Gilded In Gold: L.A. Burdick, Class, and the Construction of Luxury

L.A. Burdick constructs a luxurious chocolate eating experience through its store design, choice of ingredients and product titles, and emphasis on packaged gifts. Burdick’s attracts and caters to consumers looking for this high-end experience, while it excludes consumers of lower socioeconomic status and culinary literacy that may feel uncomfortable with the store’s atmosphere and be unable to afford its high price tag. Why certain individuals feel at home in a Burdick’s shop while others would rather not spend time there largely can be explained by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and capital. He argues that cultural preferences stem from one’s habitus, which is formed beginning in early childhood from “class-specific experiences of socialization in family and peer groups” (Swartz, 102), proposing that “class positions are defined by holdings of social and cultural capital as well as economic assets” (Murdock, 64). I will focus on cultural and economic capital and how they relate to Burdick’s consumers. Cultural capital can be defined as “institutionalized, i.e., widely shared, high status cultural signals (attitudes, preferences, formal knowledge, behaviors, goods and credentials) used for social and cultural exclusion” (Lamont and Lareau, 1988) and economic capital refers to how much money one has. Burdick’s targets customers whose habitus reflect high economic and cultural capital, since this kind of early life environment is likely to produce individuals that have the means to purchase expensive chocolate and have an interest in buying products that are high-quality, European in name and style, and ethically sourced.

To better understand how L.A. Burdick markets to consumers and constructs an experience for them, I visited the store at 2 pm on Sunday, April 26, 2015, and made observations as I sipped my dark drinking chocolate for an hour.

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Burdick’s (pictured above) is tucked away from the main Harvard Square area, and its subtle brown awning with gold lettering is easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. This unassuming entrance aligns with the image that Burdick’s tries to project; it exudes class rather than flash and looks like a hidden gem that only people who are in the know are aware of. There is a queue barrier outside, further suggesting to passersby that this shop is potentially exclusive and important enough to draw crowds. These visual cues help to attract Burdick’s target demographic (individuals high in both cultural and economic capital) and to deter others (individuals who don’t have extra money to spend on expensive chocolate and/or have no interest in buying it) before they even enter the shop.

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Once inside (pictured above), the chandeliers emit a subtle, yellowish light that creates a warm and inviting atmosphere. The decor consists largely of red oak wood, and the color scheme is a mix of browns, greens, and golds. This evokes an old world charm and creates seamlessness between the colors of the room and the colors of the treats being consumed. The china used is white, which showcases the colors of their deep, dark chocolate. Overall, Burdick’s aesthetic is strikingly similar to that of a London coffee house (which also served chocolate drinks) circa 1700 (pictured below).

They share the same color scheme of earthy neutrals and heavy use of wood. While Burdick’s opts for tables that accommodate small parties, the coffee house of late 17th century London was a crucial part of political and social life, so large tables that enabled conversation were preferred (Coe and Coe, 166-167). Coffee houses may have been open to all who could afford to drink in England, but in 17th century France, chocolate was only for the aristocracy (Coe and Coe, 166). Burdick’s chandeliers are reminiscent of France’s exclusive mentality. Similar to chocolate, which became available to the masses in the 19th century (Coe and Coe, 232), when chandeliers came into existence in the 14th century, they were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them; it wasn’t until electricity was commonly used in the 1890s that chandeliers were accessible to more households (Home and Living). While the intentionality behind Burdick’s signals of wealth is uncertain, its European influence is definite. Larry Burdick says that he was inspired to start the company after a visit to a confiserie in Bern, Switzerland in the 1980s, and his wife, Paula, who designed the company’s look, says that she used “details gleaned from her time in Paris” to create “an ambiance of relaxed elegance” (L.A. Burdick). Larry and Paula Burdick – perhaps unaware of the exact elements of history they were referencing – combine the historic public drinking of chocolate in England and its exclusivity in France through the interior design of their shop. This aesthetic creates a space that appeals to high cultural and economic capital consumers, who want to escape to old world Europe for a little and who feel at home surrounded by symbols of opulence.

Burdick’s caters to mature consumers, and during the time I was there, I only saw two children. The treats that Burdick’s sells, which feature European names (e.g. Gugelhupf), liquors (e.g. limoncello, rum, and kirsch), and somewhat divisive flavors and spices (e.g. ginger, anise, and lavender), are meant for an audience that prides itself in enjoying these exotic flavors rather than recoiling at their mention. Food neophobia is defined as a “reluctance to eat and/or avoidance of novel foods” (Pliner and Hobden, 1992). A study of Australian adolescents showed that rural adolescents (classified as low socioeconomic status and exposed to less cultural diversity) reported greater food neophobia than the urban adolescents, who were more willing to try new foods (Flight et al., 2003). Bourdieu would say that food neophobia is a product of one’s habitus; a working class upbringing trains one to be wary of the unfamiliar, while an upper class lifestyle trains one to be accepting of novel experiences. Burdick’s does not make an effort to Americanize its desserts so that it can appeal to the widest possible audience. Instead, it does the opposite, curating a menu full to the brim with foreign items likely to draw in a consumer base with the familial background, education, and financial means necessary to acquire an appreciation for such delicacies.

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A case full of desserts with European names

Based on my in-store observation, Burdick’s customers spend the most money when they’re purchasing chocolate gift boxes for other people. These gift boxes are displayed prominently and are adorned with colorful ribbons. They offer consumers an opportunity to share the Burdick’s experience with others, while simultaneously reflecting positively on their own good taste. Sociologist Diane Barthel says that chocolate is “a part of life that is excessive: extra, surplus, having more to do with losing control than with gaining it, with spending rather than saving, with sex rather than salvation” and that chocolate boxes offer “promise of privilege and transcendence above everyday needs and political agendas” (Barthel, 1989). Burdick’s gift boxes exemplify Barthel’s notions of excess and spending. Their “Bee and Caramel Set,” only offered around Mother’s Day, starts at $54.00, and includes Honey-Bee Bonbons, Bee “Hive” Truffles, and eight types of caramels (e.g. mocha and salted cardamom) (L.A. Burdick). Selling bonbons shaped like honeybees is reminiscent of the molding of sugar paste into animals, buildings, and objects in 15th and 16th century England (Mintz, 89). Because such large quantities of expensive ingredients were required, this practice was originally confined to the king and other elites and spread to non-nobility during the 16th century (Mintz, 89-91). The decorative sugar “embodied in display the host’s wealth, power, and status” (Mintz, 90). Burdick’s uses a similar technique today to connote status and good taste with its bee-shaped chocolates, though this is likely unconscious of sculpted sugar’s historical roots. Their gift sets simultaneously make the recipient feel respected and affirm the status of the gift giver. By giving someone a Burdick’s gift set, consumers send the signal that they are high in economic and cultural capital (whether or not that is actually the case). Receiving a Burdick’s gift set may reinforce one’s class status (upper middle/upper class) and align with the habitus, or it may provide an opportunity to escape from one’s habitus and to get a taste of a different class’ lifestyle.

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 Shelves full of exquisitely wrapped chocolate gift boxes

While the focus of my Burdick’s analysis is on class, its relationship with consumers is much more complex. This idea is at the core of intersectionality, which is defined as “the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relations and subject formations” (McCall, 2005). One area where this intersectionality is clear is Burdick’s gifts. I’ve already established their connection to class, but they also have a major gendered component. While the Mother’s Day Bee and Caramel Set is tied with a bright green ribbon and filled with bite-sized chocolates shaped like cute honeybees with almonds for wings, the suggested Father’s Day gift set is a wood box of chocolate cigars (L.A. Burdick). The Mother’s Day assortment is ultra sweet with its combination of caramel and honey, while the Father’s Day cigars are flavored with rum and downplay any element of sweetness. This difference in emphasis on sweetness reinforces the association between women and sugar, which goes back to England circa 1850-1950, when working class women and children ate relatively more sugar than adult men, who were the laborers and therefore ate more protein (Mintz, 144, 148-149). Smoking cigars is a traditionally masculine activity, done in spaces that either excluded women, like social clubs, (Swiencicki, 1998) or where men were in positions of power over women, like strip clubs (Frank, 2003). Women are often referred to as queen bees when they are smart, ambitious (Horn, 5), or willing to “sting” other women if their power is threatened (Mavin, 2008). When women are referred to as worker bees it implies that they “are supposed to labor behind the scenes, underpaid and content to sacrifice for the good of the whole” (Horn, 5). Taken together, Burdick’s sells chocolate gifts to women that connote powerlessness and docility, while it sells gifts to men that connote power over and exclusion of women and members of lower social classes. The continued acceptance of such antiquated gender stereotypes by both sexes is a curious phenomenon. Perhaps we take comfort in reinforcing these gender roles, even when they contribute to the perpetuation of patriarchy, because they are deeply ingrained in our male and female habitus and uphold the roles of the idealized nuclear family structure.

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 Single origin bars on display

Burdick’s not only caters to the crowd that enjoys fancy desserts for the flavor or prestige, but it also targets socially conscious consumers with its line of single origin chocolate bars (pictured above). These include bars from Chuao, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Grenada, Madagascar, Venezuela, and Ecuador, and they range in price from $9 to $13 each and in cocoa content from 64% to 75% (L.A. Burdick). While the packaging of each bar does not specify the nature of Burdick’s relationship with the cacao farmers at each of these locations, further investigation of their website makes it clear that Burdick’s has partnered with independent cocoa farmers and built a cocoa processing facility on Grenada Island (L.A. Burdick). No such arrangement exists between Burdick’s and the other seven single origin sites and no additional information is available online about their dealings with these locations. Through the Burdick’s website, consumers can “Buy a Cocoa Tree, Support a Farmer” in Grenada by donating to the Cocoa Farming Future Initiative, which is “a non-profit fund which helps preserve fragile ecosystems through clean, sustainable farming techniques, and to raise the farmer’s income” (Cocoa Farming Future Initiative), or they can contribute by purchasing Grenada chocolate products, since 10% of the price is donated to CFFI automatically (L.A. Burdick). Interestingly, a customer inside a Burdick’s store would have no way of knowing that the Grenada bar was special in this way and would be unable to differentiate it from the other single origin bars by anything other than the flavor hints listed and package coloring.

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Clickable ad from Burdick’s website to donate to CFFI

Studies have shown that above average socioeconomic status correlates with high social consciousness, while average and lower socioeconomic status correlates with low social consciousness (Anderson and Cunningham, 1972, Webster, 1975). Therefore, Burdick’s engagement with socially conscious chocolate consumption through its line of single origin bars and cocoa processing facility on Grenada Island aligns with the mentality of its upper middle to upper class target consumer, who has both high economic and cultural capital. Burdick’s provides these individuals with an appealing outlet for their social awareness and economic means that allows them to do more than just purchase chocolate – it allows them to contribute to improving the lives of others.

I scoured 123 Yelp reviews from 2014 and 2015 for the Brattle Street L.A. Burdick in an effort to understand how Burdick’s meets consumers’ expectations and to pinpoint what drives good vs. bad experiences. Out of the 123 reviews, 100 were 4-5 stars and 23 were 3 or fewer stars (Yelp), which speaks to the possibility that people who use Yelp regularly are likely to be part of the consumer audience that Burdick’s targets (educated, enough money to dine out). The bar graphs below display the factors that Yelpers listed for forming their positive or negative impressions.

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Based on these numbers, every single customer who enjoyed their Burdick’s experience commented on how much they liked the flavor and high quality of the chocolate (calling it liquid gold, the best ever, chocolate crack, luxurious, rich, and dreamy), and many of them also felt attracted to the shop because they liked the ambiance (calling it cozy, lovely, fancy, adorable, quaint, and romantic). The 23 reviewers that did not have a good experience seem to have different taste and ambiance preferences and are unwilling to pay Burdick’s high prices for chocolate concoctions that are too “rich,” “heavy,” and “overwhelming” for their tastes. One consumer who rated Burdick’s with only 1 star communicates the deeper issues that may underlie why some consumers love the ambiance and product, while others dislike it:

“There I am; jeans and a hoodie, looking like a hot mess, mixed in with overly dressed middle aged women pushing 2K strollers around.  Eh, I was a bit out of placed… I may visit if I am ever in that area again, I hope not though.  That would involve me getting way too overdressed for 1pm on a Saturday afternoon.”

 -Cristina C.

Class-consciousness is clearly a major factor that contributed to Cristina C.’s negative experience at Burdick’s. While Cristina C. may not have been able to articulate why she felt so out of place beyond the surface reason that she was underdressed, Bourdieu would attribute her discomfort to a disjuncture between her habitus and environment (Reay, 2004). The women that she observed wore clothes and pushed strollers that she recognized as out of her price range, signaling their high economic and cultural capital. This points to class and habitus differences between these women and Cristina C., likely stemming from better educational opportunities and greater exposure to diverse culture by their families. Cristina C. focused her ill feelings toward Burdick’s on the women she saw there, but the atmosphere of the shop, which mimics and invites the women’s combination of status and high culture, also contributes to habitus disjuncture. Cristina C.’s emotional response highlights the mechanism by which Burdick’s constructs its space of luxury; its atmosphere and products align with a specific upper middle class/upper class habitus, cultivating these target clients through feelings of belonging and opportunity for ethical consumption, while they create disjuncture with the working class habitus, eliciting feelings ranging from unease to hostility and alienating these consumers.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Thomas W., Cunningham, William H., 1972. The Socially Conscious Consumer. Journal of Marketing. 36, 23-31.

Barthel, Diane, 1989. Modernism and Marketing: The Chocolate Box Revisited. Theory, Culture & Society. 6, 429-438.

Cocoa Farming Future Initiative. Web. 1 May 2015. http://www.cffigrenada.org/CFFI_donate.html

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Flight, Ingrid, Leppard, Phillip, Cox, David N., 2003. Food neophobia and associations with cultural diversity and socio-economic status amongst rural and urban Australian adolescents. Appetite. 41(1), 51-59.

Frank, Katherine, 2003. “Just trying to relax”: Masculinity, masculinizing practices, and strip club regulars. The Journal of Sex Research. 40(1), 61-75.

The History Behind the Chandelier – The Story Behind the Sparkle. Home and Living Magazine. Web. 1 May 2015. http://www.hlmagazine.com/hl-online/web-exclusives/the-history-behind-the-chandelier-the-story-behind-the-sparkle/

Horn, Tammy. Beeconomy: What Women and Bees Can Teach Us about Local Trade and the Global Market. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2012. Print.

L.A. Burdick: Homemade Chocolates. Web. 1 May 2015. http://www.burdickchocolate.com

Lamont, Michele, Lareau, Annette, 1988. Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments. Sociological Theory. 6(2), 153-168.

London Coffeehouse circa 1700 image. Web. 1 May 2015. http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7389/9456761987_04f79bab9f_o.jpg

Mavin, Sharon, 2008. Queen Bees, Wannabees and Afraid to Bees: No More ‘Best Enemies’ for Women in Management?. British Journal of Management. 19(s1), S75-S84.

McCall, Leslie, 2005. The Complexity of Intersectionality. Signs. 30(3), 1771-1800.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Group, 1985. Print.

Murdock, Graham, 2010. Review Essay, Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. International Journal of Cultural Policy. 16(1), 63-65.

Pliner, Patricia, Hobden, Karen, 1992. Development of a scale to measure the trait of food neophobia in humans. Appetite. 19, 105-120.

Reay, Diane, 2004. ‘It’s all becoming a habitus’: beyond the habitual use of habitus in educational research. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 25(4), 431-444.

Swartz, David. Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997. Print.

Swiencicki, Mark A., 1998. Consuming Brotherhood: Men’s Culture, Style and Recreation as Consumer Culture, 1880-1930. Journal of Social History. 31(4), 773-808.

Webster, Frederick E. Jr., 1975. Determining the Characteristics of the Socially Conscious Consumer. Journal of Consumer Research. 2(3), 188-196.

Yelp: L.A. Burdick Chocolate. Web. 1 May 2015. http://www.yelp.com/biz/la-burdick-chocolate-cambridge

Photos of L.A. Burdick store taken by the author; graphs generated by the author

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