At Tony Caputo’s Market and Deli, artisan chocolate is a priori.
“A priori is a Latin term, and essentially what it means to me is something that is intrinsically true,” said Matt Caputo, CEO of Tony Caputo’s Market and Deli and an artisan chocolate expert. “(It’s) something that’s true independent of human observation, and so we try to keep that in mind and let it guide our decisions.”
This philosophy has made Caputo — a businessman, connoisseur and father of two — not only a well-respected figure in his community, but a driving force behind the artisan chocolate scene in Utah, due to his vast chocolate knowledge and his specialty food distribution company, aptly named A Priori Specialty Food.
“The Caputos are the only reason you can find craft chocolate or fine chocolate all over the state,” said Robbie Stout, co-founder of Ritual Chocolate in Park City. “(Becase of A Priori), I’d say more than anywhere else in the world there’s no better place where there’s a better distribution of fine chocolate, period. Caputo’s has basically done everything for the chocolate community here.”
But it’s not just his businesses that are having an impact — it’s Caputo himself.
“He is so well educated on chocolate and describing the flavor notes,” said Eric Durtschi, founder of Crio Bru and Durci Chocolate in Lindon. “ If you can get his blessing on your chocolate, then you’re probably going to have a successful chocolate company.”
'Down the rabbit hole'
But chocolate wasn’t always Caputo’s passion — cheese was his first love, followed by a number of other specialty foods from charcuterie to olive oil.
“I knew that I wanted to use (my college degree) here at Caputo’s, so during college, I definitely found my calling working with specialty food, cheese primarily,” he said.
Caputo was born and raised in Salt Lake City and attended Highland High School, though he graduated from Skyline High School. In 2004, after graduating magna cum laude with a marketing degree from the University of Utah, he went straight to the family business, Tony Caputo’s Market and Deli, where he’d already been running the specialty food side of the business for several years — despite his parents encouraging other career paths.
“My parents tried to get me not to do it,” Caputo said. “My mom specifically always thought that, due to my propensity to argue, I should’ve been a lawyer.”
Instead, Caputo helped the business boom.
“We were growing triple digit sales growth some years, and then high double digits,” Caputo said. “It was just the time of my life. We were just killing it, we were making a name for ourselves, and people were way into it. (We were) just spreading the gospel so to speak about fine cheese. We were so excited about it, and we just loved sharing that.”
But Caputo was forced to re-evaluate his work when Vanessa Chang, a friend and food writer, kindly told him that he didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to artisan chocolate.
“And that really got me, because I really respected her,” Caputo said. “I decided to fix that, and so I started to educate myself.”
He read a number of different books about chocolate, then participated in a chocolate tasting with a chocolate maker from Piedmont, Italy — where he was initially skeptical that artisan chocolate could taste profoundly different based on where the cacao beans came from.
“I was like ‘OK, yeah, yeah, (I'm) used to (different flavor notes) with wine,’” Caputo said. “But as I tasted the second bar (those different flavor notes were) really in your face, more so than wine, and I had been into wine for a long time. And so I was just down the rabbit hole, completely obsessed. Ever since then I just find chocolate so mentally stimulating that I just learn and eat as much as I can.”
A Priori begins
As Caputo’s love for artisan chocolate grew, the business that would become A Priori took root. But as he worked with distributors to procure speciality foods like cheese, charcuterie, olive oil and honey he found that no such distributor existed for artisan chocolate. So he made a logical decision: become a distributor himself, which he did with some help from his father in 2006.
“I decided on about 20 brands of chocolate, 20 different makers,” Caputo said. “ (And) I proceeded to set up a relationship with every single one of them which was very time consuming.”
From that start, there were “a lot of hard knocks” over the next six years, Caputo said.
“Luckily Harmons (Grocery) was very supportive of us from the very beginning,” Caputo said. “Also a company called Taza (Chocolate), which is probably the largest craft chocolate producer in the U.S. They gave us a super great deal to fulfill all their orders west of the Mississippi basically, and then instantly our fulfillment program became significant and our capabilities became significant, and then (four years ago) when I hired my wife (Yelena as vice president), who’s much smarter than me and much better at organizational things we got traction.”
Due to how A Priori has expanded the chocolate pipeline, Tony Caputo’s Market and Deli no longer has exclusivity on selling artisan chocolate in Utah — but Caputo has no regrets.
“We’ve always done what’s in the best interest of the chocolate maker, and what’s in the best interest of the chocolate maker is to help them survive,” he said. “ It’s been my pleasure to penetrate the market because that’s what we got into this to do (and) we still sell more chocolate than we ever have before.”
A Priori distributes nearly all of Utah’s nine artisan chocolate makers to Harmons Grocery, Whole Foods Market and Liberty Heights Fresh, making A Priori a key player in why local artisan chocolate has been more available — and more successful — than it ever has been.
But A Priori isn’t the only way that Caputo has helped artisan chocolate grow in Utah — his tasting classes are many people’s first introduction to chocolate connoisseurship.
“People come to (my classes) — oftentimes it’s a dude that got dragged by his girlfriend for some new thing — and I can see (them) just sitting there,” Caputo said. “And by the end they’re coming up, shaking my hand, gushing ‘This is so cool, I’m definitely getting into this.”
Caputo estimates that, on average, in a class of 30 to 50 people, 10 to 20 people get into artisan chocolate connoisseurship after his class.
“And you add up all of those people over the years and I think that's certainly played a role,” Caputo said. “But it’s also taken on a life of it’s own. The Utah Chocolate Society was birthed out of that passion that we are spreading.”
Caputo also talked about an occasion where he sat on a chocolate and cheese panel at the Natural History Museum of Utah, and someone asked why chocolate has been so successful in the state.
“And literally every single chocolate maker (on the panel) and the president of the Utah Chocolate Society mentioned the role of our classes,” Caputo said. “And I think that was pretty much one of the most proud moments of my professional career.”
Caputo regularly holds a number of craft food classes at his stores’ two Salt Lake City locations and one Holladay location (a fourth downsized location can be found on the University of Utah campus). Classes cover subjects from cheese to libations to chocolate.
'Growing like wildfire'
Though Caputo understands the impact he’s had on chocolate, he’s quick to point out the influence of the entire Utah artisan chocolate community.
“How infectious my specific brand of passion is in chocolate has definitely been impactful,” he said. “As impactful as (many Utah artisan chocolate makers) are saying? I doubt it. There’s lots of other educators. They’re doing incredible stuff.”
But Caputo is already doing "incredible stuff" himself, due to his attitude of never settling for anything less than excellence.
“When I first took over, I didn’t envision having more than one store,” Caputo said. “My goal was to make Caputo’s the best specialty food store in the world. I’m very competitive, and I’m never satisfied. Not in a bad way, but I’m always (thinking) ‘What else can we do? Where can we take it from here?’”
In the next five years, Caputo sees himself opening another Tony Caputo’s Market and Deli location; he also said they have plans to more fully invest in their web sales and to open additional warehouses on the coasts.
“A Priori is just growing like wildfire, so we’re just drinking from the firehose,” he added. “ We serve all 50 states and Canada right now.”
Caputo fully took over the business three years ago when his father retired, and Tony Caputo’s Market and Deli will celebrate 20 years of business this year. He also said that down the road, he’d be open to his daughters (ages 4 and 7) taking over the business, but “I’m not going to try to force them into it.”
In the meantime, the goal is to keep sharing what makes artisan chocolate a priori.
“We let the chocolate and our product guide our decisions,” Caputo said. “So we’ve educated our palettes. We know when we taste good agriculture and we know when that is paired with absolutely excellent skill in craftsmanship, because it takes both.”
In addition, “I look at chocolate like music,” Caputo said. “I don’t think it’s useful to call it ‘best.’ (One) is maybe Vivaldi while (one) is maybe The Cure. (But) the coolest thing (about chocolate) is just the taste. It’s so stimulating.
“I just love it.”