Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, cover it with chocolate, and a miracle or two? Jonathan Grahm can.
In a chocolate factory in the heart of Los Angeles, a man in his 30s reaches into a pot of chocolate with a silver spoon and brings it to his lips to taste. He closes his eyes and lets the sweetness of the dark chocolate envelop his mouth while the flavor of raspberry pops forward like a tart surprise. He smiles to himself. "Yes, this one will do." He opens his eyes, grabs another spoon, and moves on to the next kettle.
Jonathan Grahm wasn't always the boss of his own chocolate factory. In fact, at the age of 15, he was only earning a minimum wage of $6.25 working for his family's company, Compartés – a brand they had acquired from Mr. and Mrs. Compartés back when his great-grandfather was a songwriter for Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, and Mr. Compartés was the song plugger.
When Grahm went to study law at UCLA, he'd go to classes in the morning but be back at the chocolate shop by the afternoon, until one day he realized the shop was the only place he wanted to be. He didn't want the law degree because he wanted Compartés forever. So, he asked his father to sell him the company, which he did for what the family had purchased it previously.
"That was very nice of Dad because it was worth a little bit more at that time," says Grahm, then smiles as he leans in. "My grandma called it the 'sweetheart deal.' But it also taught me a lot about business and being accountable because I took out a loan at the bank to pay that money at such a young age. I didn’t start off with things free and clear. I had a financial obligation to make sure that I was creating a brand that was profitable. I had employees to pay, I had rent to pay, and leases. It taught me a lot about being fiscally responsible. And as my company has grown all these years, at the end of every year, I would take the profits and reinvest them back into the company. I would say, 'Okay, this year, with the money that I’ve made, I’m going to redo the packaging. This year I’m going to buy more equipment. This year I’m going to try to build a bigger facility.' At the end of the year, I give myself a goal for the next year of growth, and I take the money, and I put it back in."
This is exactly how Grahm has been able to maintain his position as the sole shareholder of Compartés, without a single outside investor, because he has fueled his own growth rather than, as he puts it, spent his profits on other things.
"I don't drive a Lamborghini," he laughs. "It's not me."
CHOCOLATE is something that EVERYONE LIKES. I think that is something that’s really helped in my brand because I’m not trying to sell, you know, onions. I’m not an onion farmer or a mushroom farmer. EVERYONE LOVES CHOCOLATE. And if they don't, I'm a little weirded out by that.
"Once I bought the company," Grahm says, "I was also free to do what I wanted with it. Because before, my family didn’t want to change things because of the legacy and the heritage. When I bought it, I slowly started to make things better and pursued what I envisioned for the company. And what was great was the customer's trust. I wanted to use more high-quality ingredients. And they’ve trusted me to lead them through that journey, and they’ve supported me through that."
Like Charlie Bucket must have been when he inherited Wonka's factory, the young Grahm was in awe of what he could do with a bit of butter and sugar. As he toiled in the shop, he attempted to recreate the recipes found on the tattered pages within Mrs. Compartés' old tin box, and his fascination with chocolate deepened. Unlike the professional chocolatiers, Grahm had no formal culinary or chocolate-making education. His journey involved experimentation, a dash of Google searches, and relentless determination.
He would taste the chocolate, attempt to recreate it, and sometimes stumble along the way. But, with every failure, he uncovered valuable lessons and added a little of this and a little of that until he tasted something truly magical – something he would like to eat. Grahm's dedication led him to master the nuances of chocolate, from the precise emulsification of butter and sugar to the intricacies of tempering. His dedication paid off as he continued to evolve and create, taking a time-honored tradition and a heritage brand and elevating it with modern flavors and tastes.
"Chocolate is something that everyone likes. I think that is something that’s really helped in my brand because I’m not trying to sell, you know, onions. I’m not an onion farmer or a mushroom farmer. Everyone loves chocolate. And if they don't, I'm a little weirded out by that."
It's true, too. Who doesn't love chocolate? Grahm's grandmother has a signed note from Marilyn Monroe thanking Mr. and Mrs. Compartés for the chocolate she loves so much. That note will be passed down to Grahm one day ("I'll probably frame it," he says when asked what he'll do with it.) Compartés was the darling chocolate of Hollywood back when it was founded in 1950, frequented by the likes of Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, the Kennedys, and Elvis Presley. Fast forward to today, and Grahm's clientele includes celebrities like Nicole Kidman, Kim Kardashian, Heidi Klum, Victoria Beckham, and many others.
He's taken a product that everybody loves and has turned it into a brand that’s not only chocolate but is fashion, art, glamour, and, in many ways, still carries the nostalgia of old-school Hollywood. And big brands, from Cartier to Tiffany and Gucci, are also lining up to work with him.
Grahm uses the same machinery that was used 75 years ago, lending an artisanal touch to every creation, and still maintains the handmade process, from cutting donuts to using fresh, seasonal ingredients, ensuring that each Compartés chocolate bar is a unique, living creation.
But it's his ever-evolving flavors, the meticulous tweaking of each recipe, and the character of change that make Compartés stand apart, just like Wonka's bars. Although many have tried to replicate Grahm's creations, no one has truly been able to unlock the unique flavor and touch of the divine. Perhaps this is because Grahm's most guarded secrets are his recipes, ingredients, and the names of his vendors. Like the Everlasting Gobstopper, no one even knows where he gets the donuts he uses for one of his favorite bars, 'Coffee and Donuts'. And we aren't sure anyone ever will.
From the product to the design, Grahm's hands remain in every aspect of his brand. His bars have become icons of California, with their bright colors and bold shapes igniting a yearning for the palm trees and sunshine of America's Golden State. Fun fact: just as he continually tweaks his recipes, Grahm ensures that no two Compartés bars are ever quite the same — a philosophy that extends to the packaging. Each box is a subtle work of art in itself, transformed ever so slightly, making the idea of collecting them almost as tempting as the chocolates inside. But let's be real: who could resist savoring these delights? If you did manage to amass a collection, you'd notice the charming, unique differences in each design, a testament to the meticulous care that defines Compartés. This is just another minute detail that has become a part of the Compartés, just as the DNA of Compartés has become a part of Grahm.
Compartés is a legacy and a heritage that he envisions passing on to future generations to last for another 75 years. It has stood the test of time, thanks to the man with the 25 silver tasting spoons, and it is poised to continue its delightful journey. With over two decades dedicated to Compartés, Grahm has transitioned from being the wide-eyed Charlie Bucket into a bonafide Willy Wonka of the chocolate world.
"I feel like I was Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, and now I’m more of the Willy Wonka. Maybe that’s my story," he says, "because we didn’t get to follow Charlie’s journey. It would’ve been different than Willie Wonka’s. It would be interesting to see what he's done."
Sounds like Grahm's already given us the Golden Ticket to that sequel.
Compartés is now open at Dubai Mall, selling handmade chocolates from Los Angeles.
Here are a few of our top picks to get you started.