Move to San Diego blends success for Austrian chocolatier
Alex Owens | Downtown News
When Isabella Knack (née Dallmann) was growing up in the town of St. Gilgen, Austria, the idea of spending her life making chocolates and pastries didn’t seem so sweet.
“I grew up in a pastry family in a touristy area,” said Knack, who goes by ‘Bella.’ “My parents believed business came first, then family. I felt at the time that I suffered because I grew up with nannies.”
It was only after she moved to San Diego that she found it was her true passion. Now she runs Dallmann Fine Chocolates, a gourmet chocolate shop with two locations, including The Headquarters at Seaport District, a new Downtown retail destination that opened in November.
It’s a path she never expected to take.
“My brother was the one who was going take over the business,” Knack said, laughing. “I studied to go into the restaurant and hotel business.”
While studying in Austria, she met a manager from the Westgate Hotel in Downtown San Diego who was also from Austria and liked to hire staff from his home country.
“The whole college wanted to come to San Diego, but I was lucky,” she said.
Knack, now 33, spent 18 months working at the front desk of the Westgate, but was getting bored. So she jumped at the opportunity to manage the hotel’s gourmet food store.
One day, an experience happened that changed her life.
A person from the Mainly Mozart festival called and asked about the Mozartkugel, an Austrian specialty named after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
It just happened to be a specialty of her family. Mozartkugel is described as “[a blend of] hazelnut nougat and pistachio marzipan in the center encoded with bittersweet Swiss couverture.” Couverture contains a higher percentage of cocoa butter than traditional chocolates.
“I thought it was an amazing opportunity, so I quit my job, went back home and got a crash course in making chocolate,” she said. “Then I started selling them to Mainly Mozart.”
Knack said the experience of actually working with chocolate was revelatory for her.
“Once I could play with the chocolate, I loved it,” she said. “It connected me with my father.”
But the dream of starting her own business is something she said could only have happened in America.
“What I am doing is the American dream,” she said. “You get an idea and start a dream. It’s not that easy to do in Austria where people are bound by tradition.”
It’s true. While her father still makes the same product his father made in Austria “because that’s what people want”, Knack said San Diegans are more open to experimentation.
“People here want different flavors,” she says. “Like sea salt with caramel, or chocolate and bacon, or coconut with curry.”
Knack has been operating a business out of the Flower Hill Mall near Del Mar since 2008, but she is excited about selling wares at the new Headquarters location.
“It’s much busier Downtown and people are excited that we are here,” she said. “We hope to explore more in chocolate because with more customers, there is more feedback.”
Despite the new “knack” for experimentation, she hasn’t gotten away from her roots. Knack offers a collection of her Dad’s favorites while also working on chocolates that can be paired with San Diego’s craft beers.
Since the real Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthday is January 27, Knack promises to have plenty of samples of the Mozartkugel on hand that day.
However, like a true visionary, she’s looking further to the future. To February.
“I’m really focused on Valentine’s Day because I have a ton of product,” Knack said.
Dallmann Fine Chocolates can be found inside The Headquarters at Seaport District, located at 789 W. Harbor Dr. For more information about Bella’s fine chocolates, visit dallmannconfections.com or call 619-238-0045.
Alex Owens is a San Diego based freelance writer.