Chocolatier returns to downtown Middlebury
MIDDLEBURY — After a few years away, Middlebury Chocolates is back in downtown Middlebury at a new location. But the chocolate shop hasn’t moved much from its original spot.
It first opened in the spring of 2010 just off Main Street in the Holm building next to Battell Bridge. After a couple-year hiatus operating elsewhere in town, owners Stephanie and Andy Jackson last week moved the shop back to the Holm building with a storefront on the opposite side at 7 Frog Hollow Alley, just a level below.
The Jacksons moved to Middlebury from North Carolina back in 2010. The idea of opening a chocolate shop was something they had always talked about doing. Stephanie Jackson had the necessary culinary experience from careful observation during time spent working in bakeries, and the couple was encouraged when she gave some of her truffles to Carol’s Hungry Mind Café owner John Melanson, who began selling them. Shortly after that they launched Middlebury Chocolates as a wholesale distributor of chocolate and opened their first retail store.
Stephanie’s expertise comes through in the exotic flavors of her chocolates, like the 80 percent Belize bar, with organic cacao from Mayan Mountain, with flavor notes of Dutched cocoa, honeysuckle, papaya and lemon juice. The VerMonty bar is made of 62 percent cocoa with Vermont maple sugar, house-roasted coffee and a touch of organic milk. Just one bite and all ingredients come together to create a rich blend begging the term flavor explosion. The Jacksons use as many local ingredients as possible, buying organic when it comes to foods like cocoa and coffee beans, which aren’t grown in Vermont. They also make their own chocolate, roasting all of the cocoa for the chocolate over a wood fire instead of using electric or gas heat. They began making their own chocolate using this process in September of 2010, shortly before they moved out of their downtown Middlebury space.
The Jacksons left in hopes of finding a venue more suited to retail and one that offered more production space. They reopened on Route 7 South, a location they remained at for roughly a year. They said that money- and business-wise it was fine, but the spot had never felt like a very good fit, especially after they discovered that they were expecting a third child.
“The vibe there just wasn’t right for us,” Stephanie said. “Two kids plus being pregnant is not the ideal time to be working in a retail shop.”
They left the Route 7 store in June of 2013 and switched focus from retail to production for wholesale. They worked out of the kitchen of a friend, who owned Daily Chocolate in Vergennes, but found it difficult to share the space. The Jacksons hadn’t been planning on opening a retail store again but, when they were contacted by the landlord of the Frog Hollow location with the offer to move into what had previously been a tai chi school, they were eager to come back to Middlebury.
“We kind of jumped at that opportunity to come back to Middlebury and to be in an amazing, fabulous place like this,” Stephanie said this past Friday on her first day in the new space. “It has enough space for our entire production and for us to grow so we don’t ever have to move again ... it has great opportunity for retail and events and kind of everything that’s been in my business plan since day one.”
The new space seats up to 25 people with plenty of breathing room and has already allowed Middlebury Chocolates to host a Shacksbury Cider dinner for which the Jacksons catered dessert. An open house is planned for Oct. 3. Stephanie Jackson hopes to host future events like the Shacksbury dinner at the venue.
“We want to be able to open the space up to the community to use for classes or dinners or parties because it is one of the best spaces in Middlebury,” she said. “I have to share it, I can’t keep it all for myself.”
Other changes include the hiring of pastry chef Ashley Taylor to increase the amount of truffles and confections produced at the shop, which will be sold in addition to chocolates, coffee, homemade soda and milkshakes. With the additional desserts the Jacksons plan to create a dessert bar with wine and beer as a space where people can go on weekends without the typical bar atmosphere. The dessert lounge will remain open until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; regular store hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Since 2010 the couple’s wholesale business has also expanded. Middlebury Chocolates bars are sold in local stores like the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, Stone Leaf Tea House and Clementine, as well as stores in locations including Burlington, Montpelier, New York, New Hampshire and the Carolinas.
“It’s kind of crazy to think two years ago we were in two stores, and now we’re in 30 to 40 different ones,” Stephanie said.
When asked about new flavors for this fall’s upcoming seasonal bars, Stephanie Jackson made no promises, but said she had been thinking about a habanero and maple or applewood smoked chocolate bar. The larger space will enable the Jacksons to further expand production while selling their chocolate in the same local setting they began.
“It’s kind of the same thing, just in a bigger space to allow us to do better things,” Stephanie said. “We’re hoping that the community embraces it ... like we want the space to be used.”
MIDDLEBURY CHOCOLATES OWNERS Andy, left, and Stephanie Jackson sit with employee Stacey Kutter inside their new location at 7 Frog Hollow Alley. The Jacksons opened the new spot last Friday.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell