On the day before Valentines Day, The Secret Chocolatier smells like chocolate before they even turn the lights on.
At 8:30 a.m., that warm, creamy, smoky-sweet aroma wraps around your brain and makes you want to float like a cartoon animal wafting toward heaven.
Bracing for the rush, they were getting ready two hours before the shop even opened. At the front, Karen Dietz was using a blue-gloved hand to load trays of truffles, while her husband Bill was in the back, loading white and dark chocolate into the candy machines.
For a small chocolate shop, Valentines Day is the Big One: The Super Bowl, the Thanksgiving Day Parade, a lunar landing. After Easter, chocolate sales drop off through the summer.
Thats exactly it, says Karen Dietz. Much of our business comes in bursts.
This is only the second Valentines for the family-owned shop, in Providence Plaza at Providence and Sharon Amity roads. As business models go, though, The Secret Chocolatier always has been unusual.
Bill Dietz was a pastry chef for years, first in South Carolina and then in Charlotte. But his chocolate truffles, filled with unusual infusions like cardamom and based on local ingredients, first found a following at farmers markets and farm-to-fork events.
His daughter Robin and her then-boyfriend (now husband) Andy Ciordia were local-food activists and members of Slow Food Charlotte, so they understood the potential of the local-food movement.
Dietz admits he was skeptical they could grow that into a business, but Robin and Andy werent. With all of them working together, they opened their own shop in May 2011.
Were way beyond what I ever thought would be possible, Dietz says.
Last year, their first Valentines Day almost wiped them out. At the time, they only had two small machines for melting chocolate and holding it at the right temperature. So many customers crowded in that Dietz and Andy Ciordia were dipping things and rushing them to the front as soon as the chocolate set.
They were buying things off the walls, Dietz jokes.
The shop had to close for a day on Feb. 15. There was nothing left to sell.
Over the summer, they invested in an enrober, a machine that holds up to 40 pounds of melted chocolate and drapes chocolate over truffles on a conveyer belt. A new one can cost $12,000 to $15,000, but Ciordia found a used one for $6,000.
By hand, it would take a couple of days to dip 1,000 truffles. With an enrober, Dietz can do that many in a couple of hours.
It still might not be enough to keep up: On Wednesday, Karen had to open the shop 15 minutes early. People were already coming by after Ash Wednesday services at St. Gabriel Catholic Church to grab a last indulgence and dashing in to pick out Valentine teacher gifts and candy boxes.
Within a few minutes of opening, it was so busy that Karen, Robin and Andy were all at the front, filling orders.
Last year, they sold $900 worth of truffles on Feb. 12, said Andy Ciordia. This year, they sold $2,500.
Thats why were kind of scared, he admitted. That freaks us out.