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.
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.