While we’d all like to believe our chocolates are made in a magical factory where a river of chocolate flows and Oompa-Loompas scurry about making sure everything runs efficiently, reality is, of course, much different. The chocolate industry, however, does have its place in Western New York—in fact, the first confectioners have been doing business since at least 1820. Today, a melting pot of ambitious chocolatiers are continuing that tradition and turning their hard work into sweet success. Following is a look at four local businesses doing everything they can to satisfy our collective sweet tooth.
Dark Forest Chocolate Makers
Dark Forest Chocolate was started and is run by the husband and wife team of Joanne and Dan Sundell. Their shop is at 11 W. Main St. in the heart of the Village of Lancaster, surrounded by historic charm and an array of new businesses that interact with and benefit from one another.
“We are a new enterprise just coming up to our third year, and growth has been steady,” said Dan. “We sell retail from our shop, but have a rapidly growing wholesale market, as well. We also sell to several shops, mostly in Western New York, but have been expanding into the New York City area. Our online sales have also experienced growth as our reputation grows.”
Dark Forest Chocolate is a small-batch chocolate maker, making chocolate from cacao beans and sugar right in their shop. They are unique, as nearly all local chocolate shops buy chocolate made in large factories and then mold or make confections with it. Instead, at Dark Forest, the focus is on the chocolate itself.
“Making our own allows us to buy high-quality cacao beans from all over the world that have unique flavors. Our chocolate is free of nuts, soy, is non-GMO, and is generally organic. We only buy ingredients that we can trace to the source and that are fairly traded, meaning the workers are paid fair wages. However, the most important thing is that the flavor is noticeably superior. Our products include a range of single-origin dark chocolates, as well as milk chocolates. We also make confections such as nib brittle (cacao bean pieces), caramels, marshmallows, and some cocoa drinks,” said Dan.
Along with their excitement for all things chocolate, this talented husband and wife team is equally excited about the economic upswing taking place in the Buffalo area.
“We feel that the Buffalo area is now experiencing growth that has not been seen in decades,” Dan said. “The Buffalo area has a number of legacy chocolate shops that continue to do well. People here love chocolate, but we felt that there must be people like us that wanted to know more about where their food comes from. We also noticed that the other shops were not catering to people with dietary restrictions, such as nut allergies or vegan diets. In addition, small-batch chocolate making is a national trend, but nobody was doing it here in Western New York.
“The experience itself has been overwhelmingly positive,” he continued. “The most amazing part is that from the time we decided to open our business, everything seemed to fall into place for us. Our customers appreciate that we have taken a risk to pursue our interest, and they are happy that we chose to locate in the village setting. One of our daily challenges, though, is to inform new customers about what is different about our chocolate. We anticipated this and set up our shop so that customers could see the process of chocolate making through windows into our work area. We also have samples out and encourage visitors to try a few varieties. We have been pleasantly surprised that first-time visitors are generally receptive, even though we may be a bit different from what they expect.”
Though still a small shop, their hard work and dedication is being rewarded; they’ve earned several honors from the International Chocolate Awards – Americas Division, and from the Academy of Chocolate, which is a worldwide competition based in London.
“As first-time business owners, getting started was a leap of faith, though we did get some guidance,” Dan explained. “We took advantage of the Small Business Association’s SCORE program to get some mentoring. Most importantly though, we utilized our own complementary set of skills to get ourselves set up. Joanne handles the business, finances, and marketing, along with making a few excellent confections such as nib brittle and caramels, while I make the chocolate, design packaging, and do presentations to groups. As a small business owner, part of the fun is using all of your skills,”
Niagara’s Honeymoon Sweets, LLC
A woman-owned business that opened in 2005, Niagara’s Honeymoon Sweets, LLC, didn’t put Niagara Falls on the map, but it certainly is making its name known from coast to coast. Located at 5540 Porter Rd. and owned by Maryann Hess — also known as The First Lady of Chocolate — this unique chocolate shop was built and has succeeded thanks to sheer determination.
“I decided on chocolates because it was the easiest for me to do, since I already had a full-time job,” Hess said. “We needed the extra money to help with medical expenses for my grandson.” And just like that, a new business was born — in the basement of her Niagara Falls home.
“The journey has been hard. I am a small business, so going against larger businesses I had to become unique and very creative,” she added. “I tried to get grant money, but that was a lot of work to get a small amount, so we did it all on our own, building as we go. We pretty much have done all the financing on our own, except for a very small grant we received from the City of Niagara Falls. We found every time we tried to get money, there were too many hoops to jump through. It was just never the right place at the right time.
“But, my biggest success to date is that it's been 13 years, and I'm still here! The New York Small Business Development Center and advisor Maureen Goodlander were a big help putting it all together. I haven't taken any loans, and I keep putting what I make back into the company, plus I help my grandson, I'm involved in the community, and I'm involved from coast to coast. I know I will make it because I'm not a quitter, and I'm too stubborn to stop.”
Her stubbornness and determination have certainly paid off in a big way. In recent years, Hess has been invited to represent Western New York at the Presidential Inauguration of both President Obama and President Trump, as well as the Emmy, Golden Globes, and Academy Awards, the Miss New York Pageant, Miss New York Teen Pageant, Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and the Super Bowl. Locally, she enjoys participating in the Music Is Art Festival and other community events.
Whimsy Confections at 610 Main St. in downtown Buffalo was founded in 2017 by chocolatier Michele Ogden, a skilled food artist who hand paints each ganache-filled bonbon. A graduate of Ecole Chocolat, she started a dessert catering business while living in Washington, D.C., and later appeared on an episode of “Cupcake Wars” on The Food Network.
“I’m a chocolatier, and my specialty is bonbons,” said Ogden. “I had a dessert catering business when I lived in Washington. D.C., and I read an article in Essence Magazine about a woman who was a chocolatier in Chicago, and I became fascinated. I reached out to her about training to be a chocolatier, and she gave me great insight. I started going to small, local chocolate boutiques that made small batches of chocolate, and my sister sent me chocolate from all around the world from her travels. I fell in love with chocolate and decided to train to be a chocolatier.”
Born and raised on the East Side of Buffalo, she always dreamed of opening a business in her hometown, and saw a need for more artisan chocolate in the area.
“I’ve faced many challenges with finding adequate shared kitchen space to do production, and I'm building out my own production space this spring. This journey has been both fun and educational. When you have a business, you're responsible for everything, and there are many things you never anticipate and you have to adapt and problem solve as you go. I go through every day embracing every learning experience, and grateful for every small victory.”
Ogden’s biggest success to date was taking the first step to train to be a chocolatier. It was a decision she thought about and debated for eight years before taking that first step toward fulfilling her lifelong dream.
“That first step was the hardest and most important,” she recalled. “After that, I felt I could do anything. I received help writing my business plan and start-up capital from WEDI (Westminster Economic Development Initiative). They're an amazing resource, and I'm grateful for all of their support. I also participated in the Queen City Pop Up Shop and I'm a graduate of UB's CEL Allstate Women and Minority Entrepreneurs program.”
Next up for Ogden and Whimsy Confections will be a move into new space on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo, where she'll have both production and retail space.
“I love the ideal of moving into a residential neighborhood that’s active and growing, and I hope Whimsy will grow with the neighborhood. I love that so many great businesses like Lloyd, Daisy's Doghouse, Blackbird Sweets, and the Lexington Co-op are also in the neighborhood. I'm excited for the move!”
Tomric Systems was started in Buffalo back in 1962 by Paul Elsinghorst. At that time, most chocolatiers around the country and even the world were using metal or tin molds. They were expensive, hard to clean, and not very easy to use. That’s when Tomric Systems started designing and fabricating high-quality polycarbonate molds.
“Most of those novelty shapes you see in chocolate shops both locally and across North America are made using Tomric molds,” said Michael Odrzywolski, Tomric’s Director of Sales. “Our focus as a company is to help the chocolatier and chocolate maker be more efficient and ultimately make better chocolate. That is why we started making custom plastic trays to protect chocolate and baked goods; think of any chocolate bunny you have bought or mixed box of chocolates as they all have that thin plastic tray inside the box to protect them. As a third part of our company, we also sell and service Selmi Chocolate Equipment. We have been their exclusive distributers for North America for the last 15 years, and their focus is aligned with ours. They are always looking for ways to make their machines easier to use, clean, and efficient for chocolatiers to make their craft.
“The biggest challenge we face as a company has always been to keep up with change,” Odrzywolski said. “We are not just talking about technology. The way chocolatiers operate, the way they make chocolate, and the products they use is always on the move, and we are a small, family-run company. We need to be nimble and get ahead of that change. Many of the things we are doing now as we grow is to help get ahead of that option.
“Through 56 years of history, the biggest thing we are proud of is our recent expansion and innovation center that we are building. Expanding to a 14,000-square-foot facility with nearly half of that dedicated to our innovation center and chocolate equipment from Selmi is confirmation that all that hard work over the years is paying off, and we are setting ourselves up to continue that success and be a leader in the industry.”
In terms of resources, the company’s president, Thomas Elsinghorst, and CEO Timothy Thill have been associates at the Center of Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University at Buffalo for many years. The company has also been a member of the Retail Confectioners International for the last 40 years, along with many other associations that have allowed Tomric employees to network with professionals inside and outside the industry and share ideas, best practices, and professional support.
“With our new innovation center being built now — expanding our current building on River Rock Drive — we are primed for growth,” Odrzywolski concluded. “This will really make us a great resource for the chocolate and confectionery industries as a place to learn about new trends, techniques, and equipment. In the future, we will also be announcing a new partnership with a company that makes packaging equipment for small- to mid-size confectioners and bakers. So, from molding, to packaging, to production, to wrapping, we will be there to support the chocolate community.”