After a long career in chemical engineering, Charlotte Walter wanted to bridge her interests in chocolate and culture. So she started Charlotte Truffles in 2017, where she specializes in flavors representative of different cultures.
You can enjoy her Raspberry Yuzu truffles that incorporate the citrus common in Japanese cuisine, or you can sample her Romantic Mahro chocolates inspired by the mangos she ate growing up in Indonesia. As Walter tells it, these unique flavors are reflective of her experience as a first-generation immigrant to the United States, where she learned that being different was a strength.
Hello Alice spoke with Walter on why she started a chocolate company, how she spread the word about her business, and the entrepreneurship programs that helped her along the way. What follows are her own words, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Owner, Charlotte Truffles | Santa Clara, California
When I first moved to the United States from Indonesia as a child, I moved in the middle of the school year. It was really challenging not knowing the culture. I didn’t speak the language very well. But I had a friend who stood up for me during different times of that year. She told me, ‘You know, being different is kind of cool. Forget everyone else who’s giving you a difficult time.’ She really taught me that being unique, being diverse is actually an asset. That was a lesson I learned very early on.
Later, when I first graduated from college, I actually moved away from home to find a job. I realized I didn’t have as many friends because, of course, all my college friends were back in Southern California. I always loved food, so I enrolled myself at a junior college to take a lot of cooking — specifically baking — classes. One of the chapters that we covered was chocolates. When I finished that class, it was close to the holiday season. I kind of dislike the idea of buying things. I always try to make my Christmas gifts as much as possible. For that year, I gave chocolate truffles to my family and friends, and they loved them. That led to people wanting to get more. And I thought, This could be something if I ever want to do something away from engineering. I decided, if this is really a thing that I want to do, it’ll keep calling me back. And eventually, it did.
My family and I finally went back to Indonesia in 2008. At the time, I wanted to bring something from the U.S. as a gift for my family back at home, and I wanted to give something that they’re familiar with. I thought about gifting them chocolates with tropical flavors. When I was searching for it, it wasn’t easy at that time. It was kind of surprising to see the chocolate shops that I visited. A majority of the ones that I saw were more tailored toward the American or European flavor profile. When I came in, I wanted to feel like home, and home for me is wanting to have flavors that were more tropical because of the way I grew up in Asia. I wanted to kind of mimic that for everybody else.
I was still focusing on my engineering career until my last company got acquired. At that point, I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should do something on my own for a little bit and see if I enjoy it.’ If I don’t, that’s fine. I can always go back. But if I do, then great! That’s when I began selling chocolates.
In food, especially in chocolate, the seasons are very holiday-forward. When I first started, I really spent a lot of time trying to understand the different holiday markets that I can be a part of, if they are aligned with what I’m trying to do, if people attending the holiday markets are the target audience that I’m aiming for. Of course, you won’t be able to know that immediately. If I don’t make a huge return on the show, that’s fine. At the very least, every show will teach you how you should present yourself in the way that you have your booth set up, how you communicate with clients. To get your name out there, it’s just constantly having to be out there.
When people request flavors, I always try to understand more. I always ask, ‘What are the significance of these flavors? How do you actually represent it?’ Sometimes, people tell me, ‘Hey, you should make rose water saffron because these are flavors that you see a lot in Indian desserts.’ That’s usually how it starts. I’m also able to share in-depth stories just by discussing why that particular flavor profile is significant, and I do research about it and make sure that I understand the connection.
I just finished the first cohort for ICA Lab, which is a Bay Area business accelerator. I think those things are really helpful. Ultimately, I think finding resources, finding mentors, finding people who see your vision and are willing to challenge you. I think SCORE was also really significant in the early phase of my growth.
The ultimate goal is to have a retail shop, but I don’t want to just offer chocolate items, but also chocolate courses, chocolate tastings. I really want to deliver my mission even further than that and have events around understanding different cultures. During the holiday season, I want to have experts come in and talk about the holidays being practiced, the significance of why that food is generally served around that time, and have that discussion so we can further understand each other.