82.1 F
San Fernando
Thursday, May 30, 2024

Sweet Start

Why would someone who’s allergic to chocolate start a chocolate company? For Mike Ashamalla, owner of Tifa Chocolate & Gelato in Agoura Hills, it’s because chocolate seems more like a delicacy than a sweet to be consumed mindlessly. “If I eat too much, I break out in hives. I tolerate it in small amounts,” Ashamalla said of his chocolate allergy. Due to his ailment, Ashamalla said that he savors the exotic chocolates sold at Tifa as they should be. The chocolate shop and wholesaler on Kanan Road specializes in rare chocolates from countries around the world, including Russia, Madagascar and Belgium. Recently, Tifa began selling drinking chocolate, a popular treat in Europe with origins in the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Rather than standard chocolate in which cocoa beans are ground into a powder, drinking chocolate involves baking chocolate until it melts. At Tifa, up to 20 spices may be added during the process. Much of the chocolate Tifa features is dark chocolate, which is all the rage in the Eastern U.S. as well as in Europe, according to Ashamalla. Thanks to reports about the amount of antioxidants found in dark chocolate, the treat is beginning to catch on in the Western U.S. as well, Ashamalla said. Agoura Hills resident Brian Lee enjoys Tifa precisely because he is a dark chocolate fan. “I guess you could call me a foodie,” Lee said. “Chocolate is always fun.” Lee has been a patron of Tifa since it expanded from being an online business last year to being a kiosk in Topanga Mall. Since April it has been in its present location in Agoura Hills. “Agoura needs more places like this,” Lee said. “Everything there, no matter what, explodes in flavor.” Despite the excitement with which Tifa has been received by some, Ashamalla was initially reluctant about opening a permanent site for the store. He wanted to see how viable a company Tifa was before signing a three-year lease. At Topanga Mall, Tifa proved to be a hit, according to Ashamalla. It was situated in a high traffic area, which garnered as many as 1,000 pedestrians per hour on weekends, he said. “We really had an opportunity to talk to people,” Ashamalla recalled. “It was great exposure for us.” Independent site Before long, having an independent site outside of the mall became a must. Opening his own business was a longtime goal of Ashamalla, who has headed a variety of Internet startup companies in the insurance industry, including for a subsidiary of Wellpoint. Ashamalla’s wife, Denise Orr, who runs the business with him, had been a legal assistant in the maritime industry for 25 years. Their children Shawn and Candace Orr also work for Tifa. Despite never having worked in the food industry before, the family was enthusiastic about their chocolate-based business venture. I’ve been through several startups before. I wanted to do something that was our own,” Ashamalla said. To educate themselves about the industry, the family attended the Fancy Food Show, which is held in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. They also researched the industry on their own. “The rest we learned by trial and error doing chocolate and wine pairings,” Ashamalla said. Getting it right For example, the couple had to learn how to make the taste of dark chocolate appealing to patrons who are much more familiar with milk chocolate. From visiting countries such as Italy, Ashamalla learned that the quality of chocolate depends on where it’s grown. And, in an effort to do for chocolate what Starbucks did for coffee by exposing the public to a variety of gourmet selections with which they’d otherwise remain unfamiliar, Tifa routinely holds chocolate tasting parties. “We close the doors to the public, and they really enjoy themselves,” Ashamalla said. Since moving to Kanan Road in April, word has spread about the chocolate shop and wholesaler by virtue of Tifa’s participation in community events, such as wine tastings, and newspaper advertising. It doesn’t hurt that the restaurant establishments nearby to Tifa refer clients to the chocolate shop for dessert. To accommodate diners, Tifa stays open until 11 p.m. on weekends. “We have customers grabbing handfuls of business cards, telling all their friends about it. People are excited,” Ashamalla said. Oak Park resident Jeanette Pintar is one such customer. She has patronized Tifa since June when she spotted the shop after having a meal at a restaurant nearby. “I walked out and saw a sign that said ‘Chocolate and Gelato’ and was greeted promptly,” Pintar remembered. “They offered us gelato and chocolate samples out of this world, and after that I was hooked.” Though Pintar said that she was no expert about chocolate before visiting Tifa, she has always been particular about the type of chocolate she eats. She has an affinity for dark chocolate as well as the drinking chocolate Tifa carries. Pintar was also won over by the warm reception she received by Ashamalla and Co. during her first visit. “The customer service you get here is amazing,” she said. “They treat everyone as family. There’s never a sample they won’t offer you They make it all about the experience rather than just get your order in and being done with it.” Tifa also appeals to patrons by offering a wide price range of chocolate. A single piece of chocolate can go for as little as $1.50, while a gift basket of chocolate could go as high as $300. Meanwhile, chocolate bars range from $3 to $12. “There’s a lot of adaptability,” Denise Orr said. Orr and Ashamalla also believe it is a plus that generally everyone enjoys chocolate. “One of the nice things about chocolate as opposed to wine is that it’s not pretentious,” Ashamalla said. “I want it to be fun. This is not snobby.” SPOTLIGHT – Tifa Chocolate & Gelato Location: Agoura Hills Revenues to date: $120,000 Employees: 6 Founded: 2007

Featured Articles

Related Articles