Sweet Street: The Marion Chocolate Shop
For Valentine’s Day in 2004, Deane Richardson bought his wife, Gae, toffee from Temptations Fine Candies in Atkins.
“It was so good, by May he bought me what became THE chocolate SHOP,” Gae said. “Now he has to buy me flowers for Valentine’s Day.”
The Richardsons still serve up that same toffee, and it’s outstanding. The chocolate coating is creamy while the toffee center is crunchy and buttery. The candy is rich and not overly sweet. Of course, Gae knows just how good it is and what a taste can inspire. “THE chocolate SHOP is not for sale,” she teased as she offered me a piece.
Since that first taste of toffee led to a major new business venture, the Richardsons have flipped the company’s business model from a wholesale focus to a retail focus and moved the entire operation to Uptown Marion. Production and retail were combined at 1244 7th Avenue in 2011. The Richardsons estimate that up to 75 percent of their business may come from retail sales. That’s a credit to the product, of course, but also to the convivial shop they have created from a building that had to be completely gutted and redesigned to serve as their production and sales space. Gae sites the shop’s unusual fixtures (many of them hinting at her taste and skills as a visual artist), inviting exterior, and space that is welcoming to both male and female customers as keys to the shop’s appeal.
“It doesn’t look like your typical chocolate shop,” she said.
That may be so, but there is certainly plenty of chocolate on offer, artfully made and displayed in cases that once held candy in the legendary Armstrong’s Department Store in downtown Cedar Rapids. Gae wasn’t pleased with the shape of the chocolates themselves when the Richardsons bought the company, so she tweaked the design. The improved design features a color-coding system that solves a problem: “The only way to tell what they were (before the design change) was to stick your finger in the bottom,” Gae explained. Now, the colored streak of chocolate atop each piece reveals what’s inside.
What’s inside is made in the back of the building in a vessel Gae calls, “The copper pot.”
“The inside of everything is made inside this copper pot,” she said. “It’s an old fashioned way to make candy.”
She only talks about her recipes in broad terms, but the primary ingredients include “a bucketful of sugar and a whole lot of butter,” as well as Karo Syrup “to keep your water and sugar from separating. It has to go in at exactly the right time in order to keep everything cooking together.”
That attention to detail is key throughout the process. For example, the Richardsons ensure that chocolate is crafted in a room where the temperature is 70 degrees. Maintaining that temperature for production and then storing the chocolates correctly ensures that the product lasts longer.
The Lucy Machine—nicknamed after a famous episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucy stuffs candy in her mouth to stay ahead of the machine that is producing them—is the other central component of the process. The large enrobing machine tempers and cools the chocolate. “We bought this building because Lucy would fit in here,” Gae said.
THE chocolate SHOP sees significant upticks in business around two major holidays. “We start building up supply in September,” Gae said, “because Christmas is coming.
During the first week of December, all of a sudden we’re just crushed with people coming in to buy gifts.” The rush continues through Christmas. “Then we’ll run out of chocolates and have to get ready for Valentine’s Day...About a week before Valentine’s Day, sales start to build up.”
The Richardsons also see a lot of business in June, particularly on the corporate side. Gae speculates that the end of the fiscal year may mean a lot of companies and non-profits are thanking their staff and volunteers.
THE chocolate SHOP benefits from a staff of four (including the Richardsons) that “runs as smooth as chocolate,” a product that seems immune to shifts in the economy, and from increasing interested in sustainable living.
“In a green world, people want consumable gifts,” Gae explained.
Gae’s love of the business is, no doubt, another essential factor in THE chocolate SHOP’s ongoing success. Her philosophy is easy to sum up: “I’m always happy to make people happy with chocolate.”
When You Go:
The Marion Chocolate Shop
1244 7th Avenue, Marion
319.377.7597 : MarionChocolateShop.com
Open Monday-Saturday 10 am to 6 pm