Here’s how my little chocolate business has gone:
In 2003 Jacob and I started making truffles for family gifts, inspired, like all good things are inspired, by an article in Martha Stewart Living. I didn’t know what on earth I was doing.
In 2004 everyone we gave the truffles to in 2003 wanted more of them. And I saw that this was a little hole in the vegan marketplace, so I decided to start selling them on the internet. I made them once a month, in-between cooking for the meal delivery service I ran, and kept a little email mailing list I’d announce the shipment on. People would email me back to order, I would send them a PayPal invoice, and off their chocolates would go.
Things went pretty much like this until 2010. Over the years we got a website, a fancier ordering system, and a bunch more customers (not just friends). I made chocolates once a week, not once a month. It was nice. The chocolate holidays (Christmas, Easter, and, of course, V-day) slammed me, made it difficult to get my cooking work done and difficult to sleep. The chocolate side of things was growing, without me feeding it. (The meal delivery would have been growing too, but it was so exhausting that I kept it to 20 clients or less so I could manage it and have a reasonable life, too.)
In 2010 I decided to shut down the meal delivery service and focus on a sweeter life, with less onions to peel and less pots to scrub.
Here’s the difference, dish-wise, between the two jobs:
- Meal delivery dishes took hours of scrubbing giant pots, leaving you with oniony, wrinkly hands and exhausted arms.
- Chocolate dishes can go right into the dishwasher with no scrubbing, and make the entire kitchen smell like hot chocolate.
Looking back, the choice was easy.
In 2011 we scraped up our pennies and borrowed pennies from wherever we could and bought the building. It was an 11-month-long odyssey, my friends (buying a building in foreclosure with almost no money—patient persistence is necessary, and since I am the most impatient person in the world, it was constantly tough for me. Thankfully, Jacob is amazing at smooth-talking banks and having patience, so while I was ranting and renting my garments with stress, he was cooly Making It Happen. It’s all detailed here, along with some TMIness about my own internal state at the time.)
Then began the renovation process (detailed rather haphazardly here). The word “renovation” still fills my heart with a cold chill. Oh, the months!
OH, THE MONEY! The delays, the work, the schlepping, the buying, the designing!
It was so much work.
(Was it worth it? Every night when I switch off the lights and lock the door [yes sometimes it's technically morning when that's happening, but still], I take a moment to look at the shop and get the same frisson of pleasure that I got the first day we opened. Opening the shop is my favorite thing I’ve ever done, and I love it every single day.)
We finally opened on June 28, 2011. (Jacob’s birthday! He was on tour in Europe at the time, and I sent him a photo of the shop and told him that instead of any presents [I was a little busy and a lot cash-strapped at the time, OK?], I got him a chocolate shop.)
It was fun from the start.
2012 was our first full year of being open, and it brought lots of changes in our Luscious little world. Here’s a rundown of the biggest ones:
- 2012 was the year we went from being a micro-business to a small business.
- It’s the year I had to learn how to be imperfect in front of other people, too.
The biggest change in my personal work world was how many more people I work with on a day-to-day basis.
As late as June of this year I was still clawing on to Solitude Sundays (what I always called them in my head) where I worked alone. Alone! It was super tough, yes (every time we had a party of five who all ordered Drinking Chocolates, I’d set a new record for how fast one person can stir ganache into hot almond milk, top it with almond whip, marshies, and cinnamon, pour it into a cup, put a lid on it, and get it to them), but I loved having a day all by myself at the shop, so quiet and still in the back of the house.
I could use all the space, live completely in my head, work on secret formless projects I didn’t have to chat about to anyone until they were more complete, nailed-down, ready to be tasted. Sometimes things like Thyme, Preserved-Lemon and Sea Salt Caramel need a little marinating time in one’s own head before they’re ready to be trotted out for a tasting. I’m like that (I used to be like that?)—I want things to be perfect before anyone sees them.
I’ll never go back to Solitude Sundays, I know that.
That’s a good thing, but it’s a little bittersweet, too. Change is good, Lagusta! Moving forward is good!
Now I work more collaboratively, and it’s one of the most exhilarating processes I’ve ever participated in. I’m continually blown away by the brilliant ideas of the women I work with, how they help me solve problems and come up with amazing new ideas. If I don’t have an idea down perfectly, I know I can bring it to them and they’ll help me make it better.
It’s terrifying not to perfect things before I show them to other people, but I’m getting better at it.
Around August, we ramped up like crazy for the chocolate season ahead. It’s good that we did. We needed every body we could cram in those 1000 square feet. And I LOVE the amazing women we hired. Still, it’s been a major shift for me in the way I always figured the shop would run. It’s so strange to me when an order, or even a Drinking Chocolate, goes to a customer and I didn’t have a hand in any of it—I didn’t make the ganache or fold the boxes or dip the truffles or even ship out the package. (I started doing this thing where I write “Enjoy! XO, L” on all the packages I ship out, like I’m a fancy person, like people should be excited to get packages from the great Lagusta herself!! Oy!)
All this is strange.
I know in the scheme of things we are still a very, very small business, and always will be, no matter how much we grow. But I always thought we’d be a micro business. Just me, with Maresa helping out when she wasn’t making cupcakes and cakes. And it went like that for a long time—I’ve been unable to get rid of Maresa since the day 5 or so years ago when she showed up at my old kitchen in Rosendale and said she’d work for free. Now I’d pay her anything she asked because she’s not only the sister I never had, but also so essential to the business that I sometimes wake up from nightmares where she went on a short vacation (really though, Reesey, you should take more days off!). We’ve had other people working on the shop since it opened, but never more than 3 of us at a time. From when the Oprah thing came out (keep reading!) in November until we went to Hawaii we were averaging 5 people a day working in the shop, and there were a few days when I looked up and we’d crammed SEVEN PEOPLE, each working with elbows tucked in their little stations, stirring flavorings into ganache or checking the temperature of caramel.
- The finishing of the façade.
This article came out about Chocolate in the Hudson Valley in the early part of 2012 in one of our the fine local alt-weeklies. It mentioned all the chocolate shops in the HV except us. Our customers kept coming in and saying “Why didn’t they mention you???”
Everyone working in the shop was kind of outraged.
Secretly (ok, maybe not so secretly), I was pleased as punch. Do you know what this means? I kept saying to the little crew. We’re still an underground business!!
The publisher of the magazine, however, happens to be a regular shop customer. One day he came in and apologized profusely about the omission. He didn’t happen to see the article before it went to press, otherwise he would have made sure they covered us. He promised some press to come to make up for the oversight.
I was honored, of course, but also a little rueful.
Being an underground business REALLY pleased me.
If it were up to me, we wouldn’t even have a sign on the door. I had this idea that we’d be a secret around town that you had to know someone to find. You’d open this unmarked, plain teal door and walk into a wild chocolate wonderland. How cool would that be?
As everyone reminded me, banks need mortgage payments in exchange for the building, and utility companies need money in exchange for power to power tempering machines. And student loans from a certain someone with a double major in English and Women’s Studies (oh, and the French minor) still has student loans to pay. So, concessions needed to be made.
Our friend Molly made our amazing sign. I liked it. Most particularly, I liked that it didn’t tell what we sold. Keeping the mystery!
In time though, everyone else got REALLY tired of saying, “We’re a chocolate shop!” to people who popped in just to ask what the crap it was that we sold.
So. Over my objections, we got these fancy letters for the front of the building. I got to pick out the font, and I picked Futura, so we could seem as much like we were living inside a Wes Anderson movie as possible.
Speaking of the chocolate letters:
- I made this really cool banner for the website.
Maybe it’s not a year highlight to you, but to me, who manages to screw up the website majorly every time she touches it, who has pretty much been taken off website duty by Erin and Jacob, who are constantly tinkering and improving and fixing and perfecting, being able to make and upload the rotating banners on the top of the page was sort of a minor miracle.
How Wes Anderson-y does it look??
- I created the hardest, bestest recipe of all time.
Oh, Peanut Butter Toffee Crunch Bars! Your butterfingery devils, you. How we love to hate you.
- Pate de Fruits.
- Ice cream.
- Ridding the shop of corn syrup
I’m so proud of our Innovation of the Year: homemade organic cane syrup to replace corn syrup!
Candied homegrown flower tablets. Sigh. My heart is bursting.
- Molly’s window project
- Oprah Magazine + press
I guess I should stop with things that were important in my personal soul and all that and get on to the actual tangible markers of the year.
One of those was that we got some mega press.
We were in a bunch of local magazines and papers, and that 1/4 page mention in Oprah magazine sure raised our profile quite a bit. From when the magazine came out until the end of the year, we were solidly slammed with orders.
Not being so terrified that we weren’t going to make mortgage payments every month has meant that we can afford to do more donations!
I knew there was a reason why being a bigger business was good—this is one of the major reasons.
As someone who always figured she’d be a penniless activist for a “living,” doing good is a huge part of our mission at the shop. Nothing feels better than being able to support the groups, people, and work we believe in. Here’s a partial list of donations we did in 2012:
- We donated to the animal shelter my mom volunteers for, CARE.
- We made sure our pal Nicole’s dog Beija got medical care when she desperately needed it.
- We donated a lot to Friends of Animals—when you buy our Rosemary Sea Salt Caramels boxes, $10 of each box goes to FoA’s fine work.
- We continue to give shop-discounts to members of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary and Catskill Animal Sanctuary. We also do chocolate and cash donations to them whenever we can.
- We made a few hundred dollars for Family of New Paltz, our local food pantry, and so much more.
- We raised over $2000 to the Teal Cat Project in March, through sales of Tabby Toffee chocolates!
- We donated lots of Peach-Tarragon chocolates to Phillies Bridge Farm’s annual Meal in the Field dinner.
- Lots more donations I can’t remember/forgot to enter into my accounting program.
- The wildest Halloween ever.
There were so many sad events in the wider world this year. They’re beyond the scope of this blog post, but it’s crushing to remember them.
Hurricane Sandy was responsible for the cancellation of the Google NYC Halloween party, for which the Google folks had ordered hundreds of chocolates from us. They said we should give the chocolates out to New Paltz trick or treaters, which meant we had the craziest, most fun (in spite of the Sandy sadness living in our hearts) Halloween ever in the shop, which was crammed with people for hours and hours—long after the chocolate ran out, actually. My oh my does word spread fast in this town.
- The dough sheeter!
We bought a dough sheeter, thus ending 10 months of a croissant desert that we (me!) barely survived. Croissants are back forever, woo!
- The launch of the Savory Dinner Series
The most fun and the most work I’ve had in a long time (which is saying a lot—I have a lot of fun and work a ton on the regular). I hope it continues forever. We did two dinners last year (you can see millions of photos of ‘em at the link above), this year I’m hoping to do one a month March-October.
- Partnership with Tuthillltown Spirits
Tuthilltown has quickly become a household name in the Hudson Valley as well as the country (the world, maybe?) for well-crafted whiskies and more. We were honored when they asked if we wanted to partner up on a special chocolate to be sold in their distillery shop. Our Four-Grain Bourbon Caramel Chile Bars are one of our best-sellers, and it’s always so nice to meet people who found us from a bar they tasted at the distillery.
The whiskey is delicious on its own, too, which is nice for a whiskey drinker like me. Manhattans (and chocolate!) for all!
I asked everyone who works at the shop for their best-ofs, too:
Unlike everyone else, is probably out having fun and not immediately responding to emails, so I’ll update this post with her best-ofs when I get ‘em. (I’m hoping one of her favorites will be that crazy day she wrapped ten zillion bars…)
- Favorite thing to make:
Sundaes in the summer! Especially with gooseberries on top. (Customer-”you mean the ice cream, marshmallows, AND whip are all vegan? *face lights up*)
- Favorite thing I ate:
Chocolate- ginger orange blossom truffle
Cupcake- pistachio & rosewater
Savory- latkas with sour cream & apple sauce!
Drink- lavender lemonade
-Learning from and working with empowering, progressive, and witty women. Plus Jacob!
-Actually being able to eat anything in the shop without worry of the ingredients.
-Listening to good music all day
-Maresa’s cake scraps!
-Lagusta’s training nights & whatever she cooks for us.
- Favorite moments:
I was having just your typical case of the rainy-pms-ing-monday-finals week-blues. My day turned around when I walked into work and my senior recital was being played as the shop’s music. What a supportive, loving feeling. And then I got to make chocolate all day. Chocolate shop therapy at its finest.
- During one of our busy days, I messed up and used black rasberries instead of red rasberries for a recipe and I already added in the balsamic syrup. I felt awful even telling L since we were pressed for time but she didn’t even break a sweat. She just looked at it and went, “don’t worry- I’ve got an idea!” And just like that she made a tangy, fruity, amazing truffle out of my mistake- with black rasberries, balsamic syrup, lemon, lime, and strawberry that the customers all loved! Lesson learned: when life gives you lemons, make a new chocolate.
- Favorite thing I made: Holler Mountain bark. The first thing I made from start to finish. :)
- Favorite thing I ate: Pear, clover, & brown sugar cupcake.
- Beet coriander truffle!
- Highlights: when Non vegans walk in and are surprised & impressed that we are a cruelty free/Vegan shop. When vegans realize they can have ANYTHING they want! Putting bows on a zillion barks.
- Eating any food that Lagusta makes us (awww). Learning some real knife skills. Being able to work in an amazing, caring, human/animal/environmentally conscious environment.
- Favorite Moments: Working from 10a-730p with Maresa & Lucy without sitting down once and then enjoying a Taco Shack feast before finishing up the last 3 hours of work.
- Dipping truffles. (LY note: Erin is really great at dipping truffles!)
- Making ganache start to finish is pretty fulfilling- from the recipe, to flavoring, piping, rolling, dipping, decorating…
- Favorite moment was the night we all did yoga together, talking about our favorite poses. (very inflexible LY note: THIS WAS MY LEAST FAVORITE MOMENT.)
- Favorite eating was shiitake sea salt truffle, RSSC (Rosemary Sea Salt Caramels, natch), and turtles- and mac and cheese! (LY note: I like making snacks for the crew!)
- Funniest was when I called her “teal nail girl.” (LY note: Maresa and I almost hired her right off the bat because her nails matched our logo. [Even though you're not allowed to paint your nails in a food service environment. But this was just at the interview, so it was OK.])
- Fave customers- maeve and julian :)
- Fave times- when vegans come in expecting one or two vegan things and get SUPER EXCITED when they fing out every last thing is vegan. (LY note: this is my fave time too.)
- STUMPTOWN! And indulging in a coffee obsession and taking it to unforseen heights.
- Maresa’s macarons!
- Sweet Pea Green Tea chocos.
Turtles. (Lucy is our turtle expert, for sure.)
I loved learning how to make caramels.
Christmas rush. in the middle of it, I realized how much all of us has learned and how we could just bang it all out and do a good job.
Favorite eating was pickle tempura, and chocolate lemon confit caramel.
Fave customers- any shy old men. and the Smylies. also, the guy who gets gifts for his girlfriend “just because he loves her” and is always really polite.
BOTH Erin and Lucy loved the chocolate tasting night!
Successfully making pb bars in less than one day (this happened once. it’ll go down in history like rudolph).
Favorite customer: susan blickstein, who was with us through our coffee evolution, and would always give the lowdown on town-happenings.
Favorite moment: sitting on the bench with L, eating pistachio ice cream, and comparing legs. also, realizing that our gals are totally the best ever. (LY note: this is my favorite moment, too.)
- Jeeeze, there’s a lot more!
Fun events, amazing customers (truly, amazing), delicious tempeh, our anniversary party, so many delicious chocolates (cream eggs!), wrapping paper with yours truly’s mug on it, the back room renovations, PARIS, that crazy cute caramel apple I made!
But this is getting too long, and I’ve got to start my New Year’s Eve dinner preparations.