Local chocolatiers dish up chocolate heaven
There are few things more coveted, richer, or more decadent than chocolate.
A thick, velvety chocolate waterfall cascading down a steep chocolate peak evokes images reminiscent of a thousand candy bar commercials that distract local chocolate lovers from the artisan chocolate craftsmen at work in our own county.
For most chocolate businesses, Valentine’s Day is the business boost after the holidays, so in the spirit of this holiday of hearts, The Bellingham Business Journal stopped in on some of our local chocolatiers to see what’s cooking.
We caught up with a chocolatier on a quest to taste the best chocolate, a corporate chocolate man who left the franchise business to make his own treats, and a candyman who enjoys his customers as much as they enjoy his chocolate.
‘I go by the name Candyman’
Jerry Hruska, owner of Sweet Art, a downtown art and candy store, didn’t use to think that people bought chocolate on Valentine’s Day, and he used to close the store on that day.
“I thought you bought it the day before so you got your candy for your sweetheart,” said Hruska, who also goes by the name Candyman.
Then one year, he decided to open for Valentine’s Day.
“They bought almost every piece of candy I had in the store,” Hruska said. “At the end of the day, at about 4 or 5 o’ clock, I had about four or five strips of chocolate. It was the biggest day we had in our existence and every Valentine’s Day, it has been getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Lines go out the door.”
Hruska said he loves everything about working in a candy store, but he really loves chatting with the customers. He said he likes it best when people come in regularly to buy smaller portions.
“I like to have lots of customers,” Hruska said. “If someone comes in and wants to buy lots and lots of stuff — I am not impressed with that kind of customer. I would rather sell little bits.”
All his life, Hruska said he was drawn to the kitchen. When he was in high school, he purchased a 10-cent mail-order candy cookbook. He then procured an English toffee recipe from some ladies in the neighborhood and made his first candy. However, at the time, Hruska was on the wrestling team and subject to an extreme diet to make weight.
“Every Friday night for three months, I took that book and made a candy recipe — page after page after page,” Hruska said. “And I never ate any of it. I never even tasted it. I just made it.”
Before he knew it, Hruska was in the military, which he didn’t mind because he thought he could learn more about cooking there.
“But my IQ was too high and I didn’t even make it into the kitchen,” he said.
The military took Hruska to California where he met up with a “360-pound old lady,” who schooled him in the ways of chocolate, candy and business.
“I stuck with her for like 10 years and I learned all her recipes and candies and that is how I really learned,” he said. “Also I learned a lot about businesses and how they come and go. Unfortunately with her, that happened.”
Sweet Art is a cozy, artistic corner of chocolate heaven on Railroad Avenue.
Hruska’s wife is an artist and her artwork and influence can be seen all over the store.
The paintings for sale are quintessentially Whatcom County, depicting rows of lavender and snowy neighborhood scenes.
Hruska said his wife’s creativity can also be seen and tasted in some of his treats.
“She creates new candies a lot like the Azteca where she adds chili peppers to chocolate or little oddities like a peanut butter curry combination,” he said.
He has his own deviations as well, such as a spin on English toffee called Czech toffee, which has dark instead of milk chocolate and hazelnuts instead of almonds.
“Czech is in honor of my national heritage,” he said. “My last name Hruska means pear.”
Hruska is probably best known around Bellingham as the artisan candyman who makes the giant solid chocolate Easter bunny given away at the Farmers Market every year, and his skills with a chocolate mold are evident around the shop. There’s an Eiffel Tower, a Scotty dog and several photos of different Easter bunnies from over the years.
“Working with chocolate and getting it into a mold — that’s an art in itself,” he said.
Bellingham’s best-kept secret
Kevin Buck, owner of Chocolate Necessities, tastes chocolate the way many people taste wine.
Over the years, Buck has been exposed to some of the best chocolate in the world and has trained his palate not to accept too much sugar or too little cacao butter.
More than 20 years ago on a trip to Canada, Buck tasted some chocolate that changed his life.
“I went up there to taste their chocolate and then I wanted to know why it was so radically different from what I was used to and good,” Buck said.
It turned out that where Buck visited is the Belgian chocolate distribution point for all of North America. So Buck found a source for the chocolate and began making tasty treats.
“Everything I made was fabulous, and it wasn’t because I had talent or because I went to this school or that school,” Buck said. “It was all dependent on the ingredients — good chocolate.”
Eventually, Buck kicked production into high gear and opened Chocolate Necessities, which has a retail location and production facility in North Bellingham and a newer retail spot in the Public Market on Cornwall Avenue.
The North Bellingham retail store is not that big, but the walls are covered with bags and bags of chocolate truffles and chips and other chocolate souvenirs. Around the counter sit carts with trays and trays of chocolate art, such as a white and dark chocolate high-heeled shoes or a blended-chocolate martini glass cooling for later assembly.
In the production facility, chocolatiers work fast with quick intentional movements drizzling chocolate into molds or putting sprinkles on truffles. One chocolatier dunks double chocolate truffles in a whirling sea of milk chocolate, juggling the truffles one at a time between her middle and pointer finger before placing them on a tray to cool.
The store and production facility are a bit off the beaten path, but Buck said it has served his purposes better than he could have imagined.
“My business model was not to become huge. I wanted to maintain the quality no matter what, which is why I picked this crummy location — the low rent,” Buck said of his spot off Meridian, just north of Wal-Mart.
But once people got a taste, they wanted more.
“The customers did go through all the hurdles to find me,” Buck said. “They were very motivated and curious and interested in good chocolate, and they not only found me but they talked about me and word of mouth was phenomenal.”
Buck said Valentine’s Day accounts for about 25 percent of his annual business and requires a lot of preplanning because he doesn’t hire more people for the busy time.
“Everything is pre-cut, pre-folded, pre-stamped, anything we can do to make it go smoother,” he said. “We are like a fire station waiting for it all to begin.”
Buck said, in the end, he enjoys making people happy with his chocolate and surpassing their expectations, but still wants to be a bit of a secret that people want to pass on.
“I’m a little bit better known now, but about 10 years ago — I was a secret. And everybody loves to tell about their secret chocolate shop that nobody knows about,” Buck said.
From corporate candyman to local chocolatier
The front counter of Mount Baker Candy Company looks like a miniature chocolate mountain range sprinkled with chocolate and peanut peaks and jagged cacao cliffs.
Josh Rushane, co-owner of Mount Baker Candy Company inside Bellis Fair Mall, makes all his own chocolate clusters, turtles and fudge along with an array of dazzling caramel apples, but only a few years ago, he was in the corporate chocolate world.
“I was working as a field consultant. I had 40 stores that I oversaw,” Rushane said.
Soon Rushane ditched the suit and tie and opened two of his own chocolate franchises in Seaside, Ore.
“It was a county of 30,000 people and it was quiet,” Rushane said. “It was busy three months out of the year and quiet for the rest of the year, and I wanted a more all-around store that would do well 12 months out of the year.”
So Rushane sold those businesses and moved to Bellingham to open Mount Baker Candy Company.
“We loved the Bellingham area and thought it would be great to have a business here,” Rushane said.
One major different between owning his own store and owning a franchise is that he could make his own chocolate confections with his own business.
“When I worked for a corporate store, everything we sold was bought from them — I never made it,” Rushane said. “When I came into this, it was trial and error, figuring stuff out on my own and figuring the ratio of chocolate to nuts.”
Rushane said that Valentine’s Day is a nice injection of business in the middle of a slow season.
“It’s nice to have a boost in the middle of the winter — it’s a good month,” he said. “We make more fudge, more chocolate, more caramel apples.”
Recently, Rushane said, he has been getting more involved with the community and local businesses. He just finished helping with a fundraiser for a youth lacrosse team and has helped several local businesses with chocolate and caramel-apple gift packages for clients and employees.
“I would like to do more of that,” he said.
Rushane said it is really the customers that brighten up his day.
“Customers are a lot of fun, especially my regulars,” Rushane said. “I’ve got a bunch of regulars that come in and hang out to talk to me with their kids and I enjoy that — it’s a lot of fun.”
For the most part, everyone Rushane encounters is in high spirits because they are surrounded by chocolate and candy.
“Everybody is always in the mood for chocolate and generally people are in a good mood when they come in here,” Rushane said.