Chocolatier finds sweet spot in Belize

Vosges Haut-Chocolat founder Katrina Markoff to open education center on cacao plantation

Katrina Markoff, the founder of high-end Chicago chocolatier Vosges Haut-Chocolat, is nearing completion on two high-profile projects: a winery-style chocolate facility in Logan Square and an education center at a cacao plantation and eco-lodge in Belize.

Markoff isn't ready to talk about the Logan Square project, her spokeswoman said. But in an interview last week, she said she hopes the Belcampo farm in Belize will become the source of a majority of Vosges' cacao once its plants mature.

The project means Markoff will soon play a role in every aspect of production from seed selection through packaging without having to assume the financial risk of owning a tropical plantation.

Belcampo Group CEO Anya Fernald said the education center that Markoff helped design will open in mid-December, and Markoff will teach her first "master class" on cacao to guests at the 12-room lodge April 23-27. In exchange for her time and expertise, Markoff will receive a better price on the beans.

"I've always wanted to be involved through the full vertical, from actually growing the varietals of cacao I want, and being particular about how they're grown and harvested and fermented and dried," she said.

Once the farm reaches full yield in about five years, Fernald estimated it will produce 250,000 pounds of cacao annually. Already, with only 60 acres planted so far — all under a rain forest canopy — Fernald said Belcampo is already Belize's largest cacao plantation.

"The integrity of that project is really, really unique and special," Markoff said. "Typically when people buy beans to make chocolate, they just buy whatever is available in the commodity market. There's not a lot of control over how it's grafted, where it's planted, how it's nurtured, who's taking care of it. You just don't get that kind of control."

Bluhm continues gambling push

Chicago real estate and gambling executive Neil Bluhm is entering the race to build one of four planned casinos in Massachusetts and has launched an online gaming division in Chicago, said Greg Carlin, chief executive of Bluhm's Rush Street Gaming.

Earlier this year Rush Street hired Richard Schwartz from Waukegan-based WMS Industries and appointed him president of Rush Street Interactive, its new online gaming division.

"We think (Internet gaming) is going to be eventually legalized throughout the country, or in jurisdictions that have bricks-and-mortar casinos," Carlin said. "Illinois is actually a leader in selling lottery tickets online and could be a leader in Internet gaming as well if they get ahead of the curve and pass legislation before some of the other states."

Nevada and Delaware have legalized some forms of Internet gambling.

In recent years, Bluhm has built three casinos: Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, one in Pittsburgh and another in Philadelphia. In October, Bluhm sold his first U.S. casino, Riverwalk Casino and Hotel, in Vicksburg, Miss., for $141 million in cash to Churchill Downs Inc. (Bluhm held a 70 percent stake in Riverwalk.)

Churchill Downs, a horse racing and wagering company, also owns Arlington Park in Arlington Heights. Its largest shareholder is Duchossois Group, founded by Arlington Park Chairman Richard "Dick" Duchossois.

Duchossois has been trying to persuade the Illinois Legislature to approve slots at racetracks, which, if successful, would make Arlington Park a competitor of Bluhm's Des Plaines casino.

As for the Massachusetts casino, the gambling commission there will weigh applications for casino licenses well into 2013.

Alvarez joins Culloton

Public relations firm Culloton Strategies has hired Michael Alvarez, a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, as senior vice president for public affairs.

As the Sun-Times reported in January, Alvarez, 32, has worked for Barack Obama, Rod Blagojevich and Richard M. Daley — while he has close ties to Ald. Richard Mell, Blagojevich's father-in-law.

In addition to his $70,000 annual salary at the water district, Alvarez has a $60,000-a-year public relations contract with the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority and a "fast-growing" lobbying practice, the Sun-Times reported.

According to Alvarez, he is registered as a lobbyist with seven companies, including Saint Anthony Hospital and American Traffic Solutions, a competitor to the city's red-light camera company, Redflex Traffic Systems.

Among Culloton's clients are the Chicago Cubs and the team's owners, the Ricketts family, who are trying to get government assistance to help pay for Wrigley Field renovations.

"The reason why I wanted Mike to join the team is that he was the director of outreach for President Obama when he was Sen. Obama," Culloton Strategies founder Dennis Culloton said. "He was the first and only Hispanic elected official to endorse Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel during his run for mayor … and he's a strong ally of a great number of other important policymakers and political figures in Chicago and across the state."

Alvarez will continue his state agency and lobbying work on books separate from those of Culloton Strategies, Culloton said. However, Alvarez said he expects his lobbying work to wane over time, and he'll instead be advising clients on how best to do it themselves, he said.

Rahals team up

Veteran race car driver and team owner Bobby Rahal announced last week that his 23-year-old son, Graham, would finally join Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as its 2013 IndyCar Series driver.

Bobby Rahal, who lives in Lincoln Park and grew up in Glen Ellyn, said that the pairing would make race day easier. He would no longer need "one eye" on his team's car and "one eye" on his son's.

"I really wanted him to drive for other teams so that no one even accused him of being where he was because of me," Rahal said Thursday during a presentation at Cooper Technica, a vintage car restoration company in the West Loop. "I also thought, for him to earn the respect of his peers, he needed to be somewhere else" first.

The younger Rahal, who won his IndyCar Series debut in 2008, lives in Indianapolis, his father said.

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential or facebook.com/chiconfidential.

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