July 22, 2014

Love and Chocolate

At Norman Love confections, the only food group that counts is chocolate.

Love, a pastry-chef-turned-chocolatier, and his team of culinary artisans create truffles and pralines that are more than just eye candy. Beneath the glimmering exteriors of these handcrafted bonbons beat sensuous hearts filled with passion fruit, pistachio, sweet-tart key lime or Asian five-spice. For those who want their chocolate and their cake, too, a pastry case holds a dazzling array of sweets that look more like sculpture than dessert.

Is this a coffee shop in Vienna, perhaps? No, this temple of temptation is right here, a mere truffle's throw from Southwest Florida International Airport in south Fort Myers.

Just east of the spot at which Daniels Parkway veers south to the airport, Love's 6,000-square-foot chocolateria caters to both the wholesale and retail trades. "Our original vision was to be a wholesale business," Love explains. "It was never that important for me to have strong visibility."

But as it's turned out, even a low-profile location can't keep chocolate-loving customers away from Love's creations. The executive pastry chef for the Ritz-Carlton chain for 13 years, Love traveled the world opening pastry kitchens in new Ritz hotels. In 2001, he decided to leave corporate life to spend more time with his wife and two children here in Fort Myers. A little chocolate company that could supply all-natural handcrafted truffles to discriminating hotels seemed like just the thing to tide him over while he got some other projects up and running.

"I said, 'I know a lot of people. I'll sell a little chocolate,'" Love says.

He opened in a spare room of a medical supply company just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Four months later, USA Today named him one of the country's top 10 artisanal chocolate makers. The little company was flooded with orders from all over the country. Then locals began showing up at his no-frills shop.

In 2003, the honchos at Godiva Chocolates sought him out to create an upscale limited-edition line of chocolates. The G Collection, available from Thanksgiving to Valentine's Day in select stores, debuted as a test just before Thanksgiving 2003. Love produced 300,000 pieces of chocolate, which quickly sold out.

This year, he and his team created 1.5 million pieces of candy for Godiva at their Fort Myers location. A 45-piece box sold for $125, while a handmade keepsake box made of East African wenge wood filled with 30 chocolates sold for $350.

As the business quickly outgrew the company's physical plant, Love decided to build a place in which he'd have plenty of room to make chocolates and still have separate space for a retail shop. To that, he added The Chocolate Salon, a chocolate- and mocha-hued room that's "cozy, sleek, with a little bit of European charm," he says.

It opened last summer and is now fully operational, complete with lattés and espresso and a smattering of tables that allow customers the opportunity for immediate gratification.

Of course, that's assuming they can get in the door of the chocolate-and-caramel-colored building. In its February issue, Consumer Reports released its ranking of upscale chocolates, naming Love's creations third in the nation. "You can't say no to any of these," the magazine's tasters said.

Barbara Bostwick, a Bostonian vacationing in Naples, made a special trip to the salon after reading the Consumer Reports piece. "An hour's drive is nothing for a really good piece of chocolate," she said between bites of a coconut truffle. "I loved the passion fruit and the key lime. I'm going to have to take some home with me. I can't possibly sample all of the flavors today."

Truffles and pralines are $18.75 for a 10-piece box or $58.30 for 36 pieces; express shipping costs extra. And because the chocolates have no preservatives, recipients must eat them within three weeks. The company hasn't received any complaints yet from customers unable to meet that deadline.

Love's chocolates stand out for two reasons, says Michael Schneider,

editor-in-chief of New York-based Chocolatier magazine: He understands "better than anyone else I know that the visual plays a strong role. I've never, ever seen chocolates more beautiful than this." Secondly, he adds, most high-end American chocolatiers "follow the more European philosophy of very subtle flavors. When you taste a European chocolate that is a hazelnut praline, you're going to get hazelnut in a very subtle way. With Norman's chocolates, if you can't identify the flavors, you either have a very strong head cold or you don't belong eating this kind of chocolate."

Behind the pastry and candy cases, a big glass window allows customers to watch Love's corps of pastry chefs and chocolatiers practice their craft. They stir crock-pot-sized vats of melted chocolate, hand-fashion decorative sticks for garnish and make their own praline cream. The employees seem as excited to work there as chocolate lovers are to buy their creations. Consider David Funaro, who used to teach pastry techniques at culinary schools in Pittsburgh, Pa. He took a candy class with Love and accepted a job as director of operations about two years ago.

"I didn't even taste the chocolate before I agreed," he says. "The knowledge Norman has to offer is huge. If he were Christopher Columbus, I'd be the first one on the ship."

Love continues to marvel at the company's success and ruefully concedes he's working as hard as he ever has.

"It's a new adventure every day," he says.

But he has managed to accomplish one goal he had when he left the Ritz: He sees a lot more of his wife, Mary, who quit her job as a dental hygienist in Naples to work full-time handling the administrative side of the company. 

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