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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Chocolate is the New Coffee

Photo by Jordan Johnson

Richard Koenings, founder and owner of Red Elephant Chocolate in the Third Ward, says he found his way into the chocolate world by accident. With a background in business law, Koenings set out to pull Quality Candy, now Buddy Squirrel, the chocolate and nut shop which was founded in Milwaukee in 1916, out of bankruptcy. After getting a look into the chocolate business, Koenings was inspired to create his own chocolate shop.

While Koenings’ entry into Red Elephant Chocolate was in part an accident, the mascot’s surely wasn’t.

Red, Koenings says, is the color of chocolate’s two most important holidays: Valentine’s Day and Christmas. As for the elephant, its intelligent, social and emotional demeanor encompasses what Koenings wants the soul of Red Elephant Chocolate to be.

Pulling from his vast knowledge of chocolate’s past, Koenings says the purchase of chocolate is historically not a social activity in the way that purchasing coffee or alcohol is. Koenings wants to shift the perceived culture of chocolate with his cafe by applying the elephant’s social nature to the purchase of chocolate to create a space for customers to meet and converse. His seating arrangement in the cafe, which extends to the patio in warmer months, gives it a coffee shop feel and fills the cafe with maps, “elephacts” and “cocoaphacts” to encourage guests to sit, take their time and relax.

“A lot of students from (Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design) and Marquette come to the cafe to grab a drink and study,” says Taylor Congdon, cashier and a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Congdon adds that the tables are usually full.

“This is a product that is available to everybody. Alcohol isn’t. It’s a product that can be good and healthful for everybody. Coffee isn’t,” Koenings says.

He says studies show the chocolate’s health benefits come from the cocoa bean itself and thus is not limited to the more bitter dark chocolate.

One way to utilize these health benefits is with Red Elephant Chocolate’s drink called “chak’atl.” Unlike coffee, the drink, which is made from ground cocoa beans and brewed like coffee or steeped like tea, is non-addictive due to its lack of caffeine and sugar and is full of antioxidants that boost the immune system and flavanols can reduce stress, as well as improve memory and mood.

Unlike alcohol, chocolate has no age restriction.

“My market is anyone from age 8 to 80,” Koenings explains.

The cafe has a number of regulars, Congdon says, who often come back for the hot chocolate. She says most customers are locals, but finds that a lot of tourists also visit, especially when summer rolls around.

Red Elephant Chocolate’s current location sits near what used to be the stomping grounds of elephants that were housed in tents for the Circus World Museum Parade, as it traveled through Milwaukee in July from 1963-2009.

Like the elephant, Koenings himself has a connection to Milwaukee, spending a large portion of his life in the city. Milwaukee, he says, is the best place for Red Elephant Chocolate.

“This is a special personality area. If you were to pick out one place that was — in my view — associated with a special product, in a social setting, with a relaxing atmosphere and number of interesting places, the Third Ward seemed to be that,” Koenings explains.

While history and atmosphere are important, Koenings prides himself on the quality of every product.

Sue Krawcyzk, a chocolate maker, has been with Red Elephant Chocolate making treats by hand since the cafe’s opening in 2012.

“It looked fun,” Krawcyzk says. “I liked the idea that it was handcrafted and you can make what you want.”

She says every chocolate is handmade using molds. Some of the chocolates are spray painted with colored cocoa butter, while the more intricate designs are painted by hand.

Shadale Atkins, a warehouse manager, says her days full of packaging, transporting and mold making keep her busy and have helped her become a better chocolate maker.

“We learn a little more every day as we go,” Atkins said.

With its welcoming atmosphere and wide variety of products, Red Elephant is redefining the culture of chocolate.

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