Taste without touch: A chocolate expert swaps in-person events for virtual sharing

From in-person to “so freaking nervous” to success, a chocolate sommelier juggles work, home, and a new medium.

Estelle Tracy is the founder of 37 Chocolates, a chocolate education blog, who prides herself on her ability to match chocolates with members of her audience, based on their preferences. The French native, a chemist by training, used to host community-based chocolate tasting events in Chester County, outside the Philadelphia area, but Covid-19 ended her in-person business, which included pairings of chocolate with wine, beer and tea. She started posting chocolate reviews on Facebook, but that wasn’t going to suffice.

Local organizations used to ask if I could donate chocolate tasting vouchers. One woman had a voucher right when quarantine started, so I suggested the idea of having it take place virtually for her and her friends. I was sick to my stomach for two days; I was so freaking nervous. I’ve talked to groups of hundreds of people before, I had no fear of speaking in front of people. But I think speaking to a smaller group of people is a lot harder because you can’t afford to have one person lose their attention. And it’s not natural, speaking to a computer.

I didn’t have a functioning laptop. I had an iPad where I’d hang up on people by accident while sitting in a very un-ergonomic position in my bedroom. I was a mess, it felt like I was starting everything from scratch.

After that, I kept up with my online mailing list maybe once a month, and then, in late May, 2020, I sent out a newsletter offering an online chocolate tasting. Only one person replied and it was my editor, Joy, at Edible Philly. I went onto Eventbrite and created a page, but really thought it would just be her there.

Estelle Tracy holding a cacao while sitting at a desk with her laptop. June 2021

Estelle Tracy promoted her virtual tastings online and in her newsletters. Within months, she held tasting for corporate events, booking 12 to 14 tasting a month.

Jie Deng

I advertised the tasting in my newsletter, which at the time was around 500 subscribers, and also posted it to my LinkedIn. A former coworker of mine shared the event with her boss, her niece, cousin, and sons and suddenly the 12 spots for the tasting were taken up. The tasting was inspired by a 2019 trip I took to Colombia visiting the cacao farms and featured Castronovo Chocolate, a chocolate maker based in Florida.

I hesitated about doing more online events because I have two kids, a 14-year-old with special needs, and a younger girl who is now 7 and a half. They were doing remote schooling and suddenly that became my job; my husband didn’t lose work, and someone had to take care of the children. I just didn’t have the energy to create something new and would be exhausted by noon, lying on the couch.

In July, while I was promoting my online ticketed events, another food writer named Megan Giller reached out to me and asked if I could fill in for her at a virtual event she was hosting for some corporate clients. I did two more for her, and by September, I felt like companies really came to terms with the idea that there was no going back. I went on to host my own corporate tasting event for Électricité de France Innovation Lab, which has an office in California. Now, I’ve partnered with two event booking agencies to host chocolate tasting events for corporate team building and private parties. I have about 12 to 14 private tastings a month, but I also try to keep one ticketed event a month that’s open to the public.

Chocolate is so much more than a piece of candy. It’s been amazing to share the richness and beauty of it, including the culture and people, during a really difficult time.

When I used to have in-person tastings, the prep was pretty chill beforehand, until I’d head to the venue, but then I would be on my feet talking to people nonstop and when I got home, I was completely wiped out. When I transitioned to online, I had to do all this work up front. I needed to have everybody’s address at least two weeks in advance so I could send them the bars of chocolate before the tasting. I’d also have to check the weather and make sure the forecast would be okay so the bars wouldn’t melt. Now, the events feel so easy. It’s almost like backwards from my old life: I can do three back-to-back tastings and it’s no big deal, whereas before I could never have done that. 

Over the years I have built some really wonderful relationships with amazing people. For the first virtual Colombia tasting I had, I featured three bars from places I visited. I wondered how I could excite people and keep them engaged in front of a computer for two hours, so I reached out to Denise Castronovo, who is the founder of Castronovo Chocolate, and asked if she could jump in and surprise the participants.

It was really amazing to have Denise, all the way from Florida, speak on behalf of the chocolate she made. At the March tasting, we had a woman in Guatemala cut open a cacao pod for everyone, explaining her process in Spanish. We had a translator present and all the participant’s faces were in awe, it was truly a moment when I realized the power of technology. I can really see the potential of these virtual events, even when the world reopens.

Wine and chocolate pairing from Estelle's tasting before the pandemic.

In the future, Tracy hopes to work with some of her old partners like a local winery and update how in-person events run.

Becca Mathias Photography

I’m in no rush to return to in-person events again soon, but when I do, I look forward to working with some old partners again, like the local winery. I think we’ll want to tweak how we do it, maybe up the price per person and give everyone more time to talk. I think the local is going to feel more important and the in-person aspect is going to feel more precious. 

The impact on my family has also been tremendous. It’s amazing to be able to have dinner at 6:00 p.m., then a tasting at 6:30 p.m., then 7:30 p.m., and then have time to give the kids a goodnight kiss. That’s incredible. Also since I live in a small town, it’s great to meet everyone online from different international backgrounds. Chocolate is such a global food, so much more than a piece of candy. It’s been amazing to share the richness and beauty of it, including the culture and people, during a really difficult time.

Estelle Tracy is the founder of 37 Chocolates, a chocolate education blog, who prides herself on her ability to match chocolates with members of her audience, based on their preferences.

Tricia Vuong is The Counter's multimedia producer. She previously produced videos for Insider Inc. and also works on episodes for a nonprofit podcast, The Vietnamese Boat People.