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Sweets With a French Flair

It's Elaine L. Carmack's way with words that puts her chocolates into the French restaurants and chic European-style places. It's alos key to her home-based chocolate business.

When Carmack initially calls potential clients, especially French restaurants, she speaks entirely in French so they treat her like one of the family, not an outsider. Then she's got her foot in the door.

"I have always been an avid French speaker. I speak it all day long, every day," and it helps knowing the native tongue.

Carmack's business is "Spècialitès d'Elègance," a home-based chocolate marketing company that specializes in custom chocolates for businesses and individuals. Currently, her clients are divided into 30 percent weddings, 60 percent restaurants and 10 percent private clients. She has a partner who chose not to be interviewed or have his name used. It's her dining room that's full of chocolates, as well as five computers, a Web site and a fax machine for the business.

"In France, the tradition is they give you a chocolate at the restaurants," she said.

Although Carmack values not having an alarm clock to wake her, or not having to sit in traffic on the way to work, she admits that snacking on the chocolate all day is not one of the luxuries, either. She's had enough.

"About three months into it, I didn't want to eat any chocolate," she said.

The chocolates appeal to the taste, which is a very personal thing, unlike dealing in computers or hardware. It appeals to the senses, and Carmack has a personal approach to getting clients.

"It's a challenge. I enjoy cultivating a rapport with a potential client and creating a relationship. I always make it a conversational dialogue, not the hard sales approach," she said.

Clients in the area include Hermitage Inn in Clifton, as well as Chez Marc in McLean, Kate's Gourmet in Alexandria and La Fourchette in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, D.C.

Pierre Chauvet orders about two boxes a month for La Fourchette.

"They are very good, 70 percent cocoa, the people enjoy that," he said. "We give the check to the customer, we give them a chocolate."

Over at the Mediterranee in Arlington, Jacques Imperato, the chef, thinks the quality should match the food.

"I'm going after the quality. I need a chocolate to match my cooking," he said.

CARMACK DOES realize the chocolates are important for setting an impression or pampering a guest, but not a necessity like a computer or office supplies might be to a business.

"This is a nicety," she realized.

A nicety is the first to go when times get tough, also. The downfall in the economy as well as the shootings in October affected her business. Although some of her clients held off on future orders, she hoped the product will be remembered when their economic situation gets a little better.

"The economy’s been a real big factor," she said. "In the end, those are the clients I can pick up next year when the economy's back in," she said.

CARMACK'S CAREER went in several directions before ending up in the chocolate industry. After earning a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University in the school of language and linguistics, she was a research associate in nuclear energy, then took time out to earn her master’s degree, before becoming a director of a cultural exchange program in Huntsville, Ala. She then moved on to be a trade-show coordinator before moving back to the area in 1995, where she took a job as a recruiter. Getting paid was a problem, though.

"I spent many frustrating hours calling people up," she said.

While looking on the Internet, she noticed an ad for a business opportunity that was not grammatically correct, so she it caught her eye. She answered the ad and got a response in French.

"That was the beginning of a business relationship," she said.

Carmack got involved with a company in France that has been making chocolates since 1934 and formed a business marketing their chocolates in the United States. Most of the communication is done on the computer, but she finds herself heading out to Dulles Airport frequently, picking up boxes and boxes of the chocolates.