From Parks and Rec to Chocolate: Hedonist Artisan Chocolate's Unexpected Journey

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For a small business, the power of the press can be a game-changer—but not without growing pains. Imagine you make gourmet confections by hand, and the one batch of caramel your kitchen can turn out at a time yields 225 pieces. Now imagine a favorable mention in the New York Times, and suddenly getting enough orders in one day that you’ll need to churn out about 180 batches of caramel, stat.

This happened to Hedonist Artisan Chocolates in 2013, and it could have imploded a lesser company, but Jennifer Posey and her crew rose to the challenge. They filled the orders and made some extras, to boot.

Chocolates were not Posey’s first calling. She started out as a parks and recreation director, and while the transition from that to opening and owning an artisanal chocolate shop may not seem like the most logical move, for Posey, that connection between the two came from the simple ideologies of community and spreading joy.

After earning a degree in Leisure Studies from San Jose State University, Posey moved to Milan, Michigan to become the resident Leslie Knope, taking a job as the city’s parks and recreation director. This experience would plant the seeds for her future career change. “When you work in parks and recreation, you’re basically running a whole bunch of little businesses,” Posey explains.

Though she found the job to be completely fulfilling, Posey’s time as Milan’s parks and recreation director was cut short when her partner received a too-good-to-pass-up job offer at Xerox in Rochester, New York. One there, Posey soon realized that taking a parks job there would feel like a step backward, professionally and personally. She spent the next year remodeling their home and working at a coffee shop as she planned her next career move. Through nightly conversations with her partner, an idea sparked: “We started talking about what it is I know about, other than parks and rec, and I love food. I love to go home and cook, and I wanna taste things, and I’m curious about what’s going on when someone’s cooking something.”

Posey then recalled what would turn out to be a telling decision she made back in graduate school. In order to devote more time and focus to her studies, she quit an early parks job in lieu of a “no-brainer job.” She ended up working for Richard Donnelly Chocolates. Donnelly was ranked in National Geographic’s Top 10 chocolatiers at the time.

“I was his minion, I was not a chocolatier or anything like that. I wrapped bars and I did the dishes. I was curious, though, asking, ‘What’s the deal with all this candy? And he’d be like, ‘We don’t have candy here. We have chocolates.” Soon after, Posey realized there was a whole world of chocolate—different beans, blends, ingredients—and it fascinated her.

After some persistent nagging, Donnelly somewhat rewarded her enthusiasm by giving her the task of making caramel. Since Donelly’s method of making caramel did not include liquid sugar as an ingredient, it required someone to stand over a boiling kettle and douse its sides with a wet pastry brush to make sure no sugar crystals formed. “That job sucks,” Posey emphasizes. “But I started really learning about chocolate.”

As her curiosity and knowledge grew, Posey would sneak into the kitchen at Richard Donnelly Chocolates and try her hand at different confections. “I remember talking to him and saying, ‘I’d like to own this place,’” she recalls.

In Rochester, Posey began looking into the local competition. “Rochester’s full of great candymakers, but there wasn’t an artisan chocolatier. That niche needed to be filled,” she says. She then rented a kitchen shared by an ice cream maker—the same kitchen used to create everything at Hedonist Artisan Chocolate now—for $50 a month. “But to me, that was all the money in the world. We had maxed out all our savings, we bought a house, I hadn’t worked for basically a year. So, I started the business with 300 bucks and a brand-new credit card,” she laughs.

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Now that she had a kitchen equipped to create confections, the owners of Equal Grounds Coffee where Posey worked let her have a counter in their shop to give the city its first taste of Hedonist Artisan Chocolates. She would have tastings regularly and made her first sales there, eventually leading to some wedding favors and a spot at the South Wedge Farmers Market.

The ice cream maker Posey shared the rented kitchen with changed ownership and ended up leaving, giving her the opportunity to have the whole kitchen to herself. This led to her opening what she calls “the tiniest chocolate shop ever” right inside the kitchen. She recalls, “I got creative with using space. It was quaint, people would come down the alley and be like, ‘Is there really a chocolate shop down here?’”

As the number of curious customers continued to increase, Posey earned some local press, particularly once she started featuring designs by local artists on the chocolates themselves. “It was always the intent to celebrate ‘artisan’ in a different way than just handmade in small batches.” This expanded version of artisan also applied to how Posey would educate her first batch of interns, teaching them how to control the room when making chocolate. She would use an old-school approach, which involved knowing how to respond to the climate so that the chocolate would adapt in the process. “If you went to a big chocolate factory, there’d be all these controls for that. Our controls are our bodies at Hedonist. Every chocolate that we make is different and unique—they’re like snowflakes.”

In 2013, though, those “snowflakes” ended up becoming a full-blown blizzard. The shop was alive and well, now with an actual storefront and an online store. That winter, The New York Times called the shop to order a box of dark salted caramels for a feature that would rank the best salted caramels in the country. At the time, Posey was mostly unphased by the potential of such press. “I’m from California, so, The New York Times? I didn’t think anything of it. Usually when we’d get press, we’d get a slight uptick in business, but nothing to get too excited about,” she says.

But on February 5th, 2013, Posey would learn just how much of an uptick this particular bit of press could create. “I got to work that morning and turned my computer on, and it was as if I had been spammed. My email just said, ORDER, ORDER, ORDER,” she recalls. At the time, the kitchen could only make one batch of caramel at a time, which equaled about 225 pieces. Posey laughingly recalls breaking the news to her head chocolatier at the time, Nathaniel Mich, saying, “Um, we have some orders… I need you to make 40,000 caramels. Now.” The two then summoned all of the interns and everyone on staff, who worked endlessly for the next few weeks to fulfill the onslaught of orders. “My partner’s job was to make sure everybody was fed and that they didn’t leave,” Posey recalls. “We worked and worked and worked, but we came up with a lot of solutions, quickly, and everybody did a really great job.” When the order storm finally settled, the Hedonist crew had more than doubled the initial 40,000 estimate, ending up with nearly 100,000 caramels being crafted and shipped. While the other nine chocolate businesses whose carmales were listed by the Times temporarily shut down their shops to focus on the slew of orders, Hedonist refused to shut down no matter how insane things became. The staff would later dub February 2013 as “Caramelgeddon.”

Today, Hedonist is a widespread community itself, with its chocolate being sold at various wineries, spas, and cafes throughout Upstate New York. In the summer of 2012, Posey opened the supplementary Hedonist Artisan Ice Cream shop in the adjacent storefront. Last July, she and her partner also opened Little Button Craft & Press, a multi-purpose craft shop and creation space. As her businesses continue to bloom, Posey aims to perpetuate the adages she developed in her parks and recreation days, stating, “One thing that I’ve learned in all the jobs that I’ve had is to keep quality first. If you lead with quality, success will follow. I think in the next 10 years, my focus will be just keeping our quality high and in turn adding to the experience of coming to this community.”

Trevor Courneen is a freelance contributor to Paste. You can listen to his interviews via his podcast, Audible Handshake. You can also tweet random musings to him @trevorcourneen.

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