Chocolatier Ginger Elizabeth Hahn figured out her career path at a very young age. Since then, her singular focus, education and training in the culinary arts led her to open Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates five years ago in Midtown.
Ginger, Julia and Yan can cook
When Hahn was 5, Julia Child and Martin Yan’s TV cooking shows left her spellbound. Before long, Hahn was putting on cooking demos for her family and clipping recipes from Bon Appetit magazine. In pre-Food Network days, she watched the “Great Chefs” programs, but because the chefs never bothered to detail the ingredients, she experimented in the kitchen and figured out recipe measurements on her own.
Hahn’s mother was also a great influence. Her mother baked desserts and pastries from scratch and on one occasion made a cobbler using wild blackberries. Hahn has a vivid and visceral memory of the taste of the wild berries and marveling at how adding eggs, butter, flour and sugar to a simple fruit could be so transformative.
Shortly thereafter, Hahn attended a weeklong culinary camp for teenagers in Napa, Calif., and knew that she had found her life’s path. She next enrolled in culinary school at Santa Barbara City College and after graduating, went on to study in the pastry school at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
While in the Culinary Institute of America program, Hahn read a book about becoming a pastry chef and was struck by quotes about chocolate by master pastry chefs Jacques Torres and Daniel Budd. She eventually worked for them and learned techniques that served her well in her own business, including being inventive in recipes and “penny-pinching at every step.”
Hahn also apprenticed under World Pastry Cup gold medalist En-Ming Hsu at the Ritz Carlton, where she learned about making desserts from scratch and “changing the recipe 10 or 12 times before ever putting it on the menu.”
Hahn says that by age 19, she knew that chocolate was her particular calling in the pastry world. She talks knowledgeably and lovingly about creating chocolate recipes that have just the right flavor, texture, forkability (ease of eating), temperature and visual aesthetics.
Hahn cares deeply about her ingredients and their source. She traveled to Belize and saw the importance of cocoa trees in the people’s livelihoods. She witnessed the lengthy process of growing the bean through the many steps involved in making it into chocolate. The experience “taught me to respect chocolate and never take one bite for granted,” says Hahn.
Hahn has received accolades and attention for her chocolates. She was a featured chocolatier on the TV program “Chocolate Wars,” the Sacramento Business Journal named her as one of the “40 under 40” notable business owners and Dessert Professional magazine named her as one of the top ten Chocolatiers in North America.
Starting her chocolate business
In 2005, at age 24, Hahn opened a wholesale company, Couture Chocolates by Ginger Elizabeth. To fund the new venture, she maxed out her credit card to buy ingredients, spatulas, bowls, cabinets and trays. Local restaurateur Patrick Mulvaney rented her a table where she could work on her recipes and create her chocolates.
Hahn’s ultimate goal was to open a retail store, but she needed to establish two years of business experience before banks would consider loaning her funds.
Two years passed and in 2007, Hahn and her husband signed a lease on a Midtown space and opened Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates. Hahn says that she “tapped all her resources” in getting the business underway. Her husband Tom Hahn rebranded the business while her sisters helped set up the financial side.
Tom Hahn continues to do an “insane amount of work” that people cannot see, including finance, payroll, accounting, ordering, technology and permitting. “Anything there is – he does it all,” says Ginger Hahn. She also credits her head pastry chef Alison Preston and house manager Traci Tessier with building customer relationships and keeping things running smoothly. The combined efforts of her husband and staff of 12 allow her to do what she enjoys most – recipe testing.
Hahn buys her chocolate from producers who pay at or above fair trade prices to growers and who also invest in improving the farming communities. The producers process the cocoa beans into chocolate feves (similar to large chocolate chips), which Hahn then blends into a variety of desserts.
Hahn’s two young sons help taste-test Hahn’s new artisan chocolates, macarons (light meringue cookie sandwiches with filling) and ice cream treats. She values their fresh palates and unfiltered feedback. “Taste is subjective and people should eat what they like,” adds Hahn.
Future plans for the business
Since opening, the business has grown 20 to 40 percent each year. The Hahns recently leased warehouse space to provide more space for dessert-making and for holding classes and chocolate tastings.
When Hahn started her business, one of her top priorities was having an unprecedented positive kitchen environment. She says that the restaurant industry tends to treat workers poorly and she wanted to change the norm. Hahn makes sure her employees are fairly treated and also receive health care, she says.
Her second priority for starting her own business was to make the best chocolates in the world. She subscribes to Winston Churchill’s philosophy, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Hahn says that she is continually improving her skill level and striving for perfection.
Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates is located at 1801 L St., Suite 60. The store is open Tuesday-Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"Locally Owned” is a regular column highlighting local business owners; the backbone of our community and economy. Each column explores the personal stories of owners and the businesses they built.