Leonard­town choco­late shop sweetly suc­cess­ful

Her­itage Choco­lates uses the ‘real’ thing for its good­ies

Maryland Independent - - Business - By DAR­WIN WEIGEL dweigel@somd­news.com Twit­ter: @somd_bized­i­tor

Leonard­town’s Terra and Chris Neely spent a lot of time in candy stores, pubs and churches in their Euro­pean trav­els for work, par­tic­u­larly Germany. When it came time to start a small busi­ness, they de­cided against brew­ing beer or start­ing a re­li­gion and opened a choco­late shop in­stead.

Her­itage Choco­lates, oc­cu­py­ing a for­mer of­fice space on the square in Leonard­town, is Terra’s first busi­ness — “She owns it, I just work,” Chris said with a laugh — and was opened last Septem­ber af­ter Chris di­vided the space in half with a wall and sep­a­rate en­trances to sub­let to a church to get overhead costs down. The two kept their day jobs in de­fense work — she’s a civil­ian Navy cost an­a­lyst; he’s a pro­gram an­a­lyst for a de­fense con­trac­tor.

“It was choco­late and churches, those were the two things we vis­ited [while trav­el­ing],” Terra said with a laugh, sit­ting at a ta­ble in the shop one Fri­day af­ter­noon while a steady stream of cus­tomers filed through.

“And brew­eries, but that’s a dif­fer­ent story,” Chris added.

“Choco­late is one of those items, just like cof­fee and beer, that is a sta­ble mar­ket,” Terra said.

Af­ter a co­pi­ous amount of re­search into choco­late and candy and de­vel­op­ment of a busi­ness model, the two landed on a choco­late fla­vor pro­file and set to work learn­ing how to pro­duce de­lec­ta­ble treats. Chris has taken on the pro­duc­tion and train­ing role — as well as “Mr. Fixit” — while Terra han­dles the “mar­ket­ing, sales and busi­ness stuff.”

“We don’t do bean-to­bar. We don’t get the beans in, then make it from there. We get choco­late from a source, then we will tem­per it down and add to it,” Chris said. “That model (start­ing with co­coa beans) isn’t profitable at this level.”

Her­itage buys its choco­late in 10-pound bars from Cargill, but does make its own can­died cen­ters such as caramel, cremes and marsh­mal­low — ap­ple pie marsh­mal­low is a cur­rent fa­vorite — among other good­ies.

“Ev­ery candy shop who does this, pick­ing the fla­vor and the vis­cos­ity, that’s the secret,” Chris said. “We did mar­ket re­search in the be­gin­ning and did var­i­ous dif­fer­ent sam­ples to fig­ure out what the lo­cal area liked in terms of the fla­vor pro­file.

“If you go out west, peo­ple like very high co­coa content, very bit­ter dark and, re­ally, not that sweet of milk [choco­late]. You come to the East Coast and it’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent. [The cus­tomers] like medium tast­ing dark choco­late with in­clu­sions like nuts or caramel, and the milk choco­late is rel­a­tively sweet.”

Both the dark and milk choco­lates are what he and Terra re­ferred to as “real” choco­lates — they have co­coa but­ter in their make-up rather than an­other plant-based fat. It makes han­dling more dif­fi­cult — melt­ing and cool­ing rou­tines are more critical to get the right “tem­per” — but the shine of the fin­ished prod­uct is greater than in the “fake” stuff.

“Real choco­late, if you melt it, when it re-hard­ens it’s go­ing to a have these light spots in it called ‘bloom’ — ei­ther a su­gar bloom or fat bloom. That’s the co­coa but­ter sep­a­rat­ing,” Chris ex­plained. “The fla­vor pro­files are sim­i­lar. The dif­fer­ence is in the sta­bil­ity, the shelf life and the shine. Co­coa but­ter, when it’s per­fectly tem­pered, will have a per­fectly mir­rored shine to it. Fake choco­late is a lit­tle duller.”

What­ever can be done with choco­late, Her­itage will do it. The Neelys and their staff keep pro­duc­tion go­ing on solid choco­late pieces as well as choco­late-cov­ered candies and nuts, but have been also get­ting called on more and more for cus­tom work and larger or­ders.

“We can do cus­tom ev­ery­thing,” Terra said. “Some­times peo­ple will ask for things we don’t have on the shelf. They might like marsh­mal­low and caramel to­gether, and that’s some­thing we don’t nor­mally have out on the floor. But they can put in a spe­cial or­der and we can make that sort of stuff.”

“If you want a dozen choco­late-cov­ered straw­ber­ries, give me 24 hours and I’ll have them made for you,” Chris added.

Wed­dings, col­leges and cor­po­rate events have fig­ured promi­nently in cus­tom or­ders, and that keeps growing — along with the busi­ness — as word gets out. In fact, their busi­ness model turned out to be overly con­ser­va­tive.

“It beat our model by dou­ble. We’ve been do­ing a lot bet­ter than we thought [we would],” Chris said. “The lo­cal com­mu­nity sup­port [here] is phenom­e­nal for small busi­ness.”

An­other sur­prise that has helped with the suc­cess is gelato.

“We knew that, with our target mar­ket, gelato was go­ing to be some­thing that would com­ple­ment well,” Chris said. “We did not re­al­ize how pop­u­lar it was go­ing to be.”

“We are not mak­ing it here,” Terra said. “It comes from Gelato Kings. They’re out of Long Is­land, New York. They’re two young Italian guys that have fam­ily back in Italy. They hand make it.”

The two mak­ers drive a van down once a month or so with a nearly 2,000-pound load of the stuff, fill­ing most of a large freezer in the back of Her­itage. Chris said they’ve been sell­ing 55 to 100 pounds day, de­pend­ing on foot traf­fic and weather.

“Tra­di­tional choco­late shops do have ice cream and choco­late to­gether,” Terra said. “We have choco­late and gelato.”

Aside from the store, the two have put choco­late good­ies else­where and are hop­ing to ex­pand on that in the future.

“We al­ready have a setup with An­nemarie Gar­den and vin­tage stores — we’re at The Vin­tage Source [in Comp­ton] monthly,” Terra said. “We wanted to make sure we could sup­port our store first be­fore we com­mit to other lo­ca­tions.” They started ac­tively mar­ket­ing on­line sales Sept. 16, as well.

“We know what that growth pro­file is sup­pose to look like,” Chris said. “My goal by the end of next year, from the pro­duc­tion side, is to get whole­sale ac­counts into D.C. and Bal­ti­more, the lo­cal big­ger cities.”

For a peek at their choco­late of­fer­ings, go to her­itage choco­late shop. com.

STAFF PHO­TOS BY DAR­WIN WEIGEL

Terra and Chris Neely opened Her­itage Choco­lates on the square in Leonard­town a lit­tle over a year ago. The shop also sells hand­made gelato.

Above, Kylee Knott, left, and Brit­tany Ste­wart make sea salt caramel choco­lates at the “en­rob­ing” ma­chine. The ma­chine en­robes solid fill­ings in choco­late. Be­low, hand­made gelato by the Gelato Kings in Long Is­land, N.Y., has proven pop­u­lar at Her­itage Choco­lates in Leonard­town.

Her­itage Choco­lates of­fers “crabs on the beach,” solid dark choco­late crabs in a bed of brown su­gar.

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