The sweet acidic aroma of cooking cacao fills the air at Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate in Empire, where visiting customers often pause when they enter to let their senses take over. They may crinkle their noses as they breathe it all in, noting the chocolatiers behind the counter in the shop’s open kitchen and the abundant assortment of chocolates to choose from.
In the shop this day, a woman reaches for one of the 70 percent dark chocolate samples on a small tasting table. Fingering a chocolate disk the size of a nickel, she snaps it in two, and gently rubs her thumb against one half, and then sniffs the fragrance before sliding a piece on to her tongue.
Seventy percent dark chocolates help visitors discover the concept of “terroir,” according to the owners, nature’s unique blend of soil, climate and topography. Each chocolate is from a region known for growing the rare variety of cocoa that is unique to Ecuador. Each has a distinct taste profile.
“Chocolate is an epiphany of taste,” said Jody Dotson, one of the owners. “People are reliving their nostalgia of having chocolate as a kid. A more sophisticated taste for chocolate is evolving as they become more educated about its flavor.”
The Manabi dark chocolate represents the middle ground, she said, not super chocolatey, not so fruity. It has some cacao as its backbone and offers the largest span of flavors when tasting it. Los Rios chocolate samples have fruity notes. They have been “flash roasted” for minimal processing. Los Rios is considered a raw chocolate. The Esmeraldas chocolates on the tasting table are the most “chocolate-forward” of the three — more of what people expect in a more traditional fine cacao flavor.
“There are all kinds of roast profiles in chocolate, just like you would find in coffee,” said DC Hayden, the shop’s other owner.
The store’s open floor design makes for easy roaming to explore the chocolate offerings beneath glass in two display counters or on the shelves of several display cases. Visitors also can sit down for a chocolate primer lesson from someone on staff.
Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate’s quest for the finest quality chocolate is achieved by doing business with small-scale farmers in Ecuador. Dotson and Hayden can trace all their chocolate back to its source. Working exclusively with small co-ops is a “win-win for farmers and customers,” Dotson said, “because these farmers are assured of having a partner committed to purchasing their cocoa beans, and our customers get to enjoy ethically sourced chocolate.”
Last year, Grocer’s Daughter (grocersdaughter.com) purchased 12 tons of cacao beans packaged in 12-kilo cases and shipped them back to the U.S. Acting as a wholesaler, it sold some of the shipment to other chocolate shops in Michigan, with the rest being processed throughout this year at the shop in Empire.
Aspiring to serve the finest quality and be more than a good ol’ chocolate shop, the owners also built relationships with small-scale farmers and producers in northern Michigan to ensure that all ingredients are organic or natural. Those include:
- Hand-blended teas found in Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate’s chai tea bar from Great Lakes Tea and Spice in Glen Arbor
- Fresh cream from Shetler Family Dairy in Kalkaska, found in all Grocer’s Daughter ganaches and caramels
- Star Thistle Honey from Sleeping Bear Farms in Beulah, found in Grocer’s Daughter chocolate honey caramels
- Bourbon whiskey from Iron Fish Distillery in Thompsonville, which accents its dark chocolate truffles and whiskey figs (organic dried figs filled with dark chocolate whiskey ganache and dipped in dark chocolate)
Visitors arriving at the chocolate shop have many treats to choose from, including chocolate-bean cookies, creamy smooth hot chocolate, homemade fudgsicles and almost 60 other chocolate offerings from chocolate bark and bars to truffles, chocolate-covered specialties and even dairy-free chocolate. Home chefs can find baking items. There are gift items, classes to take and even a trip to Ecuador for anyone who wants to learn firsthand about chocolate.
“Chocolate smells d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s,” Dotson said. “It’s all about flavor. Chocolate is the star of our show.”
Johnston M. Mitchell is an independent writer who lives in Leland.