The Sweetest Job in Seattle

ico_feature4_quote3As a girl, Andrina Bigelow would walk to her mother’s Parisian-style patisserie — the internationally renowned Fran’s Chocolate’s in the Madison Valley neighborhood of Seattle — after school and help wrap the shop’s signature chocolate gold bars, and in high school, she and her brother worked the cash register of the first retail store. But as an undergraduate studying economics, and later, as an MBA candidate at Johnson, Bigelow had no interest in small-business entrepreneurship; she was most excited about working in brand management for bigger companies — which is exactly what she did, at Mattel, Johnson & Johnson, and T-Mobile.

Even once she, her husband (Mark Eskridge, MBA ’03), and their daughter had moved back to the Seattle area to be closer to family, Bigelow had no thoughts of joining the family business. But then one day in 2006, she was talking to her brother, Dylan, the head chocolatier at Fran’s, about how fast the business was growing. That’s when she discovered there was a need for a leader with pretty much her exact skill set — and realized she really was the perfect person for the job.

“Of course, now, looking back, I can’t believe it ever was even a question.”

A lover of fine foods, wines, and desserts her entire life, Bigelow says that “working for chocolate” is fantastic. Since she took on the role of CEO in 2007, Fran’s Chocolates has more than doubled in size, launched a successful mail-order business website, opened two more retail stores regionally, and moved its entire operations into a former brewery that she and her brother were able to build out to their exact specifications. (Highlights include a temperature-controlled ganache crystallization room and a viewing area that looks into the chocolate kitchen.) It also didn’t hurt business when President Obama and the First Lady professed their love for the company’s signature smoked salted caramels during a Washington State campaign swing in 2008 — to this day, the White House gifts the sweets to special visitors in a box embossed with the presidential seal.

The company’s 33-year success, and the devotion of its loyal and growing clientele, Bigelow says, can be explained by the company’s exacting standards in sourcing its ingredients, her brother’s commitment to constantly improving even its signature products, and the attention to detail and work ethic of the employees in production. Because most of Fran’s employee are first-generation Vietnamese immigrants, the company has developed a strong relationship with this community, and Fran’s has become a big supporter of Neighborhood House, a nonprofit devoted to helping mostly South Asian refugees become self-sustaining members of the community.

As for her future as CEO and the future of the company as a whole, Bigelow says she envisions herself staying on the rest of her career — and expects the company to continue to grow regionally, but at a manageable pace.

“We want to make sure that whatever we do, we can maintain the quality of our products, first and foremost,” she says. “Everything we sell, we want to be really proud of.”

Andrina Bigelow, MBA ’03, is CEO of Fran’s Chocolates, a Seattle-based family business started by her mother, where her brother is head chocolatier. Under her leadership, the company has more than doubled in size, launched a successful mail-order business website, opened two more retail stores regionally, and moved its entire operations.

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