“Every European country has a version of the patisserie,” explained owner Frank Vollkommer. “It is a pastry shop and café with coffees and pastries and artisan chocolates. It is a staple in the people’s lives – it is where everyone gathers and knows everyone else and they sit down and enjoy good conversation over good coffee and delicious pastries.”
And like some European countries where the patisseries are required to have a certified pastry chef, The Chocolate Mill has Vollkommer, who is himself, a Certified Master Pastry Chef.
Vollkommer, who also owns The Chocolate Mill in downtown Glens Falls, opened the Saratoga store earlier this month and is already developing regular clientele.
“We offer a product, but aesthetics and customer service are equally important,” said Vollkommer, who has extensive experience in the culinary field.
At 14 he began working in the kitchens of area restaurants as a dishwasher, eventually working his way up to being the cook. But that was not enough for the young entrepreneur – he had his sights on being a chef, and not any ordinary chef, but a Certified Master Pastry Chef – one of the highest levels of achievements for the culinary arts.
“I always had an interest in pastries,” said Vollkommer, a lifelong Saratogian. “But to make the transition to pastry chef I had to have a second job.”
One of the reasons for the second job is the requirements involved for certification. Certification not only requires extensive experience in the field, but one has to be invited to test by a Master Chef. To qualify for Master Pastry Chef candidacy, participants must go through a rigorous 10-day exam that tests them from the second they arrive at the location to the moment the kitchen is cleaned to leave.
Applicants are tested on, among others, academics, food science and practical aspects from baking to creating show pieces.
“Worldwide there are only 12 CMPC’s,” said Vollkommer. “And only four have passed the 10-day exam.”
Vollkommer is one of the four.
“It is not only about what you know and your experience and knowledge of the craft,” continued Vollkommer. “It is also about your professionalism, your work ethics and your stamina under pressure. The exam is made difficult for a reason.”
Vollkommer pointed out, though, that becoming a CMPC is not what he considered his greatest achievement in life so far.
“If I was to look at what I considered my greatest achievement, being a certified pastry chef is not at the top,” explained the soft-spoken chef. “Opening a business and finding success as an entrepreneur in these tough economic times has by far been the most rewarding from a personal fulfillment standpoint.”
It was the success of his Glens Falls store which led him to open one in the Spa City, Vollkommer explained.
Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, had met Vollkommer when he opened his Glens Falls’ store and had been with that chamber.
“He kept encouraging me to open a branch here,” said Vollkommer, who credits the officials in Glens Falls and the Local Development Corporation for help in opening that first location.
After some brainstorming and looking for the right location with Shimkus’ help, Vollkommer settled at 382 Broadway, a small narrow shop adjacent from the Division Street crossing.
As a self-proclaimed do-it-yourselfer, Vollkommer and his brother set to work transforming the storefront into an American version of the patisserie with a Saratoga Springs flair.
“I did all the physical work myself along with my brother, Craig, who is a contractor,” said Vollkommer. “It took us about two months.”
With Saratoga-themed artwork carefully placed and rich coffee tones on the walls, the shop is warm and inviting. While seating is limited, Vollkommer pointed out the bench-style table at the back of the shop and noted that he loves it when he sees the table full and people chatting.
“A café is a social place – it is a place where you come in as strangers and leave as friends,” explained Vollkommer. “I travelled and worked in Switzerland, Austria, Vienna – and it is a regular occasion for people to sit with a cup of coffee and a pastry and talk with friends about their families, their work, politics. I love to look back here and see this table full of people chatting and having a good time.”
Noting that there is more to The Chocolate Mill than a coffee and pastry shop, Vollkommer said the majority of his business is in specialty event and wedding cakes and that they make proprietary coffees labeled with the Chocolate Mill brand.
“We have Chocolate Mill Roast Saratoga and Chocolate Mill Roast Glens Falls,” said Vollkommer, adding that they like to keep the selections of pastries, desserts and chocolates interesting and exciting. “We change the desserts seasonally and change the chocolates and confections to keep it interesting. We also do special events, wedding cakes and we create customized cakes. That’s the part of the business you don’t really see.”
With 20 employees, Vollkommer said they are equipped to handle just about any size special event or party.
“The product is only a portion of what we provide. The service we provide is very important and before a single flake from a croissant lands on your plate, that service level must be met,” said Vollkommer, admitting that maintaining that level of high expectations is a career in itself.
“I have very high standards and maintaining those standards with two stores is a full-time job,” he said. “We want to know people’s names and establish relationships with people. Kind of like “Cheers,” where everyone knows your name – that is what I want for us, where everyone knows who you are and you enjoy yourself.”
Hoping to expand the physical space of the shop in the future, as well as offer lunches and a breakfast menu like his Glens Falls location, Vollkommer said he is happy to be back in his hometown.
“I think there is a nice synergy,” said Vollkommer. “Our focus is our neighbors – the people who live and work here.”
The Chocolate Mill is open Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 8 a.m. – 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. Outdoor seating will available in the spring and summer. For more information, call (518) 871-1210.