What do swaying palm trees, sugared donuts and Tupac Shakur all have in common? They are all inspiration for the modern-day Mr. Wonka, whose chocolate empire has taken over the world—from LA to Tokyo.
Jonathan Grahm began his career at age 15 working in the shipping department for Compartés Chocolate, an artisanal chocolate shop founded in the Southern California city of Los Angeles in 1950. Because Compartés is ‘handmade from scratch, using no machines’ there was room for hands-on R&D in the kitchen. “It was a heritage brand that sort of lost its luster but had so much potential. I saw this need to innovate. There was a lot of opportunity to tinker around in the kitchen. I even used Google as my tool for trial and error recipes. It took me many fails, but I kept pushing myself to do something new,” Grahm says.
He quickly began experimenting with recipes like strawberry cheesecake marbled fudge and saffron pistachio even though he never went to cooking school or had a formal education in the culinary arts. “I was just making fudge at this mom-and-pop company, but it was something they had never done before,” Grahm says of his early Compartés Chocolate days.
His innate call to chocolate would become the language that wrote itself into his life, becoming the all-consuming focus. At 21, he made an impressive move by foregoing his pursuit to be a lawyer studying at UCLA, to become the lead chocolate maker for the company. A pivotal moment for him and the brand occurred when Bon Appétit magazine invited them to do a tasting panel for their truffles, resulting in a never-before perfect score for the company.
“Chocolate boy,” among other sweet nicknames, buzzed through the industry acknowledging his success, along with his darling and exuberant persona. Around the age of 24, Grahm bought Compartés Chocolate, was recognized as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 entrepreneurs and would begin his global glow-up for the cocoa-covered empire.
“I feel such a strong connection to Compartés: Compartés is me, and I am Compartés. It’s a reflection of everything I love put together and translated through chocolate.”
“I feel such a strong connection to Compartés: Compartés is me, and I am Compartés. It’s a reflection of everything I love put together and translated through chocolate.” As a die-hard Los Angeleno, Grahm has emulated his entire life into artful and edible creations all shared through Compartés Chocolate.
Along with his small local team of employees, Grahm handmakes the ganache-filled truffles and candy-center bars crafted with fresh, natural ingredients (some from nearby farmer’s markets) and all made in their La Brea chocolate factory. The newly built kitchen features Italian-crafted interiors and floor-to-ceiling glass so guests can actually see the factory where the magic unfolds. On a visit, you may spot a handmade churro or some horchata being poured into the next batch of bars.
One of Grahm’s favorite views in the city is from the Ace Hotel’s rooftop in downtown where you can see the historic Eastern Columbia building. The Art Deco architecture inspired the brand’s Century City storefront, where Grahm enlisted the expertise of LA-based interior designer Kelly Wearstler for the project.
Considered by Architectural Digest to be even better than Willy Wonka’s own chocolate factory, the shop is adorned with copper panels, accents of onyx and brass with punctuations of turquoise and marbled backsplashes against Venetian plaster walls for a beautifully articulated space reflecting the chocolatier and the designer’s shared vision. The company’s third retail location is in LA’s Brentwood neighborhood, along with a collection of storefronts abroad in Japan’s capital city of Tokyo.
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THE GOLDEN TOUCH
In our consumer culture full of thousands of options of chocolates and sweet treats, how does Compartés Chocolate stand apart from the rest? Propelled by his pure love for the company and the product, Grahm never settled for “good enough.”
“As a young business owner, I took all the money I had and invested it into the business, so I really felt a strong pressure to make it successful. I asked myself: how can I make this the best chocolate company in the world?” With a persistence to innovate, he wanted to push the company’s legacy into the 21st Century.
“This is really what I love to do. I love mixing chocolate, art, design and style. So, after I bought the company, I re-branded everything,” Grahm shares.
The company logo was designed to be a nod to the 1950’s Art Deco architecture era, but with a futuristic feel. First things first, he moved the apostrophe in Comparte’s, originally an Italian family name, to reside above the é.
Then he helmed his own design process to create bold, colorful and graphic packaging created from Grahm’s love of visual art; an approach to branding that the rest of the food industry was not taking. He replaced photos of sea salt and caramel with abstract collages and whimsical iconography, taking the classic dessert and making it look trendy enough to carry around in a designer handbag.
He replaced photos of sea salt and caramel with abstract collages and whimsical iconography, taking the classic dessert and making it look trendy enough to carry around in a designer handbag.
“When I did my first collection of chocolate, I treated them like a fashion house would, releasing several a year for each season, and then I took them to the gourmet markets and asked them to sell my bars. But I was rejected and told that they were too graphic.
Here we are 10 years later and those same places that rejected my chocolate now all carry Compartés Chocolates.” Investing in the packaging was an essential factor in leveraging the company into a contemporary and eye-catching brand. “I have always done and will continue to do what I feel is best for Compartés. I design things that I love, that I would want to buy.” Grahm’s personal mood board would become the very thing that individuates the brand from every other bar on the shelf.
MADE WITH LOVE: FROM LA TO TOKYO
“There is no place in the world I would rather be. I love Paris, I love New York, but I am so LA. I love the energy, the spirit. It’s a melting-pot of food, culture, art and entertainment,” Grahm gushes. “Hollywood plays a big role in the Compartés Chocolate brand. The movies are telling a story, creating a picture. My chocolate, too, tells a story. They become what I want them to become. Each one is like a movie in itself, going back to my inspiration from artists and albums.”
Inspired by the pink and green palm frond wallpaper at the Beverly Hills Hotel are his California Love bars. The packaging, seen in departments stores in Paris and billboards across LA, brought the palm tree motif into the mainstream, and yes, the name is a reference to the classic Tupac Shakur song from 1995; Grahm’s devotion to the laid-back vibe that LA has become synonymous with.
The Compartés Chocolate bar is a crunchy treat filled with salted pretzels and coated in dark chocolate (it’s also one of the brand’s top sellers). Designing the packages is a process entirely executed by Graham, and includes his digital collages, iPhone captures and even hand-drawn and painted graphics that go straight to print without a team of people to ‘touch-up’ the final design.
Curated color choices along with punches of vibrancy are key for Grahm, which is why he spends a lot of time studying and choosing colorways, “so that I can feel how it lives with the other parts of the collection. When I started doing these designs, I was 25, I am now 35, so this is ten years of work that shows a maturation and growth. Even though it’s all cohesive, it all comes from different experiences.”
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Biting into what’s underneath the striking Compartés Chocolate package is the real treat. “Everything is thoughtful and mindful because I think about the whole experience for each piece we create. Our truffles, for example, have always been our signature. They are made with a 73 percent, single-origin chocolate on the outside, and in the center, there are different types of chocolate that compliment or contrast the dark chocolate shell on the outside. I have always said my chocolate is a 3-D multi-sensory experience,” Grahm says.
“When tasting a truffle, you first listen for the snap or crack when you bite into it, then biting through to the inside, there is a velvety smooth ganache center that dances on your palate (our most popular is the salted caramel). Our truffles are meant to be eaten in two bites, allowing the flavors to linger between.”
• The Strawberry Shortcake White Compartés Chocolate bar is an elevated version of his favorite ice cream, Good Humor, he used to get straight from the ice cream truck.
• The Donuts and Coffee Milk Chocolate bar was inspired by his youth as well, where his family would pick up sugary donuts and hot coffee after summer camp each season.
• In the Apple Pie White Chocolate bars, he uses the same homemade pie from the Apple Pan diner he used to visit as a kid, made with cinnamon baked apples and cinnamon streusel.
• The California Dreaming Brownie bar, features a brown bear surfing the Malibu break and references the catchy 1960’s hit song from the Mamas & the Papas.
Jakob N. Layman
With Compartés Chocolate being based in LA, Grahm has formed quite the squad of friends and clients in the celebrity-filled metropolis. “The caliber of the people I get to work with blows my mind every day,” Grahm says. His portfolio of customized chocolates includes such names as Gucci, Netflix, the famed Italian fashion brand, Valentino, and one of his favorite projects with Louis Vuitton for their Beverly Hills pop-up all about LA. Clad with hot-pink palm trees and canary-yellow interiors, the colors of the event inspired Grahm’s hand spray-painted with edible pink and yellow food color to coordinate.
Compartés is also a fan-favorite of Oprah, making it on to her 20th Anniversary Edition O List as a must-have item. Oprah has said that “with Compartés Chocolate, a little goes a long way” and refers to the bars as “a pure hit of instant bliss.” Her favorite is the 68 percent chocolate bars, which Grahm always has a special reserve of just for her. Other high-profile customers include Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Brady, Janet Jackson, Gisele Bündchen and Angelina Jolie, whose children have received custom chocolate Easter eggs over the holiday.
With seven permanent stores in Tokyo, 200 pop-up shops during the months of February and March and three chocolate factories in Japan, Compartés Chocolate has officially achieved success from the West Coast to East Asia. The relationship with Japan began when the country hosted a blind-tasting competition that gave the gold to Compartés who beat out 25 other companies.
From there, Grahm was featured in their newspapers and on TV talk shows, even partnering with major Japanese-based brands, like Lexus and Hello Kitty. “In Japan, European chocolate was thought to be the best because it’s refined, healthier and made with dark chocolate, while American chocolate is Crunch Bars and M&M’s. We were the first luxury American chocolate brand to become popular around the world,” says Grahm.
There is even a Grahm’s Café to honor the chocolatier. Fun fact: Japan has two Valentine’s holidays each year. February 14th and White Day on March 14th, when everyone who received gifts on Valentine’s Day sends chocolates and sweets to those in return. These two holidays alone bring in some of the biggest sales for the entire Compartés Chocolate company.
"We have a new following of health-conscious consumers looking for chocolate that promotes benefits in their body and gives them a totally different experience,” says Grahm.
Chocoholics and those with a distinct sweet-tooth, who also value organically-sourced ingredients, will love the Compartés Chocolate vegan chocolate collection. The wellness collection’s chocolate bars have no processed sugar or emulsifiers and are gluten-free, non-GMO and organic. It took Grahm three years to develop this line made for plant-based dieters, who will love these coconut sugar and chocolate-based indulgences infused with reishi mushrooms, spirulina, ginger and even hemp granola. Grahm wanted to address all of the allergies that people have while bringing his divine chocolate recipes he is known for to a wider audience.
“Our core customers really want gourmet nostalgia; decadent, delicious, and indulgent chocolate. People want bars filled with donuts, cereals and brownies. And on the flipside, we have a new following of health-conscious consumers looking for chocolate that promotes benefits in their body and gives them a totally different experience,” Compartés Chocolate’s Grahm says.
“Why do you need your health benefits from a juice or a salad? Why not eat a chocolate bar that you can feel good about and get your healthy ingredients from?” We are especially loving their Beauty Bar made with blueberries, almonds and a super-blend of plants designed to boost your collagen—leaving you with a guilt-free smirk of satisfaction.
LA can dazzle in appearance, but that veneer of beauty and allure can sometimes reveal a hollow interior, often leaving you wanting more. Grahm doesn’t disagree with this little truth about the City of Angels, but his chocolate reassures us with every Compartés Chocolate bar on the shelf boasting a fanciful exterior, that the wrapper is only the beginning of the story.
“People know us for the beautiful packaging and design, but sometimes they don’t even realize the artistry and creativity that is within each chocolate bar. That is the heartbeat of Compartés Chocolate, that is the most important part of what we do.” Informed by his love of the film industry, the chocolate bars take on a narrative all their own—from the moment of choosing a bar that speaks to your mood, until the last lip-smacking bite of chocolate.
Once you peel back the paper package, a shimmering wrapper alludes to the golden ticket from Roald Dahl’s 1964 cult classic book-turned-film Willy Wonka. Inside, the triangle-shaped bites offer a new way to crack into the bar. This was an innovative move that Grahm took because if he was going to make custom molds for his chocolate, why not make them truly different? Breaking-off each angled piece is a sensory experience in itself, then, you get to the large morsel in the bar, what we are calling the crescendo of the Compartés Chocolate tasting experience.
This adult-size piece could be filled with anything from Coney Island-inspired waffle cone pieces, home-made peanut butter, rosé wine, Fruity Pebbles or smoked sea salt. Each of these bars is numbered, Grahm’s ode to the production style of record albums, and include poems and soliloquies that he writes himself on the inside wrapper; giving his customers a little lyrical inspo to take with them long after the chocolate has been savored.
“No matter where you are in the world, when you’re eating our chocolate bars, you think of LA. There is sunshine in the chocolate, there is an LA-cool vibe that you have in the city that I wanted to capture.”
We can’t think of a tastier finish.