Leonardtown chocolate shop sweetly successful
Heritage Chocolates uses the ‘real’ thing for its goodies
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.
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...
Heritage Chocolates offers “crabs on the beach,” solid dark chocolate crabs in a bed of brown sugar.