Erika Chavez-Graciano
Erika Chavez-Graciano

Many view Swift Meat Packing Co. as an industrial eyesore, Butchertown’s biggest olfactory offense. But Erika Chavez-Graziano views the pork packing operation as essential to the life of her two businesses, Cellar Door Chocolates and Jackknife Café. Both are located directly across Story Avenue in the Butchertown Marketplace.

Her appreciation for the factory goes well beyond her love of bacon. She knows the bacon behemoth’s presence keeps neighborhood real estate prices affordable for start-up businesses like hers, plus it donates millions to the community.

“Here’s the thing with Swift: It’s a necessary evil,” Chavez-Graziano told a Food Lit class recently at Fern Creek Traditional High School. The AP class uses food as a theme through which to interpret and discuss cultural, social and political issues. “Swift’s presence there allowed me to go from renting somebody else’s kitchen to make chocolates to having my own place. I have a 5,000-square-foot facility from which we ship chocolates all over the country. I couldn’t do that in the Highlands where the rent prices are incredibly high.”

Lest one think Chavez-Graziano is just a doe-eyed candy maker sweetening a sometimes-bitter public debate because it’s good for her businesses, think again. The 34 year-old holds a bachelor’s degree in economics, and she was well on her way to earning a Ph.D. in the subject before abandoning that pursuit to launch Cellar Door in 2007.

“Business is a passion, and I love growing mine. It’s the greatest thrill I’ve ever had,” Chavez-Graziano said. “Chocolate is extraordinarily fun and I’m so glad that I’m good at making it. But I can’t call it a passion. Growing a business is my passion.”

Jackknife Cafe
Jackknife Cafe

The exhausting uphill battle of launching Cellar Door and opening Jackknife in late 2013 isn’t immediately evident in conversation with Chavez-Graziano. Below the surface of her genuine kindness and poise is a strong-willed business leader known to work 30 hours straight when orders pile up.

“I’m fair to work with and I listen to others’ opinions because that’s important,” she told me over a recent lunch at Jackknife. “But when it comes down to it, I’ll dig my heels when I think I’m right.”

An exceptional high school student, Chavez-Graziano graduated at 16 and began college. But the cultural change was too much for the youngster, and she dropped out, a move that cost her multiple scholarships.

Needing money, she took on multiple jobs such as washing dishes and waiting tables at De La Torre’s and managing a Victoria’s Secret Express when only 19 years old. She said that experience in retail taught her the skill of disarming rude customers with a smile.

“Even though deep down inside I’m seeing red, you can’t tell it,” she said. “I just keep thinking that that person is having a really bad day and it’s not me. I just kill them with kindness. At Cellar Door, we’re never snarky or mean to our customers.”

Or to each other, she insists. If her 15 charges want to stay employed, they must follow her “house rules,” written in chalk on a blackboard-paint wall in her chocolate kitchen:

  1. Respect yourself, respect others and respect this workplace.
  2. Finish your work today so no one has to do it tomorrow.
  3. Do your job the right way the first time.
  4. Don’t be an asshole.
  5. All cellphones stay in lockers. They’re only used on breaks.
  6. Don’t tell everything you know.
  7. Be unceasingly humble.
  8. Maintain your integrity, the company’s integrity and that of those around you.
  9. Leave all physical and emotional baggage at the door.
  10. If you see a problem or a missed opportunity, identify a possible solution, write it down and present it to Erika.

“I want my company to be a great place to work, but I don’t like drama,” she said. “I work too hard to let that become a problem.”

When asked by a Fern Creek student to describe her work day, Chavez-Graziano admitted to the class she rarely arrives before 9 a.m. because she’s a night owl.

“I’m much more productive during that part of the day, so I tend to work late,” she said. When she does arrive, the shop is already humming, so she stops and asks each employee, “‘What do you need me to do today to make your job easier?’ If they fail, then it’s probably my fault because I didn’t give them what they needed to succeed.”

To the amusement of the class, she said she ends her days watching cartoons.

“I DVR ‘Adventure Time.’ Seriously, I do,” she said. “I think it teaches good life lessons and principles.”

cellar door

Chavez-Graziano told the class she opened Cellar Door without financial backing and a strong desire to avoid debt. Her economist’s training came in handy when researching the local market to gauge the community’s need for high-end chocolate. Having long before overcome her fear of knocking on doors as a cookie-selling Girl Scout, she did the same at hotels and retail outlets, networking and establishing a product pipeline.

She secured $30,000 in wholesale accounts and began making chocolates in the kitchen of Quill’s Coffee on Baxter Ave., which she rented for $250 a month. The business took off, and her products drew some local media attention. Word of Cellar Door spread without a dime spent on marketing.

But during “2008’s mini-recession, things got really tough, and I thought I’d have to get a real job,” Chavez-Graziano said. To attract attention to Cellar Door, she endeavored to make a new chocolate treat for 365 days straight and blog about it.

Despite some failures along the way—she made a chocolate truffle infused with brewing hops “that was just terrible. It tasted evil”—the effort helped raise the burgeoning business’s profile and sales grew.

“But I really didn’t pay myself at all for the first three years,” she said. “I had a $10,000 credit card, which I used just to get by. It was hard, but I wanted to do it.”

Chavez-Graziano (her mother’s heritage is Mexican, her father’s, Italian) said even though her businesses are growing, she maintains a lower-middle-class lifestyle. Single and without children, she says she has few responsibilities that tax her modest earnings. Plus she’s free to work as much as she needs.

She told the class she’d love to see Cellar Door become a multimillion dollar business, but nothing of the scope of Hershey’s or other mass producers.

“I’d like my company to be as big Vosges in Chicago, which is probably a $30 million company,” she said. “But mostly I want it to be an incubator for talent. I want to help other people get a start.”

She said her chocolatiers earn between $10 and $15 per hour and can earn a share of the profits when times are good. That 15 people depend on Cellar Door and Jackknife for employment motivates her to work smarter, not always harder.

“I’ve learned that you don’t try to make the market adapt to you, you have to supply people what they want because you’re trying to get their money,” she said. “When I started the company, I wanted to do high-end stuff like gourmet truffles. But I learned I had to do peanut butter cups, things that would help those customers trust me first. Then I would get them try more adventurous things.”

Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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