Gail Ambrosius: Madison Chocolatier with an Organic, Global Tilt

Madison chocolatier Gail Ambrosius believes in an organic approach to business. As an advocate of environmentally and socially ethical food systems, her business recipe is one part local, two parts global, equal parts responsible.

"One of the ideas I had when I started was to use chocolates from different countries ethically," says Ambrosius, owner of Gail Ambrosius Chocolates. "I also wanted to educate people a little bit about the flavors of unique chocolate and how different countries offer different tastes by picking, fermenting and drying their beans differently."

As the daughter of Seymour, Wis. diary farmers, she's sensitive to the practices and challenges of sustainable family farming and aware of their unique growing environments — and she feels that true sustainability is global in spirit, whether practiced in Dane County or the lush uplands of Ecuador. While local sustainability is very much intertwined with regional and international infrastructures, the economic relationship between interdependent countries is often asymmetrical, if not exploitive.

"That's why I try to run my business in a way where more of the money stays with the country's local growers and farmers, where it's not just me making a majority of the money, but where it's empowering locals," she explains. "It's my way of doing my part to make the world and, really, my neighborhood better places."

Most of the chocolate sold at the Atwood Avenue boutique has distinct Central and South American agricultural bounty. She hopes to add a myriad of Costa Rican, Mexican, Dominican and Hawaiian tastes and textures to her business's repertoire this year.

Ambrosius' path to become Madison's artisan chocolatier has been an adventure. In 2003, she was laid off from her job as a cartographer at the Department of Natural Resources. She quickly planned for a new phase in life, registering for online classes in chocolate making, studying its processes in France, and attending business seminars explaining how to meld her knowledge, inspiration, and curiosity into something economically viable.

Human enterprise took over from there. Her first shop was a 600-foot retail space that opened in 2004. One of the first things she learned: a good product elicits a fine response.

"When I first started I had no employees," says Ambrosius, "just a bag with 10 boxes of chocolate. And I went to ten businesses to see if they'd be interested in wholesaling it. Nine out of the 10 said that they would after tasting the product. It just happened." Five years later, her aromatic shop offers four times as much space and needs ten employees — five full-timers — to assist her in the chocolate production.

In a short period, Gail Ambrosius has created and branded a name that's synonymous with all the delights of her delectable product. Last year she was one of 10 recipients of the Dane County Small Business Award, an honor recognizing the contributions small businesses make to the local economy.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, even in sluggish economic times it seems that chocolate is a decadence that many just can't live without. "Chocolate and alcohol and a few other things seem to be recession proof," says Ambrosius. "It's an affordable luxury, something you can be immediately gratified with, and something for the person who has everything."

Ambrosius has become very comfortable creating artisan chocolates; it's a natural extension of all her great passions, pleasures, and enthusiasms, neatly swirled together in sweet cohesion.

"Every day I'm allowed to be myself. I'm satisfied that things have moved along the way they have, because I'm doing what I love and being who I am at the same time."