NEW YORK — Just think, Joan Steuer was remarking, graciously declining yet another gooey chocolate dessert, if it hadn't been for a Christian martyr named Valentine, maybe right this minute, 1,700-plus years later, we wouldn't all be burying each other in record tons of rich gourmet chocolates.
Depending on which legend you subscribe to, Valentine was, after all, either a priest who secretly performed Christian marriages or a priest who refused to worship Roman gods and who shared candies and flowers with the children of his community. In either case, his followers flung goodies over the wall to him as he sat in a dank Roman Empire prison, awaiting execution on Feb. 14 in the year 269.
Certainly Valentine, basically a deeply religious fellow, could in no way have foreseen himself an industry. How could he have envisioned huge chocolate cherubs, giant chocolate hearts, massive chocolate greeting cards?
Many of them in Joan Steuer's office?
"I just got done judging a chocolate contest in Cleveland," Steuer said. "I had to eat 52 desserts in an hour."
She paused, just long enough to let these facts and calories sink in.
"Worse, I didn't even feel sick."
Eating a mountain of chocolate was hardly an occupational hardship Steuer could have prepared for as a marketing specialist at J. Walter Thompson, green out of mega-prep Trinity College. Then, about 18 months ago, Steuer got a call from a friend. "Psst," said the friend (or words to that effect), "want to start a new magazine?"
Boutique Item of Decade
Steuer said the members of the Haymarket Group, then the would-be publishers of the proposed Chocolatier magazine, knew next to nothing about the trend in gourmet chocolate: the boom that has seen chocolate become the boutique item of the decade. But they did know "that everyone loves chocolate."
Steuer, 26 at the time, on the other hand, had just completed a book on elegant brunches, and was deep at work on a second volume on, yes, chocolate. Chocolatier's fledgling editor spent a week studying the prospects for a magazine devoted entirely to chocolate, then reported back to her Haymarket principals.
"We set our goal for the end of year one for 500,000 sales per issue," Steuer said, not at all awed by this sumptuous figure in an era of flagging magazine sales. By its third issue, newsstand sales and subscriptions of the quarterly magazine had hit 480,000.
Equally impressive, Steuer said that 15% of Chocolatier's national sales come from California. Thirty-six percent of those California sales, moreover, are traced to the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
"Traditionally," she said, "the West Coast has been a leader in the whole gourmet food revolution." Darting about in their designer warm-ups and high-priced sports cars, Californians, Steuer theorizes, are "less conscious of price and more conscious of quality." Californians have "always been very, very trendy," she went on, and, too, "California is a land where you can get anything, all year round."
Even, she pointed out, boulder-sized bonbons: "That whole thing about golfball-sized truffles for $1.50 apiece started in California."
'Revolution in Taste'
As young professionals, in particular, went from eating to grazing, gourmet specialty shops became an instant success from coast to coast. "I think the same thing has happened with chocolate," Steuer said. "It's a revolution in taste. People are just more conscious of what they are putting in their mouths, and they are willing to pay top dollar for it."
For example, Steuer offers this morsel of chocolatiana: "In 1980, 90% of the chocolate consumed in America was milk chocolate. In the last four years, this has changed a lot in that people are turning to a deeper, richer chocolate, a chocolate with much more flavor." And the West Coast, Steuer said solemnly, "was one of the first places where this was happening."
Not Quite Defined
Imagine this tidbit: "People were buying baking chocolate and eating it."
However, they were also devouring information about chocolate. They were, she said, "becoming more knowledgeable about it." Gourmet chocolate became a new element in the vocabulary of post-inflationary consumption, although, as Steuer herself conceded, "people are not really sure how to define gourmet chocolate." She shrugged: "What qualifies something as gourmet chocolate? Is it $20 a pound, or is it quality ?"
Whatever, a publication devoted entirely to this mystical substance seemed to provide not only an actual trip to chocolate heaven, but also a vicarious visit to that very same upscale life style that buys chocolate arms and legs and records and tennis racquets. But far from geared only to those babies who have boomed, Steuer said she is seeking to be "more broad based," targeting, that is, "someone who would buy Brie and wine every day, but would not necessarily be able to vacation in Fiji."
Formula for Escapism