When Karen Neugebauer set out to beat fellow chocolatier and inspiration Fran Bigelow’s sea-salted-caramel recipe, she made countless batches trying to get it right.
She reached into her cupboard, her stash of ingredients starting to dwindle, and grabbed whatever she hadn’t used to start working on another batch — until the phone rang.
She stepped away for just a moment, but returned with dread; her creation was solid as a rock. She bit off a small chunk and to her delight, it tasted delicious. Her burnt mess turned out alright after all.
After over a month, she figured out how to make a caramel with the same perfect taste, only less rigid.
Since then, Neugebauer has won gold multiple times at the International Chocolate Awards for her sea salted caramel creations. This year, Neugebauer won three gold awards, including one for her dark chocolate sea salted caramel.
“I don’t want the company to be focused just on the awards,” Neugebauer said. “I would rather focus on keeping our quality as high as it is, but having a little bit more fun in what we’re doing.”
Neugebauer believes people need to slow down and truly live life, instead of going through the motions.
“I’m celebrating all facets of life,” Neugebauer said. “Young and old, poor or rich, it doesn’t really matter, and I do it all through chocolate.”
Neugebauer’s passion has led her to be ranked among the world’s best chocolatiers and her business, Forte Chocolates, has thrived tremendously.
“Forte, to me, means loud, strong and powerful, but a symphony in every bite,” Neugebauer said. “When I compose each confection, I think of it from a musical standpoint and what it does to your palate. Is it just a flat note or is it creating some sort of symphony?”
She never expected to produce chocolate, but Neugebauer always wanted to start a business after earning three business degrees from the University of Washington.
The master chocolatier didn’t like chocolate growing up. Like her award-winning sea salted caramel, Neugebauer attributes the existence of her career to an accident.
Neugebauer worked at Costco for 11 years before an on-the-job back injury forced her to take a year off from school to rehabilitate her back. Neugebauer suffers from multiple sclerosis, which further complicated the injury. Her rehabilitation involved relearning how to walk.
Refusing to put her life on pause, Neugebauer enrolled in culinary school and convinced her sweet-toothed husband to let her try the baking and pastry program at The Art Institute of Seattle.
“I’m celebrating all facets of life. Young and old, poor or rich, it doesn’t really matter, and I do it all through chocolate.”
After making her first ganache out of a couverture, a rare, high-end chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa butter, Neugebauer was instantly drawn to chocolate.
“I describe it as falling in love or having a baby,” Neugebauer said. “You just automatically know you’re going to be with this for the rest of your life. That’s how it was for chocolate with me.”
In 2006, her back was healed and she graduated at the top of her class in the baking and pastry program. Neugebauer then started Forte Chocolates from a warehouse in Mount Vernon, producing products for wholesale and the occasional farmers market.
Incorporating family into the workplace is important to Neugebauer, and her children had a nursery in her warehouse in the beginning. Her daughter Isabella, 6, even became known as the “happiness ambassador” by wholesale customers who would play with her as they waited for orders.
Neugebauer expanded her business after new customers around the country began seeking Forte Chocolates. Currently, she has a shop in Mount Vernon and Fairhaven, in addition to her warehouse.
Though her market has grown, Neugebauer continues to make products by hand and views her truffles as 1-inch canvases.
“We could use machines, but then we’re just pressing buttons,” Neugebauer said. “The machines are creating the process for us. I want to be the artist.”
Neugebauer hired Steve Lee to manage Forte Chocolates’ Fairhaven store in 2014.
“She has a really, really good heart,” Lee said. “She really likes the people who work with her. I think she views (her employees) as people working with her as opposed to working for her. She is very warm and personal.”
Neugebauer overcoming multiple sclerosis and her involvement in Bike M.S., which raises money toward ending the disease, is a source of inspiration for Lee.
“I have worked for extremely strong women in my career and they are great people to work for,” Lee said. “She has a very clear vision of what she wants, she communicates it well. She has talent that you can’t believe.”
Many of the shop employees are students at Western and Whatcom Community College, such as senior Mimi Jaffe.
Jaffe, majoring in art and public health at Fairhaven College, used to make her own spice and herb infused chocolates with her roommates. She studied abroad in South America and stayed on farms with cocoa trees, which lent her some insight into Neugebauer’s craft.
“I actually love working here,” Jaffe said. “It’s very relaxed and it’s really fun because people who come in are excited to be buying chocolate. I seldom see someone in a bad mood.”
One of the most popular items is the lemon pepper and white chocolate Bar, which Jaffe said converted her into a white chocolate fan.
“It has such a unique flavor,” Jaffe said. “People come in and say ‘I don’t like white chocolate,’ and neither did I before I started working here, because it always tasted chemically to me, but the white chocolate here is real chocolate; it’s 30 percent chocolate.”
Despite the many awards she has won, Neugebauer wants to enter less competitions in the future. She hopes to experiment and try new things, rather than sticking to traditional recipes.
After proceeding through the International Chocolate Awards at the US-level, Forte Chocolates won World’s Best Dark Caramel for their dark sea salt caramel. Forte Chocolates also won two silver medals for its rosemary sea salt bar and cherry almond truffle at the international-level.
You never know what you’re gonna get! Forte Chocolates carries a variety of treats including:
– Peppermint bark
– Balsamic vinegar and white chocolate bar
– Chili pepper and dark chocolate bar
– Pumpkin pie truffles
– Rosemary caramels with orange
– Chocolates using ingredients from Belize, Ecuador, and more!