While best friends Mike Shafer and Lin McKay were delighted when they both landed jobs at UNC Charlotte’s math department, they soon found themselves unfulfilled as their administrative positions didn’t allow for much creativity. It wasn’t until a freak Frisbee accident landed McKay at home on the couch with a broken arm that the idea for a new business venture started brewing. “We had spent a lot of time thinking about starting a business that would be fulfilling and keep our attention,” McKay says. “Most importantly, we wanted to master a craft and create something beautiful that made people happy.” While McKay was still nursing his broken arm, he saw a TV program with famed chef Anthony Bourdain interviewing a world-renowned Spanish chocolatier. “I saw what this man was creating and something just clicked inside me—I knew that was what we needed to do,” McKay says. “The TV program was a turning point, an ‘ah-ha’ moment.” “He called me at the office and told me about working with chocolate, and it was instantaneous—I knew we were on to something,” adds Shafer. About seven months later, McKay quit his UNCC job to pursue his newfound career. Shafer stayed at the university for about another year to help make ends meet. During this time they started organizing their business plan, and whenever they had free time traveled to Chicago and Montreal to The Barry Calbaut Academy, a training center for chocolatiers. Three hundred classroom hours later they both graduated with Chocolate and Pastry certificates. “We had no previous (chocolatier) experience, but had found something that made us happy,” says McKay. “Life is short. Opportunities are rare and one should make the most of them.” Once everything was in position to launch their new business, Shafer quit his UNCC job and the business partners bought a commercial kitchen in Cornelius they named The Kitch (formerly Nanette’s Table), and opened Bar Chocolate last fall. Working 12- to 16-hour days, six days a week, they make small batches—400 to 500 bon-bons at a time—hand dipping every piece and using gourmet milk chocolate from places such as Ghana, Tanzania, Ecuador and Sao Tomè. “It’s such a difficult, delicate craft,” says Shafer. “Everything we produce is natural,” says McKay. “We are very careful in our method so that our products will have a longer shelf life without the use of artificial ingredients.” The Kitch feels like part artist’s studio and part laboratory, as Shafer and McKay are constantly experimenting, taking notes and writing down ideas for different bon-bon flavors. Some of the more popular flavors they currently offer include rosemary/lemon caramel, bee pollen and spiced chocolate caramel (with star anise, cardamom and coriander). “We take inspiration from foods that we love or drinks that we’ve tried,” says Shafer. “Coming up with new flavors is really trial and error,” McKay adds. While Bar Chocolate continues to grow, the business partners are maximizing every dollar they have. To supplement their income, they lease out The Kitch to caterers and food trucks. “When we started Bar Chocolate, we knew it was all in,” Shafer says. McKay and Shafer both say they want to see Bar Chocolate grow beyond Lake Norman, but do so organically, first starting with the Southeast and moving out from there. “Ultimately, we’d like this to be a bean to bon-bon operation, where we contract with very few cocoa bean farms and bring the beans here, where we would roast, grind and process them into chocolate ourselves,” McKay says. With their work ethic and committed passion, it seems a good bet that the little company in Cornelius may just end up a gourmet chocolate powerhouse.
Bar Chocolate 8305 D Magnolia Estates Drive, Cornelius www.barchocolateclt.com