Sunday, February 7, 2010

Why I love Dutch Chocolate!

My addiction to chocolate began when I got my first real job at the age of Sixteen. I was hired to be the night shift sales associate at Russell Stover's Chocolate Candy Store at North Star Mall. Actually I called myself the night Manager but I was only able to say that because I was the only employee in the evening.

I, Ken Hardy, was given a key to, and left alone five nights for five hours, in a store filled with chocolate. This was a dream come true! It was like being in the Willy Wonka Factory!

Everything started off well. I was very committed to being a good employee, never late, mindful of the rules, always keeping busy and not causing any trouble. After all this was my first real job. Since I was the only employee I could not take a dinner break so I would bring a bottle of water and my dinner usually consisted of a sandwich or salad. My focus was the job. I hadn’t really even gotten that excited about the chocolates that were sprawled out in front of me. I was so na├»ve. All I really knew of chocolate before this job were simple silly things like M&M’s, Baby Ruths, and of course Snickers. Little did I know, through this job, I was embarking on a powerful love affair with the Cacao Bean.

The Cacao Bean. The plant that chocolate is made from. Grown and harvested originally in the misty lush hills of Qaxaca Mexico, A magical Place. I wonder if my Mexican ancestors were from that region. It would explain a lot about my passion. Did you know that the harvesting of the cacao is not an easy process and involves grinding, forming a powder and then liquefying it. Cacao has been worshipped, used as medicine and the Europeans used it as currency with the natives. The cacao is powerful and historical! I learned all this and more from my pilgrimage and behind the scenes tour of The Hershey Chocolate Factory in Pennsylvania. Another magical Place. Heaven on earth. I also learned a great deal about the cacao from my many readings of books like Cocoa and Chocolate: A short History and The True History of Chocolate and of course the autobiography Chocolate By Hershey: The story about Milton S. Hershey.

Slowly I began to loosen up at work and started to enjoy the “perks” I discovered that come with unsupervised freedom in a chocolate store. I began to sample chocolates. Now I wasn’t going to go crazy or anything. I started off simple. Besides I only liked milk chocolate. I did not like nougat, or fruity chocolates. I had never even heard of chocolate covered jellies, and definitely NO to coconut. I was not a coconut fan. As for the fudge section well I did not know a lot about fudge and fudges seemed too rich. So really all I was sampling (on occasion) would just be a few pieces of milk chocolate. Like the chocolate covered almond cluster or cashew crunches or of course a peanut butter cup (or two). I liked the chocolate covered nuts section. Probably due to my earlier mentioned snickers addiction.

I soon discovered that when you work at a chocolate store and it is a non-holiday time of the year you find that you have a lot of time on your hands. Not many people drive to the mall to buy chocolates on a Tuesday night at seven p.m. Sure a few mall walkers might drop in to buy three or four pieces but at seventy five cents each not many people indulged on this. The most exciting sale was when someone came in and wanted me to make them a gourmet assortment! They would ask ME for recommendations. It was at this point that I decided it was my duty to know all 100 + types of chocolates we offered. Right? (Except of course the sugar free section. I mean what was the point?) I needed to be able to describe or inform the customer of our product. After all chocolate is like a fine wine and needs to be savored. So I forced myself to eat them all. I learned so much. I would even take notes of my chocolate thoughts!

Dark Chocolate raspberry truffles are actually quite good, fluffy, not bitter and they don’t have seeds like I had feared.

Wow Dark Chocolate Orange Jelly sticks are sort of bitter and tangy. A lovely combination. Probably good with coffee.

I started coming up with all kinds of ideas. The combinations were endless.

A strawberry cream with a peanut butter cup is like a chocolate peanut butter and jelly sandwich!

Any of these chocolates mixed with Vanilla Ice Cream and you could have an instant gourmet Dairy Queen Blizzard.

So this is what I did every night, I ate chocolate. Unaware that I was doing it more and more. I am not sure when it happened but I stopped bringing in my dinners. My only source of food now was the chocolate. I also stopped bringing in my water because I decided to start bringing in hot chocolate. I want to experiment with pairing hot cocoa with different chocolates. I would have done this with coffee but I was not a coffee drinker. I did not like the taste and saw how people got addicted to it and how it made them jittery. (Although dark chocolate espresso truffles are superb!)

Anyway I can tell you passionately that a chocolate covered toffee bar ground up melts deliciously perfect in hot chocolate (and I am sure coffee too). Oh and a double dipped gourmet chocolate covered marshmallow floating in a big mug is a spiritual experience! You must try it.

But I do not recommend eating large amounts of chocolate without drinking water. I had to close the store on several occasions because I would become dizzy from what I believe was dehydration. I almost fainted once. It was frightening. I saw silver flash and everything started swirling. I was barely able to stumble to the door and lock it. I would turn out the lights for a few minutes and lay on the floor. I would make my way to a small sink we had in the bathroom and slurp water and revive myself. I am sure if corporate ever found out about this I would have been given a warning or something. I started bringing in bottled water and kept it with me at all times.

Still no warning signs were stopping me. The fudges were no longer too rich for me. OH! Have you ever had divinity fudge? It is heavenly. Lighter then air, I love divinity fudge. Oh and then there were the seasonal candies like the strawberry valentine cream hearts, or the hollow chocolate Thanksgiving turkeys or the Easter green colored white chocolate coconut bird nests (with the three pastel jelly beans.) Soooo delicious! Yes Coconut! I now LOVE chocolate covered Coconut. My years of avoiding mounds bars were so foolish! Foolish I say. Chocolate and coconut are perfection. Every holiday I would stash a box of the special seasonal candy like the peanut butter Reindeers and I would hide it in my bedroom in the closet....because...well....because come February I would be the only one to have them! Only me!!!!!! I was special!

Sure things were getting out of control. I could see the employees from the GAP across the way watching me as I sat behind my counter chewing. I knew they were making fun of me. They were pointing at me and giggling everytime I put a piece of chocolate in my mouth. I know it. I tried to hang decorative displays to block their view. I even resorted to squatting behind the counter when I would eat so they wouldn’t see me but several times customers walked in and seemed shocked when I would pop up, with a mouth full of chocolate, all wired and slur something like “ohm... smorry... uh, oh my , hi excuse me..well! Welcome to Russell Stover’s care for a sample? There delicious!”

The sample was a big thing! We were allowed to give one piece as a sample. This was power to me. I could do whatever I wanted with the chocolate. I could give it away. And I did. BUT only if I liked you. Don’t cross me or I’ll cut you off. So if I liked you or you were good to me MAYBE you could have even a FEW pieces. See how this works? Make it worth my while if you get what I am saying? I started to develop relationships with other mall employees. If I gave the woman at Hickory Farms a few free French Chocolate mints I got a few extra chunks of salami and cheddar cheese samples. Or if I gave the cologne crew at Macy's a bag of assorted salted caramels I got a lovely bag of sample lotions and colognes. Sometimes I even got discounts on sale items for some of my cacao. I was becoming the Tony Soprano of the Mall.

Unfortunately I was starting to look like him too. Okay ALL RIGHT....YES there was a little weight gain issue. Not much but maybe like 25 pounds in the first six months. Which is not as bad as you would think with all the chocolate I was consuming. Everyone at home and in the mall saw my weight gain! I know they did. They were all staring and pointing. Why couldn’t people just leave me and my chocolate alone. We were happy!

My need for chocolate was getting bad. Since I didn’t work on the weekend I started taking a one pound assortment home to get me through till Monday (of course I still had the holiday specials hidden in my closet just in case)

I started developing a pretty bad acne problem. Also I had to avoid drinking hot or cold beverages because for "some reason" my teeth were becoming sensitive. I would bring my tooth brush and use it several times a shift but no matter how often you brush, sugar builds up. I also took up using lots of chap-stick because my lips were cracked and dehydrated. I had developed minor episodes of nervousness, anxiety and some said slight paranoia. Well of course I was! I was surrounded by people who were only using me to get to my Chocolate! That's all they wanted. I didn’t know who my real friends were anymore. Even my parents would call and ask me to bring a piece of "this or that" home. Everyone was using me! Plus I was suffering from sleep deprivation being hopped up on the cacao. Each week it took longer and longer to come down after each shift! Several times a day various parts of my body would uncontrollably tremor. For no reason at all.

My friends and family eventually started to express some concern but I assured them that I didn’t have a problem which they knew wasn’t true when they would see all the candy wrappers on the floor in my room or falling out of my pockets. Also my parents found the boxes in my closet and a few out in the garage. Okay.... I was in denial. I only had about five pieces of clothing that fit me anymore. I was getting close to rock bottom.

You would think I would have gotten fired, but the fact is the Real Manager (and the only other employee) Mabel, well, she had a SERIOUS chocolate problem! Serious. Poor thing she was a mess. Heavy. Bad teeth. I think she was in her early fifties but she looked seventy. She had breathing problems and dark circles and bags under her eyes. She always left the day shift with a bag filled with what I know was a large amount of illegal product! She was the one that needed help. It was hard to watch. Of course now that I look back on it we were both enabling each other.

That is until the unthinkable. The mall terminated our lease because of stupid ass mall renovations. Russell Stover’s Corporate in stupid Chicago or wherever decided not to renew the lease in a new location of the mall. And just like that Mabel and my world began to crumble. There were feelings of despair, panic, anger. Mabel really freaked out! We both cried as the shelves became more and more barren. Who would hire either of us? We were a mess. Fat, covered in pimples, moody. No one in the mall came over to help us or express concern! USERS! What were we going to do? Plus we had to take as much chocolate as we possibly could while there was still time! But we both knew no matter how much chocolate we took we would eventually run out. What job could I get that would pay me enough to support my chocolate habit? It’s not like there are tons of jobs in the chocolate industry. Eventually I did find a job where my moodiness and tremors were acceptable (and they even had a bit of chocolate) STARBUCKS! Ahhhh the beginning of a long deep love affair with the coffee bean! I LOVE COFFEE NOW!


  1. Ahhhh wow, such a write-up on chocolates !

    It's strange how location can play role in what we like to eat. Like i never used to love french fries, i never ordered them, and when my friends were eating i never shared from them.
    But then we moved to Netherlands, and here i love frites ! Frites with Mayo, yummm !!

    And ohh ya, i love chocolates too, more than before now, Linde ! And ya Snickers and Mars too !
    No wonder my weighing scale is going upwards !

  2. Love it. Glad you made it out in one piece! If I had to choose one food item to survive on if stranded somewhere, it would be a box of Belgian truffles :)

  3. "I, Ken Hardy, was given a key to, and left alone five nights for five hours, in a store filled with chocolate. This was a dream come true! "...Cant imagine something better than this..Ohh if I am left all alone in a chocalate factory, I will...!!! Nice post, took me back in time, made me rememeber my earliest chocalate loving days :)

  4. I kid you not, I started eating a Hershey's bar when I started reading this and now I'm sipping hot chocolate. If I get fat it'll be all your fault!

    I can't agree with you on the coconut thing though. I still hate dried coconut in any form, especially with chocolate (German Chocolate Cake? NAZIS!). Eeeek!