EMPIRE — Mimi Wheeler didn’t want her business, the focus of a decade of her life, to go to just anybody.
The founder of Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate in Empire watched with relief Saturday as new owners and longtime friends Jody Dotson and DC Hayden catered to the steady stream of customers from behind a glass case filled with handcrafted artisan chocolates. Outside, traffic spilled over from the small parking lot onto the adjoining grass and the shoulder of M-22.
“I’m feeling intense happiness,” said Wheeler, who sold the store in the spring to semi-retire. “This whole business grew pretty dramatically, especially the last few years. This has been an exciting journey but it grew a lot and I was overwhelmed.”
Wheeler, whose aunt was a pastry chef, opened the store in 2004 after a career in social work and a stint making chocolates from a rented kitchen in Glen Arbor. She made her first delivery to Zingerman’s, an Ann Arbor deli and food mail-order emporium, before hanging out her shingle.
Soon after, the business began to take off with its candies made from chocolate sourced from Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia, and ingredients from local farmers. Its signature truffles, bars, barks, puddles and nibblers contain local herbs, dried berries, fruit preserves, cream and honey from places like Sleeping Bear Farms and Shetler Family Dairy.
She also incorporated local wines, teas and spirits including whiskey from Grand Traverse Distillery, Cherry Cerise from Chateau Chantal and “Hummingbird Nectar” and chai tea from Light of Day Organics and Great Lakes Tea and Spice.
Dotson, 37, a founder of Higher Grounds Coffee, said she and Hayden plan to build on Wheeler’s legacy while creating their own.
“I’ve always been a fan of Grocer’s Daughter,” she said, noting that she and Wheeler met while establishing their separate businesses. They later led food trips together to Ecuador. “I didn’t want to see Grocer’s Daughter go to someone who didn’t care about the community and the impact that a small business has on the community.
“We have similar business models: give back to community, provide living wage jobs to people in the area. And I really like taking it from a single owner-operator to the next level. You hire good people and the employees get to take ownership of it.”
Already Dotson and Hayden, a videographer and photographer whose work graces the Grocer’s Daughter website, have opened a second location. The second store at the year-round Grand Rapids Downtown Market should provide stability for the company. They’re also planning a new “community chocolate line” that will use more of their favorite foods from local food partners.
They will launch the first new truffle flavors before the holiday season. It will include Raspberry White Pepper, Sicilian Lemon and Pear Ginger, all using Fustini’s balsamic vinegars.
“We did a lot of taste testing,” said Dotson, adding that the new truffles took about three months to develop. “We tasted nine different balsamic vinegars. The cream and the ganache balance the vinegar. You taste the fruit and not the tang of the vinegar.”
She said Sia Lewis will continue to manage Grocer’s Daughter with help from lead chocolatier Alyssa Steele. And Wheeler still will play an important role.
“Mimi is still leading classes and some product and recipe development. And she’ll always be our ultimate quality control,” Dotson said.
Empire and Ann Arbor resident Tom Porter attended a community retirement party for Wheeler at the Empire Township Hall.
“It was like a Saturday Evening Post cover,” said Porter, a former venture capitalist and a retired professor with the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “This is a love affair between the town and the business and her work and now a new business owner and her vision. I’ve never seen any business quite like it. It’s almost like a social business.”
Wheeler, 61, said her retirement will give her more time for travel, visiting with her 1-year-old grandson and fundraising for favorite social causes like women in poverty. She’ll also teach classes on truffle making, wine and chocolate, and other chocolate-related topics for Northwestern Michigan College, Chateau Chantal and Oryana Natural Foods Market.
But she’s most excited about her new chocolate blog, mimischocolate.wordpress.com. On it, she’ll share sweet and savory chocolate recipes and ideas for making simple truffles in your kitchen.
“My head is full of chocolate recipes,” she said.
Chocolate Kahlua Mousse
1 c. raw organic cane sugar
1 c. water
1/3 c. Kahlua
3 c. whipping cream, whipped
12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
Dash sea salt
Slowly heat sugar and water in a heavy-bottom pot until sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture has reached the soft-ball measure on a candy thermometer. Place chocolate chips, eggs and salt in food processor and pour sugar water into while going. Process until smooth. Cool at room temperature. Transfer chocolate mixture to a bowl and add Kahlua. Fold in whipped cream. Chill at least eight hours. Top with whipped cream and shaved chocolate.
-- Alyssa Steele, Grocers Daughter Chocolate lead chocolatier, via her mom, Carol Worsley