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Siblings taste success, and how sweet it is

Young brother and sister team share in a chocolate business

By Ross Atkin Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 7, 2001



Like many youngsters, Elise Macmillan loves playing around in the kitchen. In her case, though, these culinary experiments haven't led to just messy pots and pans, but to profits.

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Elise, 12, is co-founder with her brother, Evan, 15, of the Chocolate Farm, a successful gourmet business in Denver that sells her chocolate creations to a growing clientele.

The business has outgrown the family kitchen and now operates out of the Denver Enterprise Center, a small-business incubator, where the siblings share a commercial kitchen with other companies. The R&D work, however, is still handled by Elise in the Macmillan home, about a 20-minute drive away.

"At the Enterprise Center, where you pay by the hour to use the kitchen, we concentrate on making our products," says Elise during an early-morning phone conversation, conducted before leaving for middle school. "At home, when I have as much time as I want, I can experiment with things. I get ideas from friends and family, and then I change them a little bit."

Elise's kitchen adventures began at age 3, when her Canadian grandmother showed her how to make Rice Krispie Treats. Thereafter, says her mother, Kathleen Macmillan, Elise was forever creating confections from chocolate chips.

"I'd open the refrigerator and find chocolate melted on celery with peanut butter and all kinds of funny things," Mrs. Macmillan says.

These sessions, including an occasional microwave explosion, didn't go unnoticed by Evan, who several years ago was selected to serve on the advisory board of the Young Americans Bank, which is for those 21 and under.

The bank promotes financial education and entrepreneurship and holds an annual Holiday Marketplace, so Evan encouraged Elise to participate. She concocted something called a Pig in Mud, which is a marshmallow dipped in melted caramel and pecans, then dipped in chocolate. She also sold molded chocolate cows on a stick and "Farm Eggs," jelly beans dipped in chocolate.

The themed-base candies, inspired by the farming backgrounds of Evan and Elise's grandmothers, were a hit and sold out quickly.

After that the Macmillans' Chocolate Farm began filling orders from family and friends, but its reputation for fun, well-made products was soon to reach a wider audience, helped by a presence on the Internet and selection for the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award winner in 1999.

Elise has a knack for product development and packaging, and Evan is the "business guy" and computer master.

He knew the Internet's potential from designing a website about author John Steinbeck for a school project. E-mails poured in, making it one of the most visited Steinbeck sites on the web. "It was amazing," says Evan. "I've taken down the site because it was taking a lot of time to answer all the questions people sent it."

For the Chocolate Farm, he's developed an inviting website (www.chocolatefarm.com) that reflects a grasp of e-commerce.

Mrs. Macmillan and her husband stay in the background. They support the business while making sure Evan and Elise run it as much as possible. "It's their business, and we want them to learn," she says. "But like any parents, we want to prevent huge mistakes, the pain of which will be more than the lesson."

David Gonzales, director of the Denver Enterprise Center, says young people have more entrepreneurial potential than many realize, but the key to its proper development is parents.