by Sarah Wyatt
– For The Capitol Hill Times –
Last week was a sweet one for Fran Bigelow, proprietor of Fran’s Chocolates. In celebration of the company’s 30th anniversary, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn recognized her on Wednesday, and proclaimed September 26 to be “Fran’s Chocolates’ Day.” Bigelow was honored on Friday with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Northwest Chocolate Festival that is held annually at the Washington Convention Center, and participated in the festival with a booth, as well as hosting two educational seminars.
A graduate of the University of Washington, Bigelow introduced pure artisan chocolate to Seattle when she opened her first chocolate shop, Fran’s Patisserie & Chocolate Specialties, in 1982. Originally created to showcase her desserts and pastries, Bigelow also offered handmade truffles, which quickly became the signature confections of her business.
Recognized as the “best overall chocolatier in the United States” by The Book of Chocolate, and in 2009 as “Outstanding Fine Chocolatier—North America,” by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, Bigelow is renowned for creating confections that boast of local ingredients layered into complex flavors. She has also written her own cookbook, Pure Chocolate.
To produce Fran’s celebrated handcrafted caramels, employees at the Capitol Hill kitchen slowly cook small batches of organic sugar with organic cream and butter, in order to achieve a velvety texture and smooth flavor. Each batch of caramel takes approximately 45 minutes to prepare.
Employees dip the caramels in 64 percent dark chocolate or 38 percent milk chocolate before carefully topping them with a sprinkle of gray or smoked sea salt. Bigelow is proud that her staff has exceeded her creative origins. “My employees have taken the culinary artistry to another level,” Bigelow explained. “Our inventiveness has grown so much from when I started the business.”
Bigelow has been discovered and praised by culinary peers and press, including hosts from the Food Network, Ina Garten and Bobby Flay. As well, Martha Stewart featured Bigelow as a “tastemaker,” recognizing her for putting a modern spin on traditional culinary methods.
Considered by many as a pioneer of the artisan chocolate movement, Bigelow’s national following includes the Obama family, who enjoy the salted caramel chocolates that they first sampled on a 2008 campaign stop in Seattle. Special visitors to the White House are now gifted with a box of the caramels, stamped with the presidential seal.
“Michelle Obama likes the gray sea salt caramels,” Bigelow said. “Barak prefers our smoked salt.”
Among Bigelow’s quiver of awards are three gold medals from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, and she is a founding member of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, as well as the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative.
Fran’s Chocolates now boasts three Seattle retail shops, thriving Internet and mail order sales, and a wholesale collection available in specialty gourmet stores throughout the country, while she has also been able to pass her passion for chocolate along to her son, Dylan, who boasts the lofty title of “Director of Chocolate,” and her daughter, Andrina, the company’s CEO.
While the family business has expanded over the decades, the company is conservative about introducing new confections. Fran’s popular Gold Bars, Chocolate Thins, dessert sauces and salted caramels are made by hand daily in Capitol Hill, using selective blends of cacao from Venezuela, Mexico, Ecuador and Madagascar.
Among Bigelow’s other accolades are the 1992 City of Seattle Mayor’s Small Business Award, and the 2008 Woman of Influence awarded by Puget Sound Business Journal. Besides crafting chocolate, Bigelow is a founding member of the Seattle Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international philanthropic society of women leaders in cuisine, which supports local charitable organizations, including Neighborhood House, Peace Trees Vietnam, Joyful Heart, Safe Crossings, the YWCA, the University of Washington and the college of Mount St. Vincent.