Wisconsin chocolate shop to close despite chocolate boom

Barry Adams
Wisconsin State Journal
Cher Mandel Diamond sorts chocolate truffles at Maurie's Fine Chocolates in Madison. The store was named after her late father and she has owned and operated it for nearly 25 years. Mandel Diamond, 71, will close her Monroe Street shop and retire on Dec. 29.

MADISON (AP) — Cher Mandel Diamond has had a good run.

For nearly 25 years, she has used her late father's recipes and his advice to create caramels, truffles, English toffee and other handcrafted chocolates and sweets while developing lasting bonds with her customers and employees.

Sales have continued to grow and at this time of the year, Mandel Diamond, 71, puts in 60-hour weeks to meet the holiday demand.

But on Dec. 29, the doors will close on Maurie's Fine Chocolates. The decision, made several months ago but announced in the last few weeks, was easy for Mandel Diamond. Road construction scheduled for next summer on Monroe Street had nothing to do with her decision, and she didn't want to sell the business or the recipes that have been in her family for over 75 years.

For Mandel Diamond, it was just time — after years of using pure ingredients, treating people fairly and, perhaps most importantly, having patience.

"That means take your time with your product, take your time with the people that are working for you, and take your time with your customers," Mandel Diamond told the Wisconsin State Journal . "I have loved every minute of it, and now it's time to rest and do lots of other things."

The loss of Madison's oldest chocolate shop is an anomaly.

Chocolate is booming and local entrepreneurs are responding with new stores, second locations and expanded facilities. The growth of small, independent chocolatiers has helped make Dane County, literally, one of the sweetest places in the state and melds well with the continued growth of craft beer, distilling, cheese and the buy-local food movement.

Dan Donoghue, co-owner of Chocolate Caper, shows off a tray of chocolates at the company's new store in Sun Prairie, WI.

In the last year alone, Gail Ambrosius has moved across Atwood Avenue into a larger, two-level facility. The Chocolaterian, five years after opening at the corner of Atwood Avenue and Winnebago Street, expanded to a Middleton location, and Megan Hile opened Madison Chocolate Co. at the corner of Monroe and Glenway streets.

In addition, Infusion Chocolates moved to Monroe Street after spending the last nine years at Hilldale Shopping Center. And late last month, the Chocolate Caper in Oregon added a location in downtown Sun Prairie.

Other additions in recent years include Red Elephant Chocolate, founded in Milwaukee, opening a Madison store in 2015. A year later, Syovata Edari, owner of CocoVaa Chocolatier, opened a small shop. Candinas Chocolates, founded in Verona in 1993, has expanded into yogurt. And in early 2016, Sjolind's Chocolate House in downtown Mount Horeb opened a $700,000 coffee shop and production facility on the village's east side.

Infusion Chocolates was so cramped for space at Hilldale that it was forced to rent warehouse and packaging space in Fitchburg, which created logistical headaches for owner Ann Culligan and her staff.

A sample of the offerings from Infusion Chocolates in Madison, WI.

In June, she moved her entire operation into a one-story building near the Laurel Tavern. Her new digs, in what was once a sailboard shop, has an 1,800-square-foot area for production, retail and a small coffee bar on the first floor, with another 1,800 square feet in the basement for storage.

"We had probably outgrown our space several years ago, and it was really affecting our ability to grow," Culligan said. "This is a game changer for us."

When she was at Hilldale, walk-in business accounted for about 50 percent of sales. Now, online and special orders for businesses account for about 60 percent of her revenue.

On Wednesday of last week, some of her customers stood at the counter eyeing individual pieces to be placed in boxes for gifts. A large glass window allows views into the production facility, but Culligan and her staff weren't making chocolate. Instead, they were packing a custom order of 110 boxes, each with eight pieces of chocolate that can include fair trade chocolate and ingredients like wildflower honey, Muscovado sugar, house-made raspberry and cherry jam and even blue cheese from Hook's in Mineral Point.

Culligan, 54, worked in the cheese industry for years before getting into chocolate. Her husband, Dan Culligan, is president and CEO of Dairyfood USA in Blue Mounds, a company that specializes in smoked Gouda. As with cheese, she doesn't believe the Madison area has reached a saturation point for locally produced chocolate.

"The small, craft confectioner has really caught on, and Madison is a big food town," Culligan said. "The diversity here rivals any big city in the Midwest. People are drawn to finding that great, small, artisan hand-crafted piece of chocolate. I really have a lot of respect for the other chocolatiers and the things they are doing."

Dane County's oldest chocolate shop, not counting Clasen's European Bakery in Middleton, is Chocolate Caper, founded in 1983 out of the home of Ellen and Claude Marendaz. The couple initially sold their Swiss praline chocolates at the Dane County Farmers Market but a few years later opened a retail store and production facility in downtown Oregon. The Marendazes retired and sold their business in fall 2014 to Elizabeth and Daniel Donoghue, who stumbled upon the shop as they were looking to rent commercial space to make their own products.

Now, they own the business and have expanded to Sun Prairie, one of the state's fastest-growing communities. Production remains in the 1,800-square-foot shop in Oregon. The Sun Prairie store, located in part of what used to be the city hall serves as an 875-square-foot retail outlet that has been bustling with business.

They never considered a spot in the Shoppes at Prairie Lakes on Sun Prairie's west side, home to several national retailers like Target, Cabela's and Costco. "We love being downtown," Dan Donoghue said. "It fits our vibe a whole lot better."

The second location means that several times a week, Dan Donoghue, 36, who formerly worked in Epic Systems' patent department, must haul 150-pound tubs of finished chocolate to Sun Prairie. He makes the trip in a 2000 Voyager minivan that he and Elizabeth, 39, bought from the Marendazes for $27.

"When we bought the business from Claude and Ellen, we were just focused on doing everything that they did and doing it right and doing it well. We didn't want to change recipes or upset the apple cart, so to speak," Elizabeth Donoghue said. "But one of the reasons the business was attractive to us was that it had so much room for growth."

That growth goes beyond another brick-and-mortar location. They added online ordering, and the business is now open year-round. Their offerings include Swiss and Belgian truffles made with white, milk and dark chocolate, with ingredients that can include lavender, almond, hazelnut, ginger, bourbon and caramel.

Elizabeth Donoghue said she likes that Dane County has several options for chocolate consumers but sees an opportunity in Sun Prairie, which did not have a chocolate shop and is far-removed from most of the other shops in the area.

"I'm happy to send people to other chocolatiers that specialize in things that I don't, but I also didn't want to go and directly compete against another whole line of stores," Elizabeth Donoghue said. "Sun Prairie is a huge growing area, and it's basically bleeding into the east side of Madison, and it's a completely under-served market."