A sweet change of direction

Riverside's Kevin Roblee trades tech sales for making chocolate

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In 2010, after 10 years in computer software technology sales, Riverside resident Kevin Roblee decided to take his career in a different direction.

He was going to be a chocolatier.

As much of a departure as that may seem, the move wasn't exactly into uncharted territory. For a decade prior to heading into sales, Roblee was a food scientist employed by such chocolate powerhouses as World's Finest in Chicago and Merckens on the East Coast.

For a year while employed with World's Finest, Roblee toured European chocolate factories and learned their chocolate-making techniques. At the time, Roblee was involved in the quality assurance, product development, manufacturing end of the business.

But he also liked making his own products and did so. In 2005, while employed in his second career as a tech salesman, he started making chocolate as a hobby.

"I had all this chocolate knowledge," Roblee said. "I started creating products and throwing chocolate parties for friends and a couple of corporate events."

In January 2010, Roblee decided to leave the tech sector and launched his own company, Kokku Distinctive Gourmet. He has developed a handful of products, which he sells via the company's website (www.kokkugourmet.com) and at events at area gourmet, stores, wine shops and salons.

Among the products are a chocolate sauce, a ganache comprising four different chocolates; two powdered drink mixes, one for frozen drinks and one for hot chocolate; and homemade vanilla extract, using pods from Tahiti, Madagascar and Mexico. He buys his chocolate in 10-pound bars from Europe and Central America.

More products are on the way, including a white chocolate sauce and a dark chocolate sauce with wine.

"The whole finished chocolate thing is something I could do," Roblee said. "But I wanted to market to gourmet stores, and the jarred products work better."

They're also rarer.

"Based on the research I've done, there are a couple of gourmet chocolate sauce makers in every region. In Chicago there isn't any to speak of."

Roblee has rushed in to fill that void. He rents space at Bella's Bakery on Ogden Avenue in Berwyn, hauling in his equipment and ingredients as needed. Since the bakery's kitchen is unused during the afternoons, Roblee can often be found there in his chef's whites, turning out a new batch of products for upcoming events.

"It's really a win-win here with Bella's," Roblee said.

The products aren't cheap. A 12-ounce jar of the chocolate sauce will run you $14, while a 1-pound can of the powdered drink mixes are $16 each. A 12-ounce bottle of vanilla extract (with the bean pods steeping inside) is $22.

But Kokku products are aimed at a high-end market. Roblee said he'd like to be selling his products in 10 retail gourmet shops by June, and he'll be approaching Whole Foods this year to see if he can get Kokku products on their shelves through the company's local vendor program.

"I'm trying to develop something that's recognizable, but like no other chocolate you've ever tasted," Roblee said.

And Roblee's not afraid of success. He said his goal is for Kokku to have its own space by the beginning of 2012; he's already been scouting locations.

"Everything is gearing up for that big order," Roblee said. "That's where my background kicks in. Even with this model, I can support 1,000 jars per week."

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