Willy Wonka of Wall Street Has a Sweet Side Hustle in New Jersey

May 28, 2019 Updated: May 28, 2019

Gary Parr watches with boyish wonder as hundreds of chocolate drops roll off a massive piece of Italian machinery.

The executive who has worked on some of Wall Street’s biggest deals holds quite the golden ticket. Parr owns the equipment, hired the chocolate makers and approves the fillings for every ganache (caramel with sea salt and almond butter have already passed muster, while mint is in testing).

By day (and plenty of nights) Parr works at the second-largest private equity firm in the world. In his spare time, he’s building a luxury chocolate brand using ethically sourced cacao from Latin America.

His colleagues at Apollo Global Management reap the benefits. Since the soft launch of Parre Chocolat a few months ago, he’s had more requests for meetings at his conference table. It has a view of Central Park and dishes filled with 88% Super Dark Chocolate Drops.

“I shouldn’t be an aficionado of chocolates, but I am, and Gary’s chocolate is fantastic,” said Leon Black, Apollo’s chief executive officer.

The drops are made with only cacao beans, cane sugar, and cocoa butter and cost $12 for a 150-gram (5.3-ounce) pouch.

“If you look at the ingredients of any chocolate, you’ll see vanilla,” said Parr, who’s been thinking about the business for more than a decade. “We don’t want vanilla. We just want you to taste the chocolate.”

Parr loves the stuff, but that’s not why he started Parre. With an investment so far of a few million dollars, he’s betting that small-batch dark chocolate of ethical origin will follow the upward trajectory of craft beer and coffee, and is open to acquisitions.

All this seems worlds away from his decades as an investment banker at Lazard and Morgan Stanley, where he worked on transactions like the sale of Bear Stearns to JPMorgan and Lehman Brothers’ North American investment-banking business to Barclays. But the 62-year-old financier has a history of creative pursuits, such as helping produce the film “Boys Don’t Cry.” He’s had time for such things, he joked, because he doesn’t play golf.

For now the chocolate business is small. Parr approaches decisions with the hands-on dedication of an entrepreneur right out of “Shark Tank”—except he already has the spoils of success, including homes on Park Avenue and in Palm Beach County, Florida, the latter built for Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan with several rooms of French boiserie.

To furnish the Parre Chocolat showroom, he did a local search on eBay for a dining room set and brought some china from home. He studied the chocolate aisle at Whole Foods when he was working on packaging. The “mess of colors” he saw led him to Coco Chanel-inspired black and white designs.

He’s considering a subscription program that would send boxes of chocolate in Baccarat crystal. As of now, the chocolates are available only online, but he’s considering opening a retail store in Manhattan.

On a recent Thursday, Parr whisked himself away from his 57th Street office and donned a hair net to give a tour of his factory in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, which formerly manufactured Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce.

There are no Oompa Loompas. But there are conveniently placed paper swatches to dip into steel vats of melted chocolate on its way to being tempered.

“I can’t help myself when we pass there,” Parr said as he took a sample. “It tastes good, huh? But now we have to go to where it starts.”

Standing next to jute bags filled with cacao beans, he notes how everything hinges on how the fruit is transformed into a bean.

“Beans not fermented correctly, it tastes like sourdough bread,” Parr said.

He leaves the job of choosing beans to chocolate maker Pearl Wong, who previously worked at San Francisco-based Dandelion. When she saw Parr’s job advertisement for the post, Wong was intrigued by the “fully financed” part of the job description.

“He likes to say ‘there’s no budget, focus on good value,’” she said.

Wong has visited farms in Latin America with Parr’s wife, Katherine, and together they’ve identified projects to improve farming communities.

In Guatemala, the Parrs funded the construction of a fermentation center in Cahabon and drying platforms in Asochivite. “This is so the farmers can turn out at a higher-quality product, so we can pay them a higher premium for the beans,” Parr said.

One of Parr’s ideas is to market the chocolate expressly for social tasting, as people do with wine.

“It’s great fun to realize how many flavor profiles there are,” Parr says. “That’s why we have three 75% bars. There’s Guatemala, Dominican Republic, and Colombia. They taste different.”

He envisions people holding tastings in their homes, and is setting up events at cultural venues including the New York City Opera. In June, he’ll be offering the chocolates at a concert he and his wife are hosting in their home theater in Tuxedo Park, New York.

But first, the beans have to be roasted and the shells removed with cracking rollers and fans. Then the nibs fall down and get broken into bits.

“I eat nibs. It’s healthy. It’s pure chocolate, so it will be bitter,” Parr said. “The more you chew it, you’re turning it into chocolate in your mouth.”


By Sonali Basak