LOVE STRUCK

MEET THE CHOCO­LATIER TURN­ING THE INDUSTRY UP­SIDE DOWN

RSWLiving - - Cover Page - BY CRAIG GAR­RETT

One of the world’s great choco­latiers started his busi­ness on a whim. A former ho­tel ex­ec­u­tive and pas­try chef pro­duc­ing shows for tele­vi­sion’s Food Net­work, Nor­man Love in a rented of­fice in Fort My­ers was doo­dling with co­coa but­ter, shaved choco­late and candy-mak­ing molds. It was sheer bore­dom. That was 2001. Love’s early choco­lates had the sig­na­ture vi­brant ges­tures in color and fla­vor, a co­coa-but­tery taste and faux fin­ish, he says. He shared the choco­lates with friends. It was the mo­ment un­in­ter­est­ing choco­late be­came eye candy. Think the old Mother’s Day sam­plers in guess-which-fla­vor wrap­ping vs. Nor­man Love morsels that al­most jump from the green pack­ag­ing. The Fort My­ers–based com­pany should sell close to 1.5 mil­lion pieces of candy this year, has in­tro­duced “Choco­late Jour­neys”

THE LOVE FAM­ILY’S GER­MAN/POL­ISH AN­CES­TRY WAS EX­PRESSED IN CAKES, PIES AND DESSERTS, OR WHAT HE TERMS TO­DAY AS “EDI­BLE ART.”

on 18 Princess Cruises’ ships, its pas­try chefs are among the world’s best, and there are new fla­vors and looks in the candy/ pas­try pipe­line ev­ery day. Nor­man Love Con­fec­tions also of­fers a gelato line in re­tail shops. The gelato is of­fered at Ben­nett’s Fresh Roast on Sani­bel, which im­me­di­ately helped boost sales, owner Bob Ben­nett says. “With the help of Nor­man Love [gelato],” Ben­nett says, “our num­bers are creep­ing up and up … and up.”

And the con­fec­tionary me­dia and other chefs snap to at­ten­tion when Love’s staff mem­bers roll in for a con­ven­tion. “It hits me when we go out­side our bub­ble,” says Maura Metheny, in charge of choco­late de­sign and prod­ucts with Nor­man Love Con­fec­tions. She started with Nor­man Love in 2001 and has been named a top pas­try chef by Dessert Pro­fes­sional Mag­a­zine. “There are lots of ques­tions [about Nor­man Love Con­fec­tions]. It’s still shock­ing.”

Nor­man Love in per­son is maybe 6 feet tall and is trim. In his 50s, he plays oc­ca­sional drop-in hockey. Sit­ting for an in­ter­view, Love ex­udes anx­ious­ness. But that wall low­ers with ques­tions about those he has se­lected to run his whole­sale/re­tail em­pire, about his wife and kids, his mother and grand­mother, hockey jer­seys hang­ing in the of­fice. As CEO of a huge food en­ter­prise, it’s not sur­pris­ing to dis­cover that kitchen work and am­bi­tion are in­grained in Love’s char­ac­ter. He works from a re­tail strip cen­ter he built along Daniels Park­way near South­west Florida In­ter­na­tional Air­port. Pi­lots were among his first cus­tomers. In the cen­ter are im­mac­u­late re­search and as­sem­bly kitchens, of­fices, a gelato café and a con­fec­tions/pas­tries store that looks like a big box of candy. The smell is amaz­ing. Truck­loads of prod­ucts are shipped daily. His re­tail stores ex­plode in busi­ness at the hol­i­days, hum with sales in off-sea­son. Counter work­ers are bub­bly, knowl­edge­able—and pa­tient. Nor­man and Mary Love and their two chil­dren run the com­pany.

Nor­man Love is Ritz-Carl­ton’s former top pas­try ex­ec­u­tive. He worked 40 weeks of the year in Europe, Asia and Mex­ico. “Non­stop crazy,” he says in de­scrib­ing 18-hour days, not al­ways know­ing where he was. But for­ever run­ning. As a Ritz­Carl­ton ex­ec­u­tive he was, of course, paid hand­somely. And yet re­turn­ing home was more like vis­it­ing. “I never re­ally knew my chil­dren,” Love says, gaz­ing off when ques­tioned about how weeks and months away test a mar­riage. “And that got old.” Pro­duc­ing re­al­ity tele­vi­sion, ul­ti­mately start­ing Nor­man Love Con­fec­tions, were about gain­ing con­trol, he says, not­ing that his pace to­day is as busy, only now it in­cludes Mary Love and their son and daugh­ter.

For this pro­file Love is seated in his Fort My­ers of­fice. There are rolled blue­prints in the cor­ner, a pair of kitchen clogs to

the side, a book ti­tled “10 Best of Every­thing” on a shelf. There’s a desk pho­to­graph of Mary Love. In telling his story, Love re­peat­edly ac­knowl­edges his wife’s sac­ri­fices so that he could pur­sue his cor­po­rate am­bi­tions. Nor­man Love has been ex­am­ined and in­ter­viewed into a delir­ium. He jumps at the op­por­tu­nity to show his firm’s re­search labs, the of­fices and to in­tro­duce key mem­bers of his crew, rather than re­hash Nor­man Love anec­dotes. Re­view­ing piles of press clip­pings and mag­a­zine pro­files over the last decade, his re­luc­tance to talk too much about him­self is rea­son­able. He’s been asked the same ques­tions a thou­sand times, es­pe­cially about the rev­enue his firm gen­er­ates. Those are an­swered with a smile.

Still, the sweet se­duc­tion of Nor­man Love is im­por­tant. It grabbed hold early, he says, in sub­ur­ban Philadel­phia. The Love fam­ily’s Ger­man/Pol­ish an­ces­try was ex­pressed in cakes, pies and desserts, or what he terms to­day as “edi­ble art.” As a teen he ran con­fec­tion shops on the East Coast of Florida, at 18 en­rolled at the Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica, ab­sorb­ing “ex­actly what I wanted to learn,” he says of dis­cov­er­ing the won­ders of pas­tries. Mi­grat­ing to Mi­ami Beach, Love tu­tored un­der an Ital­ian pas­try whiz, work­ing nights in a restau­rant kitchen. He fur­ther re­fined his skills in a French pas­try shop from 1983 to 1984, then joined the Ritz. He was also a mem­ber of a United States culi­nary medal­ist team, and has judged world pas­try com­pe­ti­tions. Nor­man Love cred­its his mother, Lyn­nore, and a grand­mother, Claire, for the in­spi­ra­tion. “How I wish they could be here to­day to en­joy the won­der­ful treats we pro­duce,” he wrote in his mem­oir “Artistry in Choco­late: A Story of Love.”

Choco­late is the orig­i­nal food of the gods. Pro­duced from the seed of the trop­i­cal Theo­broma ca­cao tree, co­coa has been cul­ti­vated for thou­sands of years. The Aztecs made it into a bev­er­age known as xo­colātl, or “bit­ter wa­ter,” ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans. The choco­late-mak­ing process re­mained un­changed for cen­turies. Mills in the 19th cen­tury squeezed out co­coa but­ter, which cre­ated durable choco­late. Two-thirds of the world’s co­coa to­day is pro­duced in West Africa, and about one-third of choco­late sales are gen­er­ated in Western Europe. The av­er­age United King­dom cit­i­zen, for in­stance, con­sumes about 25 pounds of choco­late. Amer­i­cans con­sume about one-quar­ter of that fig­ure. Milk choco­late is fa­vored in the United States. World choco­late-lovers an­nu­ally in­hale some 7.5-mil­lion tons of choco­late.

Amer­i­cans from the be­gin­ning made choco­late drinks and munchies. Physi­cian James Baker and Ir­ish im­mi­grant John Han­non opened New England’s first choco­late fac­tory in 1765 at a wa­ter-pow­ered mill in Mas­sachusetts, ac­cord­ing to ac­counts. The Baker Choco­late Co. sold hard cakes of choco­late that

the colonists ground and mixed with boil­ing wa­ter to make hot choco­late. “Baker’s Co­coa,” an 18th-cen­tury ad­ver­tise­ment read, “is par­tic­u­larly adapted for el­derly peo­ple, as it con­tains con­sid­er­able fatty mat­ter, more than one quar­ter, yet it is eas­ily di­gested and is pure de­li­cious.” English tax levies on tea prompted the idea that drink­ing choco­late was an Amer­i­can’s pa­tri­otic duty.

In a small wait­ing area of muted col­ors and shag rugs at the firm’s head­quar­ters, staff mem­bers of­fer wa­ter and en­gage in small talk to soften the wait to see their boss. The ges­tures don’t feel con­trived, and it’s pleas­ant in­side. De­spite the com­pany’s rapid growth and its em­brace by sen­sa­tions such as Oprah and Na­tional Geo­graphic, there’s still a sense Nor­man Love Con­fec­tions is a fam­ily op­er­a­tion. Back in Nor­man Love’s of­fice, there are framed and signed hockey jer­seys from the Pitts­burgh star Sid­ney Crosby. Love ref­er­ences Crosby to de­scribe his own doc­trine, to share his phi­los­o­phy of achieve­ment. This man who has cre­ated a Willy Wonka–like em­pire, an imag­ing ge­nius, re­ally, chooses to gush about Crosby, a kid born to place a puck in a net.

There is a glow in Nor­man Love. “Crosby,” he says in pre­cise dic­tion, glanc­ing at a desk­top screen­saver of the Pitts­burgh locker room, “is com­mit­ted to get­ting re­sults. It’s so easy to fo­cus on ex­cuses, but [Crosby] has al­ways had the burn­ing de­sire and work ethic to get bet­ter. I’ve al­ways ad­mired that about him.”

DE­SPITE THE COM­PANY’S RAPID GROWTH AND ITS EM­BRACE BY SEN­SA­TIONS SUCH AS OPRAH AND NA­TIONAL GEO­GRAPHIC, THERE’S STILL A SENSE NOR­MAN LOVE CON­FEC­TIONS IS A FAM­ILY OP­ER­A­TION.

Nor­man Love with staff.

Nor­man Love in his con­fec­tions/pas­tries store lo­cated near South­west Florida In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

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