A botanist and a pediatrician follow their noses to chocolate
As a kid, Deborah Langsam used to stare in the windows of the bakeries in Brooklyn, N.Y., and dream of what delicacy she would buy if she had all the money in the world.
As co-owner of Barking Dog Chocolatiers, an artisanal chocolate company in Charlotte, N.C., Langsam, 57, a former associate professor of biology, no longer has to fantasize about indulging her sweet tooth. With husband Joal Fischer, 61, a retired developmental pediatrician, she stirs up vats of silky chocolate and handcrafts it into mouth-watering truffles, barks, ganaches, and pastries in a state-of-the-art home kitchen.
Langsam, a botanist, retired in 2002 after 22 years at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Fischer officially shuttered his medical practice 12 years ago to focus on SupportWorks, a nonprofit clearinghouse he founded in 1990 to help people find and form support groups and research medical information.
Ritzy. Before retiring from science and medicine, the couple took a six-week pastry course at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier in Paris, alongside professional chefs. It was in the basement of the tony Ritz hotel that they fell madly in love with the process of making chocolate. Not surprisingly, it was the science that intrigued them—the methodical experiments and technical precision needed to ensure a ganache that was smooth, not grainy, for instance.
Eventually, they journeyed around the United States, Canada, and beyond to train with expert pastry chefs and chocolatiers, honing the techniques of framing, molding, and panning. Finally, they began designing their own chocolates.
Their tempting morsels were a resounding success with friends, who pushed the couple to make chocolates to sell. In 2000, as a hobby, they officially started Barking Dog Chocolatiers, named in honor of a favorite pooch that barked only when she was hungry.
The payoff: All profits go to SupportWorks. Last year, the couple sold around $12,000 worth of candy. Roughly 75 percent of that was profit (neither Langsam nor Fischer takes a salary from Barking Dog) and went to meet SupportWorks’ annual budget of roughly $9,000.
It’s a small business, and the couple aim to keep it that way. The chocolate-making is still a two-person operation. In spurts, they might spend 15 hours a day swirling up their elegant chocolates to fill customer orders from their website—sampler boxes, wedding novelties, or special orders with custom logos. And their candies and pastries are served as dessert at the Bonterra Dining & Wine Room, a Charlotte restaurant. But there’s plenty of downtime for Langsam to spend on her fabric art and for Fischer to tend to SupportWorks, as well as to travel and take more chocolate courses. “We don’t measure our self-worth by how much money comes in,” Fischer says. “We don’t want to get caught up in the American way of always getting bigger and bigger.”
Langsam’s decision to retire from academia stemmed in large part from “the constant pressure to do more, do more, do more,” she says. “There was always another paper to write, another bigger grant to be awarded.”
Deciding to leave her faculty post, even with full retirement benefits, wasn’t easy, though. “I liked what I did very much,” she says. “My identity was as a professor.”
Yet an early health scare with cancer, when she was in her 30s, had taught Langsam how short life can be. Was it really worth working so hard to be named a full professor? “It was an ego thing for me,” Langsam says.
Sensible spending suits the couple’s sweet new lifestyle. They both drive 12-year-old Volvos and don’t go in for designer togs or fancy jewelry. They had always made do on salaries that weren’t in the stratosphere.
“There is no way we could have planned this adventure,” Fischer says. “It started out as a kick, something fun to do together, and we make people smile. What other business can you be in and all you have to say is that you make chocolate and everyone smiles?”