"I like to do buildings that stand up well and look beautiful and meet the owners' and clients' expectations," Dean Bingham says. "So I have pretty high expectations for what chocolate should be for visual effect and taste."
Credit: Ian Allen
Sometimes, it pays to have two jobs. After practicing architecture for 35 years, Dean Bingham, AIA, started to sell hand-dipped, dark chocolate truffles in 2004. Bingham lives in Maine, a state with a population of only 1.3 million, where having two sources of income ensures good times during bad economies. Bingham, 65, had already tasted variety in the field of architecture, designing houses, hospitals, zoos, and libraries. His foray into chocolate-making led him to open Dean’s Sweets, a boutique retail store in Portland. Now Bingham earns recognition for work in two fields: A church-to-restaurant conversion won an AIA Los Angeles 2011 Restaurant Design Award, and his confections were voted best chocolate by local newspaper Portland Phoenix this year.
How and why does one choose a side business?
I was looking for something else to do in addition to architecture. I had a business coach who I talked with many times over a number of months, and of the possibilities that I looked at, one was making chocolate and one was making ice cream. I was already making both things, but not formally. The chocolate fell into place in part because it was more portable and a little less equipment intensive.
Then about six years ago, I started a website, had a couple of orders from organizations that wanted good chocolate, and decided to get licensed for a home kitchen. Suddenly, we had this baby we had to take care of. It’s been an organic process of growth; we weren’t trying to expand dramatically in one direction, either by buying lots of equipment or hiring lots of people, but growing as our sales grow and also trying not to borrow money. We opened the shop in the fall of 2008, which was what I like to call the top of the bottom. We had a pretty good sense of what we were getting into.
We enjoyed your lemon apricot chevre and Maine sea salt caramel truffles. Do you only use dark chocolate?
Primarily, we make chocolate truffles, and we use only dark, because I think that’s one thing that I like, and I felt like that’s what everyone else should like, plus it’s healthier and better for you. But we keep getting requests for milk chocolate or white chocolate, so we have a couple that have white or milk chocolate centers. They’re basically undecorated. I feel that the chocolate piece is kind of related to design and I like to keep things simple and let their inner beauty show. Chocolate is well-tempered so it shines and has a crisp quality to it.
What does making chocolate add to your life that architecture doesn’t?
I had been doing architecture for 35 years and I was feeling like I needed to spread my wings a little bit. There’s always a little frustration in architecture with recognition, having people appreciate your work. The great thing about chocolate is that it’s almost instantaneous feedback. You don’t have to wait for a year or five years for your client or customer to appreciate it. … I enjoy the design aspect of design, and creating projects and buildings and happy clients, but in terms of business, chocolate is kind of a happy business. There’s a fun aspect.
Many people running two businesses would feel harried. How do you maintain a balance?
I’m doing less architecture now partly because there’s less there, but also because the chocolate business has been taking up more of my time. … It’s not hard to balance both. We tend to work fairly long hours and, as I tell people who come into the shop, it’s actually traditional in Maine to pursue more than one vocation at the same time. Part of it’s economic. If you don’t have a lot of business in one business, you do something in another one. If one thing goes south, you’ve still got backup. It helps keep us sane and happy and employed.
Since the truffle business is booming for you, do you think you’ll ever stop practicing architecture?
I’m 65. As you probably know, architects don’t seem to retire. Look at Philip Johnson; at 98 he was still practicing. We seem to last longer than other people and maybe it’s the creative thing that keeps us going. I’ll probably keep doing architecture for years to come. I like both. You develop passions and you run with them.
You have 42 total years of experience in architecture. Do you think that makes you a better chocolatier?
I think I’m fussy. For one thing, I like things to turn out the way that I visualize them to be. I like to do buildings that stand up well and look beautiful and meet the owners’ and clients’ expectations. So I have pretty high expectations for what chocolate should be for visual effect and taste. I find for some reason—it may be my design background—that when I do new flavors, I seem to be able to balance flavors without doing 50 different samples. … Both architecture and chocolate are design, so that’s a significant relationship between the two. I think that gives me a leg up on some people who are only chefs or chocolate makers because I get that the visual and the quality piece is part of the requirement.
We have to ask, have you considered naming your chocolate after architects?
That for some reason has never come up. Partly because we keep our names pretty related to the flavor. Maybe it would be different if somebody said, well Philip Johnson loved “X,” and that would be a good place to start. Architects tend to be male more often than female, and guys are not as often excited about chocolate as women. Maybe what I need to do is see what Zaha Hadid likes and name some after her, find some famous women architects who are chocolate freaks. We also talked at one point about making one of our boxes a little house, which would be kind of cool.