How many of us wished we could be like Willy Wonka growing up – working along fountains of chocolate and candies of every variety within reach? (Sans dancing and singing individuals of the orange persuasion, that is.) It makes a difference when you love what you do in your career. When you love chocolate as much as Chicago Chocolate Tours founder Valerie Beck does, then you’re certainly in for a real treat.
Beck is the self-proclaimed “chief executive chocolate lover” of Chicago Chocolate Tours, Philadelphia Chocolate Tours and Boston Chocolate Walking Tours. This confectionary trio provides guided walking tours, while sampling the finest chocolates and learning the history of chocolate. Founded in 2005, tours are currently provided in the Loop, South Loop, Lincoln Park, Lakeview and the Magnificent Mile/Gold Coast areas. Popularity spurred expansion in Philadelphia and Boston by 2009.
Ever the “five-foot, two-inch giggle,” this Chicago native gushes, “We are the sweetest tour in town, because we take you to all the best chocolate shops and cafes, where you get to sample the specialties and meet some of the owners and chefs. You’ll learn about the history as well as health benefits of chocolate, while sampling a lot of chocolate!”
Taking great care to adhere to current health and dietary standards in her business model, Beck easily shares the benefits of chocolate.
“There are never any artificial additives or preservatives. Cocoa beans, milk and sugar are all natural treats. Recent health studies have shown that chocolate is not only good for your heart [antioxidants], but also for your vision.”
So much for the carrot theory.
Beck’s love for chocolate first manifested in kindergarten, when she burst into tears because only whole milk was provided. By age 19, while studying abroad in Paris, she had a chance to sample fine chocolates there. She was hooked.
“I thought to myself, “my goodness, why haven’t I been eating chocolate this good my whole life?” So, I’ve been on a mission ever since to eat only the best chocolate the world has to offer.”
During an outing with friends for her 20th birthday while in Belgium, Valerie took her friends to some chocolate shops. “It didn’t occur to me then at all that this could be a business one day. But that fun trip of showing friends around chocolate shops stayed in my mind. And it became the kernel of my business at a later date, when I was practicing law.”
Beck adds the seed was planted, and may have taken a while to grow, but once it sprouted it really took off.
“To me, it was just natural to just eat all the chocolate we could get our hands on! That’s what started my love of good chocolate, in general, whether it’s made in Europe, or South Africa, or South America.
“I realized that if I love walking around to three, four, five or even six chocolate shops in a row, and learning and sampling, then surely other people would, too. So when I came back to America in 2005, I wanted to take such a tour, but I found that none were ever offered anywhere, so I started it!”
Beck’s sound entrepreneurial spirit is both fitting and inspiring for the current economical forecast. Even in 2005, she pared down her 80-hour work-week through her law firm employer, so she could “find a need, then fill it.”
“Sometimes you just have to juggle. I had to down-shift my job to work fewer hours a week. That way I could still have income without neglecting working on my night-job of growing my business. It was short-term pain with long-term gain.”
Beck is also the President of Women’s Innovation Network (WIN), a nonprofit organization for women entrepreneurs that fosters massive business growth through innovation, inclusion, and inspiration. The group hosts twice-monthly events which may focus on education and procurement, plus a free spa and cupcakes networking power hour.
WIN members are actively running thriving businesses, and The WIN Foundation supports charitable initiatives involving women’s entrepreneurship and girls’ business education.
Beck asserts that bootstrapping a business is not always rainbows and light; insisting entrepreneurs enlist help. She said enlisting friends and relatives to handle the mundane administrative tasks of your business will only help you focus on the bigger tasks of actually growing it.
To incorporate uplifting with a comfort food like chocolate is a very smart business model. Successful expansion to other cities proves it works, so how can entrepreneurial hopefuls look to form their own perfect marriage within their own business models? Like any marriage, passion, of course.
“I would say follow your heart, especially if you’re bootstrapping. You’ve got to love what you’re doing.”
The Chocolate Tours franchise currently has over 2,500 fans on Facebook, and is rapidly growing in leaps and bounds. Beck admittedly was no early adapter to social media, but fans grew restless – and apparently weary – in searching for Valerie and the Chocolate Tours presence through any of the social channels.
“I realized I needed to find out where my customers were. So when customers started asking me where my FB page was, I realized I better get one up! So we got that page up that very night! We had to get that going quick fast and in a hurry, and we’ve continued to grow our customer base from there.” Chocolate Tours has an eZine and is also on Twitter.
Who’s got next?
It’s safe to say Chocolate Tours’ popularity is growing, as well as the staff. Beck is currently seeking franchisees in current established cities, and licensing partners to set up shop in new cities.
“I have a great team, and I want to expand this team to license partners and franchisees so I can focus on going international.” Belgium or Paris, perhaps?
“Why not?” Beck laughs.
Beck offers encouragement for the entrepreneur who doesn’t have a high-figured salary to walk away from, let alone work hours to pare down:
“Things may look more exhausting from the outside, but when you have hopes and dreams of your future, you’ll be energized in what you’re doing. Look at it this way: just take everything one step at a time, but you’ve got to take that first step. You don’t have to wait for the lights to turn green to pull out of your driveway, right?”
Schedule a sweet and informative adventure for yourself or travel with a group here. “Like,” Follow, or visit to keep up with the Philly and Boston locations.