Chocolates from Bella Sophia Chocolates’ holiday collection. Sangeetha Koomar/Lariat
The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on many businesses in the United States. On May 9, economic researchers at the University of Illinois, Harvard Business school, Harvard University and the University of Chicago predicted that over 100,000 businesses would shut down in America.
The closing of businesses broke the hearts of not only business owners but the customers as well.
Countless chocolate manufacturers refused to accept the predicted circumstance and instead decided to rise to the occasion the only way they knew how: chocolate. In fact, chocolate sales got so popular that the National Confectioners Association reported on Sept. 17th that chocolate sales rose to 25.3%, non-premium chocolate by 5.5% and premium chocolate by 12.5%.
Due to precautionary measures, Halloween runs a very suspenseful route, no one knows what will happen but precautionary measures will be taken to ensure the safety of all. Nevertheless, many chocolatiers aim to keep the spirit of Halloween going as various chocolate owners spoke on their plans both for the upcoming holiday and COVID-19.
The Chocolate Soldier:
The Chocolate Soldier in Laguna Beach, California in May of 2018. Sangeetha Koomar/Lariat
With COVID-19 placing restrictions on indoor capacity for various businesses, The Chocolate Soldier in Laguna Beach took an engaging approach to assure their customers that this pandemic will not slow or shut them down in any way.
“During the closures, what we did is we sold from the door only and did not allow people in the shop,” said De Francis, owner of The Chocolate Soldier. “But my shop is small so they can see almost everything from the door. We also mounted signs on the streets to allow them to call and we would deliver to them personally behind our shop.”
Francis chose to have her shop serve as a beacon of confidence for her customers, both new and returning. Though free samples are not allowed, customers are still allowed inside one at a time. Her goal is to provide an environment where people can escape the stress of isolation and enjoy what chocolate has to offer.
“I want people to know one thing and that is, to get over it,” Francis said. “Don’t cower in a corner and instead wear a mask and indulge in what we have to offer.”
However, Francis wanted her shop to make sure everyone was happy, no one was meant to be left out from her sweet deals and that included children most of all. The Chocolate Soldier wanted to ensure that the Halloween spirit was kept alive through any way possible.
“We’re going to be supplying small, little buckets with treats in them for people to take to their children,” Francis said. “Instead of traditional trick-or-treating, children can come in their costumes and receive their buckets from their parents. It’s the best we can do for these current times and hopefully it’ll catch on.”
Jeffray Gardner, owner and chocolatier of Marsatta Chocolate in Torrance, CA. Jeffray Gardner/Courtesy
Located in Torrance, California, Marsatta Chocolate did have to suffer many of the unfortunate results of COVID-19.
“We were practically closed for 11 months trying to stay open,” said Jeffray Gardner, owner of Marsatta Chocolates. “Every car that went by thinks that we’re closed and you know how people are, if they see something that is remotely closed, they just drive by. So that really killed our business but we really tried to work hard and keep going.”
The coronavirus brought about an evolutionary change within the company as well. Originally Gardner’s store started out as wholesale and now due to the pandemic the company has been conducting its business completely online.
“We love people, we love the interaction, it will be kind of tough but hopefully we can convey our thankfulness and how we feel about people enjoying our products through the internet,” Gardner said. “With COVID people have pulled back on visiting stores if they can and they are careful and so you know we hope to respect that and still keep our customers engaged.”
Although, it isn’t just the joy of people buying chocolate that brings light to the hearts of chocolatiers. The fact that people know of the shop and want to visit is more than enough.
“People end up coming in,” Gardner said. “It may not be the sales that we want but we are still thankful we didn’t have to file for unemployment.”
Despite having a tragic let down, this shop owner refused to let what could have dampened his spirits affect his customers or his products.
“Too many people short change, that is the problem, people short change and it happens far too often,” Gardner said. “I don’t give my customers 12 chocolate covered strawberries, I put 14 in there. I want to make’em happy, I want them to be able to share it if they need to, little things matter and I truly believe we survived because the people believed in us.”
No matter what the situation, Marsatta Chocolate serves any and all. “No will never be an answer,” and that is a motto that Gardner stands by.
Chocolate isn’t the only thing this boutique offers, Marsatta is also known for its chocolate tea, fresh sorbets and coffee. Another motto Gardner lives by is that, “nothing goes waste and everything is always fresh.”
“We are open and I want my customers to know that we will not stop making chocolate and it is ready whenever they need it,” Gardner said.
Bella Sophia Artisanal Chocolates:
Bella Sophia Chocolate of Huntington Beach, California owners: Steph and JD Shafer. Steph Shafer/Courtesy
Bella Sophia is a primarily online-based fine chocolate store located off of Huntington Beach in Pacific City. Chefs Steph and J.D. Shafer created a philanthropic way of keeping their customers satisfied with sweets, regardless of the situation.
“Once COVID hit, we found ourselves completely out of supplies,” said Steph Shafer, chef and owner of Bella Sophia Chocolates. “We also donate our chocolates to charities, along with our customers, and I don’t like to say no to people. I found off of Pinterest, how to make marshmallows, I only had sugar on my shelves, there was nothing else. And I made five different caramels, in five different ways, we had to wrap them in plastic wrappers because we had no boxes and no chocolate.”
The two owners had to make do with what was available. Due to the pandemic, shipping affected various products the chocolatiers needed and changed how the two chefs’ thinking regarding future products.
“Nothing was coming in,” said J.D. Shafer, husband to Steph and co-owner of Bella Sophia. “You could order but it won’t be shipped and it had the chance of getting messed up by the post office too.”
Forced to stray away from her signature hand painted chocolates and different chocolate flavors, Steph Shafer did not lose hope. She instead made over a thousand wrapped caramels to send to the charities, despite the complete lack of supplies, along with thousands of different flavored marshmallows and had to continue on this path for more than seven months.
“There are so many people starving and hungry,” Steph Shafer said. “So it led us to eventually feeding the people in our area and doing what we can. We have a whole new mission and we are hoping to build our own charity next year out of all of this, our direction shifted in a whole new way with COVID.”
With a newfound purpose, Steph and J.D. Shafer help hundreds of charities along with people in their area by constantly shipping out various chocolates to anyone who requests it. In fact, their flavors got so popular that they catered to the Emmys as well.
“We spent a good amount of nights making thousands of chocolates for the Emmys,” Steph Shafer said. “Suddenly, I wasn’t watching where I was going and I hit a wall and all of the chocolates fell, and it was the night before the Emmys. We did not sleep at all and remade every single thing, like I said we never give up or say no, eventually we got there on time and it was a success, only our sleep was lost.”
However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, many events have halted and many people are fearful to step out of their homes to enjoy anything their communities can offer. Therefore, some families are skeptical on continuing any traditions involving their children, Halloween included.
Rather than seeing this as a sign to take a break, the Shafers took this as an opportunity to make sure no kids are candyless this year.
“What parent wants to have the guilt that their children have to tell their children about the time that they could not go trick-or-treating,” Steph Shafer said. “Halloween and candy hunting has been with us for ages, we just can’t let it go. Our daughter even said she didn’t feel like getting a costume this year because we were afraid. We did not want anyone else or even our daughter to live with this thought.”
To the Shafers, chocolate is more than just an addicting dessert. To them chocolate is a means of bringing people together no matter where they are or even how they are feeling, chocolate connects.
“As chocolate makers we took this as an opportunity to be the ones who can keep the Halloween tradition alive.” said Steph Shafer. “So we decided to make a stand by our leasing office and our daughter will be dressed up and hand out our candy to everyone in our community, everyone can dress up and so we keep the tradition alive and the happiness too.”
This COVID-19 brought on a new opportunity for Bella Sophia. Instead of taking a break to formulate the next plan of action, the Shafers shifted entirely. As a result, the chocolate shop now takes on a philanthropic nature and aims to ensure no customer is without chocolate.
If there is one thing that the Shafers want people to know it is that, “we are open and we are always ready to help,” Steph Shafer said.
The coronavirus proved to be a life changing event. Each of these chocolatiers handled the challenge of adapting differently.
Whether it is charity, continuing the norm or even letting people know that you’re there, chocolate manufacturers are here to make it known that premium chocolate is here to stay and lift spirits.