The CFO'S Perspective

Spotlight on Remarkable: Fran’s Chocolates – From an Idea to the White House

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Chocolate is for sale everywhere. Consumers can purchase it ready to eat at their local grocery stores or over the internet. They can buy it in a variety of forms for use in creating their own culinary delights. They have a vast selection of price and quality from which to choose. 

So, what did it take for one more company making chocolates to achieve the impressive success of Fran’s Chocolates? What was so special about the confections that started as giveaways to customers buying other products to something that a President of the United States chose to give as gifts to visitors to the White House? 

She Prepared

A native of Seattle, Fran Bigelow studied accounting at the University of Washington. During subsequent time spent in California, she developed an interest in food. A chance visit to a Paris chocolate shop in 1969 was the inspiration for what eventually became a new career. Chocolates available in the US paled in comparison to the rich flavors she sampled in Paris. She envisioned creating the world’s best chocolate and making it available to everyone. 

She studied at the California Culinary Academy and earned a degree in baking and pastry. Upon her return to Seattle, she opened her first shop, Fran’s Patisserie & Chocolate Specialties, in 1982. She worked in the kitchen preparing European-style pastries and confections and worked behind the counter serving customers. 

She Had A Vision

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Fran never lost her vision of creating the world’s best chocolate. She gradually refined her recipes as well as sourcing only the highest-quality ingredients. She is now regarded as one of the best chocolatiers in the nation. Her son, Dylan, attended the Culinary Institute of America, and has achieved status as a chocolatier equal to his mother. Fran’s daughter, Andrina, has an MBA from Cornell’s Johnson School and is now CEO of Fran’s Chocolates.  

Entrepreneurs often see a need for a product or service that isn’t being met, and they start a business designed to meet that need. Others believe they can deliver a product or service that’s better than what’s currently available. Fran Bigelow fits in that group. There was certainly no lack of chocolate products available to American consumers. Her experiences in Paris taught her that chocolate could be made better, and she believed there was a niche market for it in the States.

She Made Quality Her Priority

Other entrepreneurs have often started the same way. They discover a niche market and create a way to satisfy it. The road to success is littered with their failures. Why wasn’t Fran one of them?  

Fran started with a vision of what she wanted. She wanted to create the best chocolate in the world, and she built her company on a foundation of using only the finest ingredients and providing exceptional customer service. Many business owners know that having a mission statement is crucial because it can shape who and what they are. Equally important is a vision statement because it describes their reason for being. Starting with her first taste of Parisian chocolate half a century ago, Fran never compromised her vision of making the best quality chocolates.

She Didn’t Give Up

In the years since 1982, Fran has undoubtedly experienced failures or setbacks. Some recipes were disappointments, and some ingredients weren’t as good as they should have been. Building a business can be hard work, challenging, and financially risky. But Fran persevered.  

Her perseverance helped Fran join the ranks of entrepreneurs such as Mark Cuban, Steve Jobs, Simon Cowell, Walt Disney, and Thomas Edison, among many others. Failures to successful entrepreneurs are just an opportunity to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start over. Fran’s first truffles were giveaways to customers standing in line for her bakery products. That didn’t stop her from continuing to perfect her recipes.

She Had the Right Stuff

Some experts attribute a lack of perseverance to an individual's character, such as: 

  • A habit of giving up when things are difficult
  • Unrealistic expectations of an easy life
  • Believing that success is a destination rather than a journey
  • Being inflexible rather than resilient
  • Not having a vision of what they want 

Because stick-to-itiveness is personal, there are probably a lot more reasons why some entrepreneurs are successful while others aren’t. Whatever else her strengths or weaknesses might be, Fran had a vision of what she wanted to create, and that kept her from giving up.

She Gave It Time

She was also willing to acquire the knowledge and skills she needed to bring her vision to fruition. It took time to become a White House sensation. Having a background in business helped Fran understand that success takes patience. Fran is described as someone who “celebrates life and the pursuit of joy in any given situation.” One of her goals in opening her original shop was to share her delight in life. Joy in what she was doing enabled her to allow the time needed to achieve success. 

Her patience also contributes significantly to the quality of her chocolates. The ingredients are selected by hand and prepared in small batches before being combined into thousands of confections daily. Each piece is placed by hand in a paper cup and packed into boxes. The boxes aren’t just run-of-the-mill bulk boxes. Each is hand-crafted and finished with a beautiful hand-tied ribbon. As well as the quality of the chocolates, Fran’s Chocolates are treasured for the way in which they are presented. 

She Nurtured A Team

Although Fran Bigelow started small, she understood the value of having a good team. She knew she couldn’t do it alone. Her employees appreciate her vision, and many have been with her for years. Although one might not regard suppliers and vendors as formal members of a team, Fran has forged long-term relationships with those who provide the ingredients she uses. They know her core values and are part of helping her make the best chocolate in the world. 

It's so humbling to see how hard people are willing to work and how detailed they are… It's our incredible team that allows us to create these wonderful confections and present them in the way we do. It's really because of them that the business has succeeded over the past 37 years - we've got wonderful people that have been with us for a long, long time.” 

~ Andrina Bigelow, CEO at Fran's Chocolates

She sources many of her organic creams and butters from local Washington and Oregon farmers. Ingredients are hand-selected to ensure they meet her quality standards. At a minimum, ingredients are all-natural and non-GMO. To the extent possible, she selects Organic and Fairtrade ingredients. Fran remains unwavering in her commitment to quality regardless of the cost. Her customers trust her confections. 

She Earned Their Trust

Building customer trust is an essential part of customer retention. Happy and satisfied customers not only return for more; they also refer the company to others. Customers return when they can depend on quality, but they also like warm and fuzzy feelings about their purchase. Fran’s photo appears on her website and in her catalogs, exuding genuine friendliness. Her care in how her chocolates are prepared and presented tells customers that every detail is important. She doesn’t take her customers for granted or compromise on little things. That’s a big part of her success. 

Fran’s culinary skills and business acumen got her started and kept her business viable. The family business continues to grow and thrive today. Her son, Dylan has inherited his Mother’s passion for fine chocolate. While daughter Andrina’s talents lend themselves to running and growing the business, as well as stewarding it for future generations. Their devotion to Fran’s standards of uncompromising quality and customer service, will keep their mother’s best chocolate in the world satisfying the senses of chocolate lovers everywhere. 

We are a family business. My brother and I grew up in the business. The two of us together are building on what my Mom started. We are continuing to grow organically without compromising quality. Much the same way my Mom grew the business.”

~ Andrina Bigelow, CEO at Fran's Chocolates

Fran’s Chocolates Today & Tomorrow

Today, Andrina & Dylan Bigelow have taken a page from their mother’s playbook to continue her tradition of organic business growth based on excellent confections and service. Dylan continues to explore new and innovative recipes for their confections. As CEO, Andrina has overseen the company’s move to a larger facility, upgraded equipment to ensure quality, and continues the company expansion into Japan.

Entrepreneurs and CEOs alike would do well to learn from Fran Bigelow’s example by building a company on a foundation of quality and customer service. With preparation, perseverance, patience, and a good team, they can make their vision of creating the best product or service in the world a reality. Success awaits those who do, even if a White House occupant doesn’t take a shine to what they’re offering.

Looking for a gift for the holidays?  Fran’s Chocolates has the perfect gift.

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Topics: Company Culture Company Spotlight Success Story