You’ve had a rough day. You get off work, navigate rush-hour traffic, stop at the store to pick up food for dinner, finally arrive home, lug in your bag of groceries, reach inside, and grab the special treat you’ve been waiting for—chocolate.
You pop a piece in your mouth, close your eyes, and as the chocolate-y goodness melts on your tongue, you’re suddenly transported to an exotic land, where colorful birds fly above you in an emerald green canopy. You can almost feel the humidity and smell the fruity aromas of the jungle.
Mmmm, chocolate. It’s an instant escape.
“What’s for dinner, Mom?” your child demands, interrupting your reverie and bringing you back down to earth. But it’s OK. You had a moment, a little window of time to yourself. You feel energized, renewed, ready to commence cooking dinner—thanks to that chocolate loveliness.
What is it about chocolate that sends us over the moon? Women in particular have a personal relationship with chocolate. It’s like it was invented just for us, a reward for our hard work, a reminder that life still holds great promise—the promise of another chocolate!
For a few local women, chocolate is a way of life. Every day they think about it, put their hands in it, flavor it, shape it, and create a product that will make you swoon with pleasure. These women have decided to turn their passion for chocolate into a profession—and they’re spreading chocolate joy here in Tidewater and beyond.
THE CULTURE OF CHOCOLATE
Kristin Joslin, owner of Cocoa Nouveau, is a busy mom of three sons, one of whom is a special needs young adult. She’s married to a Navy seal and lives in a tidy Chesapeake neighborhood, where she creates her chocolates in a certified kitchen right beside the garage. Fit and freckled, Kristin, 43, has an easy-going manner. Her eyes shine when she talks about chocolate.
“I was always a chocoholic,” she admitted. When her husband was stationed in Germany, she was in “hog heaven.” Friends knew of her passion for chocolate, and when three different people sent her the same article about a school called Ecole Chocolat, she decided the universe was sending her a message. After completing the online course in 2005, she attended a master’s program in France, developed her palate, and began making chocolates.
"There’s a harmony in chocolate,” Kristin explained, “a balance. It’s like drinking wine. Not one flavor is going to jump out. You’ll get a flavor at the beginning when you first taste chocolate, and that will evolve into another flavor. They’re not individual flavors; they blend.”
What kind of flavors? Kristin shows me a list of her chocolates, each named after a city—like Havana, Seville, Glasgow, Dublin, Ankara, Milan, and Paris. Intriguing ingredients include caramelized bananas, elderflowers, jasmine tea, sesame, olive oil—and dozens more. Kristin sources her chocolate in Venezuela, but relies on local ingredients when she can. “I try to use what’s seasonal and keep everything as regional as possible,” she said. You’ll find Pungo strawberries, peanuts, and backyard rosemary and mint in her elegant chocolates.
“My favorite part is experimenting,” she continued. “I love coming up with new recipes. Chocolate is alchemy. It’s a little miracle.”
Kristin’s goals for the future include opening her own shop as well as continuing to educate consumers. “People love chocolate around the holidays,” she said. “I would love to see the culture of chocolate change so people think of it outside the holidays. It’s the perfect hostess gift.”
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
Holidays are the busiest time of year for local chocolate businesses. “It’s all hands on deck during holidays,” said Julie Keller, 49, who owns Schakolad Chocolate Factory in Virginia Beach with her sister, Mary Pat Reda, 54. When it’s busy, their kids help out, and sometimes their mom comes from out of town to help. “She gets paid in chocolate,” Mary Pat said with a grin.
They bought the business, one of 30 franchises across the U.S., three years ago and spent four days training before taking over. “We tried to learn as much as we could,” Julie said, admitting the early days included some trial and error.
But now business is great, the sisters say, and has grown on average 20 percent each year. “We’ve added a lot of new stuff,” Mary Pat said.
“We do a lot of tours, field trips, private parties, and summer camps,” Julie chimed in. Participants are invited to make-their-own chocolate creations—like Mr. Potato Heads, lollipops, and valentines. “It’s a unique activity,” Mary Pat said. “We’re hoping to expand the course offerings.” Both sisters wish their shop on Great Neck Road had more space to accommodate the popular events.
“We also do a lot of wedding favors,” Julie said and pointed to a wall of plastic molds. “With all these molds, we can cover about any party need.” They’ve also expanded their corporate offerings. “Everyone loves to see their business name or logo in chocolate,” Julie said. “It becomes a very desirable sales tool. This opened up a whole new world for us. Because we make everything here in our shop, we can handle large corporate orders, as well as small custom orders.
“We are always experimenting with new flavors,” Julie continued. “Each month we try a different type of wine and create a one-of-a-kind wine truffle. We experiment with various hot peppers—such as ghost pepper and chocolate habanero—to create something tasty and delicious. One of our most popular items lately is chocolate-covered bacon.”
Milk chocolate remains their top seller, but spicy truffles are also in demand. “The real foodies come in and tell us what they’d like to see,” Julie said. One customer requested chocolate-covered ginger, and it became so popular they’ve added it to their line-up.
For those on special diets, a selection of sugar-free and low-carb chocolates is available by the piece. Julie stresses that enjoying chocolate doesn’t have to mean over-indulging. “You don’t need something huge,” she said. “Just a tiny bit of satisfaction.”
MAKING PEOPLE HAPPY
Not far away in an industrial park near London Bridge Road, Christine Wengler, 48, creates her own satisfying chocolate treats at Trafton’s Chocolates. Originally from Long Island, Christine, bought the business in 2009. Her daughter met the previous owner while selling—what else?—chocolate bars in her neighborhood for a school fundraiser. “He offered her a job,” Christine recalled, and before she knew it, her daughter told her the business was for sale.
“When I bought it, I didn’t know anything about chocolate,” Christine admitted, but as part of the business arrangement, the previous owner spent three months training her in the art of chocolate making. Business started to grow, and in 2011, Christine brought in partner Susan Landeche, who also learned to make chocolate on the job.
Christine showed me around her facility, pointing out the tempering machines: large vats of chocolate with spinning wheels that blend the chocolate to the right consistency. “It crystallizes the chocolate,” she explained, “and then brings it back together.” She said maintaining the proper environment in the building is crucial. “Humidity, rain, and room temperature affect the machines,” said Christine. “Sometimes we talk to them, saying, ‘Please be good to me today.’”
Since all their products are handmade, chocolate making is hard work, Christine says. “Every day is different depending on what we have to do,” she said. They go through about 5,000 pounds of chocolate each year. “We’re really busy from September through Mother’s Day.”
They sell a lot of customized chocolate to the Virginia Beach Convention Center, which uses Trafton’s Chocolates as gifts when they meet with convention planners. Besides handmade truffles, Trafton’s specializes in 16 different varieties of bark, such as dark chocolate almond, dark espresso, lemon crunch, and key lime crunch. Specialty gifts include chocolate shoes and handbags, as well as caramel chocolate-covered apples—huge Granny Smith apples dipped in buttery caramel, rolled in crunchy pecans, then dipped in chocolate.
Loyal customers keep coming back for more, says Christine, who sells directly from her business location, as well as online. “We’ve shipped to California, Aruba, Germany, even Japan,” she said. “A lot of our customers have our cell phone numbers.”
Christine enjoys new challenges and loves when people come in and ask for something new. “We pretty much do anything,” she said. “I always say yes, and then we’ll figure it out.” Recently someone asked for party favors that looked like climbing walls. No problem! Christine dipped graham crackers in chocolate and fashioned steps out of chocolate disks—and then placed jellybean stones at the base of the “wall.” The client loved it, she said.
Down the road Christine and her business partner are thinking about adding a party room or moving into a storefront, but for now they’ve found their niche making people happy with chocolate.
FROM BEAN TO BAR
At The Royal Chocolate in Town Center, owner Brenda Tusing says she and business partner Terry Restin believe educating customers is the most important part of their business. “We do tastings,” Brenda says. “We teach from bean to bar.”
Before opening their shop in 2006, Brenda and Terry educated themselves, experimenting with different chocolates and conducting market analysis before settling on the brand of chocolate they would use. “It was a huge decision for us,” Brenda said. “We chose a Belgian chocolate that had the best all-around taste and quality.”
The shop carries chocolates made in-house as well as a variety of chocolates and bars from around the world. “We have a lot of cosmopolitan customers,” Brenda said. “They’ve traveled. They’re used to European chocolate. They appreciate that we carry the finer chocolates.”
Brenda says the products they make in the store are her favorites and says they’ve more than doubled the varieties of their own brand of chocolates. “Our staff is very creative,” Brenda said. “They’re always chatting and wondering would this be good?” Then they make a batch and give customers a chance to weigh in by providing samples of whatever they’re working on. “We call it ‘Dig it or ditch it,’” Brenda said.
In fact, sampling is a big part of educating the consumer, Brenda says. Small dishes on top of the counter filled with pieces of chocolate invite customers to taste test. Behind the counter are samples of every chocolate bar they sell. “We educate at the counter,” Brenda said. “It’s cool to have a customer come in and light up and find something and learn something new. We get jazzed about it.”
The education is paying off, Brenda believes. “The American palate is becoming much more refined,” she said. “We are becoming much better educated about quality chocolate and the difference that makes in the chocolate experience.”
Call it what you like: an escape, an experience, a little miracle, a tiny bit of satisfaction—chocolate has the ability to turn an average day into something special. Enjoy!
• Cocoa Nouveau - Chocolates available from October through June at Let’s Talk Wine in Chesapeake; Savor the Olive at Hilltop; Shady Grove Marketplace & Westside Produce and Provisions in Norfolk; 757-339-1034; www.cocoanouveau.com
• Schakolad Chocolate Factory - 401 N. Great Neck Road, #110, Va. Beach; 757-486-3740; www.schakolad.com/store06
• Trafton’s Chocolates - 503 Central Drive, Suite 101, Va. Beach; 757-412-7922; www.traftonschocolates.com
• The Royal Chocolate - 164 Central Park Avenue, Va. Beach; 757-557-6925; www.theroyalchocolate.com
Like chocolate? Plan to attend a special Green Drinks on June 20 from 7-9 p.m. at Croc’s 19th Street Bistro in Virginia Beach, where you’ll learn more about chocolate and sample some! Chocolate martini, anyone? RSVP: Facebook.com/greendrinks.vabeach