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Custom-made chocolate makes the perfect gift

LOG on and you can design your own jeans, shoes, even cars. So, it should come as no surprise that you also can go online for tailor-made treats that let you put your own twist on everything from jerky to gingerbread.

Take chocri, a chocolate bar company that lets you pick out different chocolate bases, then choose toppings from dozens of options.

Customers fall into three camps, says chocri's US CEO Carmen Magar.

There are people who want to go crazy: chives? Really? People who like the idea of personalizing a gift without having to clock hours in the kitchen, and people who just really like the chocolate, which is fair trade, organic and from Belgium.

The business was started in Germany by friends Michael Bruck and Franz Duge. The young entrepreneurs already were running a chocolate fountain company and when Duge was casting around for a birthday gift for his girlfriend, he hit on the idea of creating a bar and topping it with her favorite snacks.

Success in Europe led them to open a US branch this year and orders currently are around 50,000 bars a month, says Magar.

Popular toppings include things like strawberries, raspberries and hazelnut brittle, although sea salt also is in demand.

Tiffany Swords of New Jersey, came across chocri some months ago when her husband ordered a couple of bars.

He got dark chocolate with orange and fleur de sel and she had a bar with dried blueberries and vanilla chips. They have since ordered more as gifts for family and friends.

"I really like that you can choose," says Swords, a teacher. "If you have someone and you know what they like, it's totally custom. The gift receivers are pleasantly surprised."

Want more bespoke bonbons?

M&M's can be ordered in various colors and emblazoned with everything from your corporate logo to the smiling face of your sweet 16-year-old.

Other customized food offerings include Slant Shack Jerky, where you pick the meat, marinade, rub, glaze and size, and eCreamery, which lets you pick the base, flavor, mix-ins and packaging of your ice cream.

Striking a more seasonal note, you can order your own gingerbread family at Gingerista, selecting the mix of ages and genders to fit your clan. Dogs, cats and fish also are available and each cookie is hand-frosted in the color you pick.

Custom food is not necessarily cheap. Chocolate from chocri averages about US$7 a bar, while eCreamery charges US$49.99 for four 1-pint containers.

The concept of custom-made goods goes far back, points out Lynn Dornblaser, a new product expert with the international market research firm Mintel.

But new dynamics in the market include the Internet, the growth in small companies that sell their products exclusively online, and consumers who want "what they want the way they want when they want it."

After all, once you've stood in Starbucks and ordered your grande, half-caff, soy latte, 140 degrees, buying food as-is seems so outdated.

Dornblaser sees the trend as the flip side of the "paradox of choice," written about in a 2004 book by that name by Barry Schwartz; his thesis was that too many options make consumers anxious.

"It's very true in a lot of cases, the whole paradox of choice, but it isn't true everywhere, and here's the perfect example," she says.

Product personalization "isn't being confused or upset by the amount of choice. It's being entranced by the ability to make it unique."


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