores." We do something kind of unique. Our staff is pretty cool. At the beginning, there wasn't any time to think about growing. But now, I want to talk about doing more collaboratives. I can spend more time thinking about what I should be doing, and what would be cool for us to do.
Who the hell has time for that? When you're in the mix, it's just about making it from day to day. We were working all hours, just my business partners and three other people. We were just trying to keep all the people that we have, and we've done good. We haven't had to lay people off. It's cost us a fortune, but that was so important to us. It wasn't that I never wanted Dude, Sweet to grow, we were just surviving. And there are still those days of just surviving. My operations manager, Robert, calls his to-do list the "daily failure." For me, it's a three week failure right now, and I have to get my ass in gear to make it happen because I'm under a gun. This conversation would have been vastly different two years ago. I wouldn't have been able to let my staff handle so much of the work. Now, like today, I can come in and tell everyone that I need to make scones. We don't serve scones, but I've got to turn in a recipe.
What are you making scones for?
It's for some blog thing that I'm really not quite sure what I'm supposed to be doing, but I know I've got to write four recipes I've been making scones for 15 years, but this recipe isn't exactly working out right now. We've also never done a blog, I need to do a blog. If someone could teach me how to do a fuckin' blog, that would be fabulous. I'm also working on some new recipes for the Chefs For Farmers cookbook. I'm just trying to not be in everyone's way right now.
One thing that I've always found interesting about Dude, Sweet is the infusion of so many savory ingredients into your chocolates.
I look at stuff rather simply. For one, I don't like really sweet chocolate. If you're using really good chocolate, why would you want to add a whole hell of a lot of sugar to what you've just done? You've negated all the nuances of using good chocolate. Everybody talks about the blue cheese fudge, it's been around since 2009, and I'm so fucking bored with it. But I can't get rid of it. I told Stephan Pyles, and he laughed and said, "I hear ya, cowboy ribeye." That was just another fat. When I do chocolate, I think of another type of fat that I can use or some way to cut through sweet.
The Fungus Amongus chocolate came from the fact that I really like the texture of butter toffee, but I just don't really like them in anything but ice cream. Everything's got salt, everything's got acid- it's kind of like a yin and yang. I make what I like. There was no master plans to doing savory chocolates. I just said fuck it, and looked at the ingredients to figure out what worked. If I can't put my name behind any product, that's not good. So, I make what I like. When you have menus, you have to balance. You've got to have the nuts, for example. Everyone asks about chocolate and almonds, so you've got to have it. Then you have to make some things that are for yourself. But even with the chocolates that aren't really my thing, I'm still proud to put my name behind it.
When I go to other chocolate shops, I see a lot of pretty bonbons in glass cases, and it seems like that kind of store would make it easier to make changes to the menu. When everything is constantly rotating, it's easy to try new things. Do you think it's different for what you're doing at Dude, Sweet, where the menu is set?
I don't know. Our stuff is a little rough around the edges. We're not perfect, pretty little bonbons. It's not that I don't like it, it's just not what we do. You put a bunch of blocks of chocolate in a case, a bunch of brown squares, it's not that interesting. Our store is a place for people to try new chocolate, and take something home to eat. That is our dynamic. It's about that kind of experience. You can forget what colors shit has been painted, but you're much less likely to forget what you tasted. Everything about us is about eating the chocolate.
The ingredients for making chocolate are, obviously, expensive. Was that difficult to figure out in terms of setting a price point that people expect?
We start with the chocolate and then price accordingly. That's it. You always want to go get a better price, that's a given. But if you're going to start using different product, you might as well go find a new profession. The product and the quality isn't up for debate, we'll charge accordingly for the good stuff. But you know what, we're getting better at it. We have more and more capabilities of ordering chocolate at a lower price. But I won't switch out for quality.
Do you see that at other chocolate shops?
I can taste it.
You're going to Aspen this week.
Aspen has been a kerfuffle already. We're currently not totally sure what's going on, and I'm leaving on Thursday morning. I know that I'm doing one party, a Texas-themed party on Friday night. It's going to be hosted by Kevin Williamson, the man who used to be in charge of Austin Food & Wine. We have a Texas group.
Matt McCallister is going, Kyle McClelland at Driftwood, Michael Martensen with Proof & Pantry, we're all going up and serving food to 300 people. Because I'm up there, the guy that owns these super-fab single origin mescals is in town, and now I'm going to be making other chocolates because there's the potential for a possible party. It's about 90% in stone, and it would be with Jose Andres, which is a big fuckin' deal. We're in a scramble to make something right now, so when I'm done with this, I'm going to make some sort of fuckin' badass truffle that's going to pair with one of the top 5 chefs in the world. But I have no fuckin' clue what I'm going to make.
It seems like you kind of thrive in a state of constant flux.
I do, it works for me. But I don't like surprises. Well, at least not for myself. I love surprising other people.
What does the future look like at Dude, Sweet?
I know what I hope it holds, but if I say it out loud, I might jinx it. I think the future looks a lot like what we're doing now, just in a lot more places. Not just where you'd normally think. I think we'll land in many other places that you wouldn't imagine a chocolate company to land.
That's pretty cryptic.
It is cryptic. It's intentionally cryptic, but I definitely think there will be more stores. We're still figuring out the logistics of what that means for us right now. We've got to get the chocolate to these stores, figure out how to drive it between any of these new locations. One of the most important things to me, though, is staff training. I don't think we've done that poorly, but I don't think we've done a great job of that. They're great, and nothing's gone wrong, but I'd like to be around for them a little bit more. But I don't really have time to think about the future right now. Right now, I'm thinking, what the hell am I going to make to impress Jose Andres?
Do you have any ideas or plans in mind?
No fucking clue. I'm going to look at what ingredients I've got back there and maybe even go down to Bishop Arts to see what I have there. This is kind of a big deal. He is Ron Burgundy.
Speaking of ingredients, are there any that you're really just itching to use?
I won't answer that. You want to know why? Because I never know until I see it. I never stop looking for ingredients. I'll go into Kurry King on a Saturday when I'm going to the Farmer's Market, and I'll find something. I've got some stuff from the trip to the Dominican Republic that I'm really looking forward to playing with. I really want to tell that story, and that's coming very soon. Probably sometime in July. To tell the story, and this is a fuckin' expensive chocolate, is pretty unique.
Have you visited a lot of chocolate producing countries?
I've only been to two, Peru and the Dominican Republic. I would really like to see Colombia or Venezuela, but they are always at fucking war. Shit is always going down there. Nicaragua would also be really great.
Do you see the turmoil in these countries impact your business?
Not really, that shit is always expensive. We haven't taken tremendous hits through the years, but it's a good thing that everyone knows what's going on in these countries and that really great chocolate is expensive. If you're shopping in a store like mine or Sucre in New Orleans, you know that you're buying good stuff. There's a pretty relative price across the board, and we're all playing pretty much in the same field. When I look at other prices, we're pretty level with other chocolatiers.