Adults and kids alike have a sweet tooth for chocolate, making it the most popular candy in the world. It tastes fantastic, lifts spirits, and is steeped in centuries of tradition. Chocolatier Lecia Duke overcame obstacles to bring innovative chocolates to the American market. Her company, Quintessential Chocolates, offers handcrafted liqueur praliné chocolates.
It is no surprise that chocolate has been dubbed the “happy drug.” The sweet treat releases mood-lifting endorphins in our brains, earning its reputation as an elixir for happiness. From the traditional hot chocolate sipped on a cold winter night to an artisanal truffle crafted with precision, there is something special about chocolate that warms the heart and soul. Many of us reach for a bite of this special confection in times of joy and celebration.
Chocolatier Lecia Duke persevered through hardship to bring a unique sort of chocolate to America, one that contains another favorite delicacy—alcohol. Her company, Quintessential Chocolates, specializes in handcrafted liqueur praliné chocolates.
Her business is the only American company that utilizes a confection process practiced initially in Europe. To date, the company has produced over 400 flavors of chocolate, including those filled with spirits, wine, non-alcoholic flavors and cocktails. Some flavors currently listed include chocolates filled with single-malt Scotch whiskey or cabernet sauvignon.
“I try to have something in the store for everyone, whether they’re vegan or keto because that’s what makes people happy.”
Lecia grew up in a home she describes as an art studio because of all the creativity that flourished there. Her mother was a professional artist, and her father was an engineer. Together they encouraged her to be creative and inventive, with her father teaching her how to draw sheet metal drawings at only eight years old.
“To do that, you have to look at the finished object and unfold it into a flat two-dimensional form to know how to cut it out of sheet metal. Then bend it, fold it, and make it happen.”
He taught her how to use a wide range of materials so that she could craft miniature furniture for her beloved dollhouse, such as tiny cast-iron skillets out of construction paper or couches out of cardboard.
“If we didn’t have it and we wanted it or couldn’t afford it or whatever, just make it! That’s the environment I grew up in.”
Above the garage was her mother’s art studio, where she made “fine art and everything from leather tooling to pottery.”
“My dad took our garage and did all the woodworking. My grandparents were both carpenters in their little town. My grandmother was the first woman in Pelly’s Carpenter Union. My mom was the first female in her high school architecture class, and I was the first female in my high school welding class.”
As a 15-year-old, Lecia traveled through Europe appreciating how architecture combined art with engineering, and she set her sights on making it her career. At the time, she was working as a model.
“While I was in Europe at 15, I fell in love with the architecture, and it just sang to me. I came back and decided I’ll be an architect.”
Lecia attended the University of Houston, where she studied under accomplished architects like Philip Johnson and Michael Graves. She graduated first in her class, earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture.
“The top architects of the day were brought to the honors program. And at that age, it was an honor to train with them. That really helped me, and I don’t think I could have built this business without that degree. It helped tremendously because of the design, the programming, the analytical way that you look at the problem and solve it.”
One of the things she was taught in school was a “Charette,” which translates to chariot in French.
“Corbusier and some other architects used the Charette to find the most perfect solution to a problem. In other words, you run through a gauntlet of ideas really fast, and once you’ve done that, you filter out all the bad ideas and keep the good. So that kind of problem-solving was phenomenal, and coupling that with design, I had to eventually design and build my own equipment to make my product.”
Lecia then started working as an intern for a prominent architecture and design firm in Houston, Texas. As the only woman on the design team, she quickly realized the unique challenges she would face working in a traditionally male-dominated field.
She left the company when she learned she was not receiving equal pay despite having the same qualifications as her male peers. Nonetheless, she remained in the industry, serving as the architectural and graphic director for R.C. Mathews Construction. On the side, she started sowing the very first seeds of her business. Eventually, she committed fully to Quintessential Chocolates.
“It was scary as hell. In fact, when I announced I was leaving my last client, I told him in September, and it took me all the way until December to actually leave because I was terrified of going out on my own. I felt like I still had projects to finish before I could hand them over to somebody.”
Quintessential Chocolates is the only company in the country that sells American-made praline liqueur chocolates. The technique used to make the chocolates, called Limoba, is considered a centuries-old art form formerly practiced only by European master chocolatiers.
“We’re kind of a unicorn in the sense that we’re the only ones in the country to do this process, and we do it nationally and internationally for individuals, corporations, distilleries, and wineries. We’re a custom artisan chocolate shop.”
Lecia had to create her own equipment and packaging in order to pull off her remarkable achievement since nothing like them existed in the US. The story of how she came to create this unique variety of chocolate is just as compelling.
“I was doing custom chocolates for many people, events, and parties. I did edible orchids, all kinds of weird funky stuff. I went to Wilton School of Design for two weeks and trained with them to learn how to do international-style confectionery, such as gum paste and spun sugar and all these bizarre things that nobody was doing in this country. I dabbled in chocolate for years before I found that I could make a living at this.”
A client for whom she created a chocolate bar carved with their logo requested that she make chocolate filled with a Jack Daniel’s liquid center.
“I looked at him, and I said I know those. I had them in Europe. I’m curious about it, but I don’t know anything right now, and I have to get some training on this.”
She worked with the Swiss chocolate manufacturer Lindt & Sprüngli at the time. She asked if they knew an instructor who could teach her the needed technique, and they happily provided her with one. This process, perfected by Rudolph Sprungli (Lindt), is known as the LI (liquid) MO (moisture) BA (barrier) process.
In the meantime, Lecia reached out to Brown-Forman Beverage Corporation, the company behind the production of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. In a critical meeting, the company asked how quickly the product could get onto shelves for consumers. To Lecia’s surprise, Brown Forman’s agency asked the Swiss Master Chocolatier from Lindt, who had accompanied her to the meeting, how quickly could the Swiss company mass-produce the chocolates. The Master Chocolatier stated that Lecia intended to make them in this country. They pressed again, and he said four months (120 days). Taking this into consideration, Brown-Forman then asked Lecia how long she would need to do it independently.
“And I said nine months because I had just found out the week before that I was pregnant. So, bringing out a national product when I had never done that before was stressful enough. Still, I said, this is my opportunity. I’m going to do it. I’m going to make it happen. It wasn’t an easy road.”
She knew she had just signed up for a daunting task, but she set her sights to focus on the end result. This was her dream.
“It was terrifying because I knew good and well Lindt could get it out quickly because they’re the ones who perfected this process. But here’s the thing, I changed it. In Europe, Lindt makes liqueur praliné, which is called a ‘baton,’ meaning stick. And it’s about the size of a piece of chalkboard chalk. Europeans who recognized it as a liqueur praliné were just picking them up and putting the whole thing in their mouths from cheek to cheek.”
On the other hand, Americans tend to bite this type of chocolate in half and “would wear it.”
“I was like ok, this is where some of my architectural training comes in. It’s just sugar crystals. So during the process, I started trying different shapes. I scrunched it down so that it could be more of a bite-sized piece. But when I reduced it down like that, I also removed a lot of the sugar crust.”
The crust is crucial to the overall success of the product. Lindt had perfected the method to preserve the crust long ago, in 1780-1800.
“It’s a way of casting the liquid into cornstarch, pulling the water out. For every molecule of water, there are three molecules of sugar. And then, there’s liquor in the mix. The original process was mind-boggling and somewhat of a recipe for insanity.”
Lecia decided then to build her own machinery and devised a method to print about 200 pieces simultaneously while preserving the crust’s integrity.
“While I was figuring all of that out, I discovered a material that was used to ship body parts for organ transplants. So, if it would keep a frozen heart frozen for four days, it would work for chocolate. Back in those days, people always shipped chocolates between October to March. With this new packaging component, I was able to ship year round.”
Eventually, her painstaking efforts paid off.
“I presented it in May of 1987, and by September that year, we had done a taste test at the Dallas Market, and they were blown away. Brown-Forman came back and said, alright, we’re going to do this. It was a wild and crazy ride.”
However, Lecia’s path as a business owner and chocolatier has had its share of challenges. Within 22 years, she experienced 12 significant disruptions to her business. At one point, the company was once hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Even though she “didn’t know what was coming down the pike,” she resolved to face whatever came her way. She knew from the start that this was her true calling.
“Back when I was working in Nashville for $4.85 an hour, I realized I could work for myself for nothing at this point if it brought joy to my soul.”
Driving home one day back then, she felt like she was in an “iron corset that just kept tightening down.” She would also get spiritual nudges in her dreams that she was not where she needed to be in life.
“If you pay attention to the nudges and the things that happen in your world, really on a spiritual level, you know a hunch is nothing more than an angel tapping you on your shoulder.”
Lecia is in the process of writing her autobiography. She started writing the book in 2015 for her daughter. Her message to people with a dream who want to do something “marvelously different” is to chase it.
“Every one of us has a purpose when we come into this world. And when you pursue your purpose, once you figure it out and go after it, nothing should stop you. If it’s a dream of yours, it is spiritually driven, so support that spirit because, guess what? That’s your road map. That’s what you were put on this earth for. We all bring a unique perspective to the world. Thank those who say you can’t accomplish your dream because they’re the ones who will make you do it.”