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The Artisan Chocolate Buyer’s Bill of Rights
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the Uncommon Palate, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of good-quality Chocolates for ourselves, think it’s about time that something was written regarding Customer Service.
If you have followed my writing over time, you know I am forever urging people to have consideration for small-scale, artisan chocolate producers. I’m always insisting that you give them extra time to work, recognize that they have limited staff and production capabilities and no stocked warehouses from which they can send products at a moment’s notice, expect that they’ll sometimes be out of chocolates you want, cheerfully pay more for their products, consume their products quickly, etc. But what about you? To what are you entitled, in my opinion? Below are guidelines for what you can reasonably expect if you follow all the rules, as well as suggestions on what to do when something goes wrong.
1) You have the right to polite, timely service.
I have seldom found politeness to be an issue among chocolatiers, but timely service is something else altogether. I do a lot of searching for very new chocolate businesses, and sometimes I’m not sure if they ship. If I call or send an e-mail, of course I’m going to expect to wait a day or three for a reply, but not much longer than that. One of the cornerstones of good customer service is promptness; that includes promptness in replying to inquiries. It once happened that one of my sisters tasted products from a chocolatier in southern California and told me I really ought to give them a try. I left four phone messages over a period of about two weeks. I never received a return call. (Normally, I wouldn’t even leave four messages, but it became something of a game.) The fifth time I called would be the last, I told myself. So I called---and to my amazement, a live person answered the phone. But it turned out he was the only one there and he was helping another customer; could he please call me back in about 15 minutes? Of course, I replied. I gave him my number, and he repeated it to make sure he’d written it down correctly. You guessed it; he never called back. If anyone reading this can tell me why I should order from that particular chocolatier, I’d certainly like to see their reasoning.
2) You have the right to correct information on products, shipping, and policies.
Websites are a perpetually thorny issue with small-scale food artisans. Almost all such producers rely on someone else to create/update their websites for them, and that means delays in updates. But when the delays become too lengthy (stretching into months) or never make it onto the site at all, it’s a problem. If you order from a website, a responsible chocolatier will let you know if something that you ordered is no longer available, or if there’s been a change in shipping practices. In a case like this, a phone order has advantages; if you speak to a person, they will (hopefully) let you know of any changes immediately.
3) You have the right to receive exactly what you ordered.
This might sound strange unless you’ve ordered chocolates as much as I have, in which case it will only sound accurate. There are times when I have received orders that bore no resemblance to the selection or products I had so carefully chosen. Sometimes, that’s just a mistake. Occasionally, I’ve had a chocolatier dismiss my complaint in this vein, saying that he didn’t have some of the flavors I’d picked and wasn’t going to have them again right away, so he’d simply substituted. That doesn’t work for me. If I didn’t care about what flavors or products were in my box, I wouldn’t have bothered to choose them in the first place. Since I wouldn’t select flavors unless I knew I was allowed to do so (not all chocolatiers permit it), the chocolatier should have asked me what I wanted to do about those flavors I’d chosen that weren’t available.
There is one exception to this. Some chocolatiers state on their websites that they may substitute flavors if the varieties you’ve chosen are unavailable. As long as their policy on this is clearly stated, I’m fine with it. However, if you have problems with any of their flavors (for instance, if they make an Earl Grey chocolate and you dislike Earl Grey or have an allergy to tea), be sure to let them know when you place the order. That way, hopefully, they won’t include any “problem” flavors as substitutions.
4) You have the right to receive chocolates when you were told you would receive them.
I have had chocolatiers forget to send orders entirely, though that’s been rare. More often, there are production delays or delays in shipping. Production delays are common. Ingredients don’t arrive, equipment breaks down, power outages occur. Not long ago, a chocolatier with whom I was trying to do business fell off her back deck and was on doctor-ordered bed rest for almost a week, and she has no employees at all. Sometimes, it’s fine if chocolates take their time getting to you. But if your chocolates were ordered for arrival by a specific date and they can’t get there in time, you should be informed of that. Some years ago, I ordered chocolates from a well-known chocolatier who had started a new business in Florida. They shipped their chocolates two-day, something I confirmed when I ordered via phone. I asked that my shipment be sent on a Monday to arrive that Wednesday, to an address where I’d be visiting. No chocolates showed up. I called the business first thing Thursday morning. I was told that their boxes had arrived a day late, so they had shipped a day late and I’d get the chocolates today. When I asked why I hadn’t been informed of the delayed shipping, nobody could give me an intelligent answer. I had to hang around my hosts’ house for a number of hours until the chocolates were delivered, inconveniencing all of us. I understand the chocolatier’s reason for shipping late, but what if I’d been planning on serving those chocolates for a special occasion Wednesday evening? Think of it this way: if you have reservations for a restaurant for a Wednesday evening, you can’t simply not show up, then walk in Thursday evening, explaining that you couldn’t make it the previous night but would like that reservation to be honored now. Why is this any different?
Shipping delays are something else altogether, because once chocolates leave the chocolatier’s hands, they’re under someone else’s control. Still, if the shipping delays are overly lengthy, a responsible chocolatier will issue some form of credit or send you partial compensation.
5) You have the right to receive chocolates in excellent condition.
You’re paying for better ingredients, greater care in manufacturing, freshness, and what should be passion and devotion on the part of the chocolatier and any staff. Therefore, all chocolates should be in pristine condition when they arrive. Sometimes, you’ll get a small scuffmark or hairline crack in one or two pieces; I don’t consider that anything to complain about. But I’ve received boxes in which some chocolates were seriously cracked, leaking filling, or completely smashed. Note that this might not be the fault of the chocolatier. No matter how carefully your chocolates have been packaged, there’s no denying that shipping can be very rough and chocolates can be very delicate. Nonetheless, your chocolates should be in great shape. If they are not, a responsible chocolatier will give you some form of compensation.
6) You have the right to tell the chocolatier if something is wrong.
Despite best intentions, things can go wrong when you purchase artisan chocolates. You receive an incorrect order or damaged chocolates or, worst of all, no chocolates. What do you do? You tell the chocolatier. Please be polite. Sure it’s easy to write that, and even I’m not as polite as I should be all the time, but do attempt it. Recognize that “stuff happens”, as they say. People make mistakes, and small-scale artisans are most often working by themselves or with a mere handful of employees, usually under time pressure. Be factual; don’t let emotion cloud your communication. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s really annoying to receive an order where something has gone wrong. But even if it is the chocolatier’s fault, don’t jump down his or her throat. You wouldn’t like it if someone did that to you. Make your communication clear and concise. If you’re asking for some form of compensation, whether it’s a new shipment or some of your money back, suggest that, but don’t issue it in the form of a command! Again, a responsible chocolatier will work hard to make sure you feel as though the problem was resolved fairly.
There is one situation not covered by the above paragraph. Once in a while, I’ll order chocolates which will arrive on time and in flawless condition. Everything’s fine---but I don’t like the chocolates. I simply don’t care for the couverture used, or the flavor combinations. There are two ways to go here. You can tell the chocolatier, or you can not tell them. In a case like this, I don’t. Why? Because people can only make chocolates according to their own personal tastes, and your preferences might be different. Not everyone chooses this route, and that’s fine, but I won’t complain or ask a chocolatier for compensation when I feel he or she did nothing wrong.
That’s about it. As my chocolatier friend Tom Pedersen says, the ideal arrangement would be “…a collaborative effort between maker and customer, where (people) celebrate and seek out high quality, fun, and unique chocolates made by small companies.” He adds, “(People) need to support small creatives and they need to support their customers.” I seldom disagree with Tom’s statements of this nature, and I believe he’s correct here. But both sides of the equation have to be true.
Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.