From Finance to Fine Chocolate: Approved by the Salty Donut

During her first year in business, Carolina Quijano attended virtually every food-related event in Miami in order to promote her company, Exquisito Fine Chocolates. The 31-year-old entrepreneur refers to herself as "pleasantly persistent" and says she had to hustle to get noticed. Her persistence has paid off, and now local favorites such as the Salty Donut, Azucar Ice Cream Company, Threefold Cafe, and Pasion del Cielo use Exquisito chocolates in their desserts.

Exquisito uses ethically sourced cocoa beans and roasts and grinds them in-house, adding only sugar and no additives or preservatives. The startup is based in Kendall and produces chocolate and marshmallow treats using top-quality ingredients. Online sales via its website account for the bulk of revenue, but Quijano is concentrating on growing the wholesale side of the business and getting more chefs to use Exquisito in their sweets. She also has her sights set on opening a retail space in a premium location.

Currently, Quijano is sourcing organic fair-trade beans from the Dominican Republic, but because chocolate is seasonal, the company is always testing different beans to determine where to buy from next. Furthermore, Exquisito organizes regular events where foodies are invited to try various beans and creations in exchange for their honest feedback.
Quijano started her business a year and a half ago with no professional culinary experience. While completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Miami, she took a couple of chocolate classes offered by Miami Dade College just for fun. She then moved to Manhattan to embark on a ten-year career in finance and management consulting. While in Paris for work, Quijano wandered into a holiday market and tried some excellent hot chocolate. She tried to find a similar product in the States, to no avail.

That's when she began tinkering around and testing recipes in her kitchen to see if she could replicate the hot chocolate she enjoyed in Paris. Once she had concocted the right chocolate mix, she quit her well-paying job in New York City and moved back home to South Florida. Although she traveled throughout her childhood, Quijano says Miami has always felt like home, and she believed the city to be receptive to small-business startups.

To help others make gourmet-quality hot chocolate at home, Exquisito sells a pure chocolate mix ($11) as well as hot-chocolate spoons ($5 each). The handmade, individually packaged spoons come in various flavors and are meant to be stirred directly into a hot cup of milk, water, or coffee. Other items available on the brand's website include s'mores, chocolate bars, truffles, and chocolate mixes ($5 to $24).

Quijano says she's working just as many hours per week now as she did when she was in finance, but she genuinely enjoys what she does. "I love being able to build something and produce something. I’ve always been entrepreneurial; I had my first business card when I was 7," she says.

The Miami native gets a thrill when she sees chefs using her product in different ways. For example, the Salty Donut's Max Santiago recently used Exquisito's white chocolate as a glaze on a cookies 'n' cream doughnut. The talented pastry chef also used the product in a cannoli doughnut that won Cooking Channel's Sugar Showdown in September. That's some serious cred.

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Valeria Nekhim was born in the Ukraine and raised in Montreal. She has lived in Manhattan and Miami. Her favorite part of food writing is learning the stories of chefs and restaurateurs.