In 2002, Deirdre Davis and her husband Allen Whitney reserved a booth at the Food & Wine Show in Minneapolis. They had never sold their truffles retail before. And, by her own admission, they made a lot of rookie mistakes. “We took our beautiful truffles and cut them in quarters for samples!” she laughs.
Nevertheless, those truffles took best in show. River Chocolate Company was off and running.
For eight years, Davis and Whitney sold their chocolates at farmers markets in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and as corporate gifts. They even briefly had a retail space in St. Paul’s Golden Fig, where they were early partners.
Now, as of early this month, River Chocolate finally has a retail home of its own, in the old Linden Hills Natural Home building.
“This, right here, is my dream,” Davis says, gesturing around the bright and airy sales floor, which takes up the front parlor of a Victorian-era single-family home.
A refrigerated case holds about 18 varieties of truffles, laced with flavors both classic and surprising, from mint and cherry to chili, lemon, and lime. They are petite, one-bite truffles, not big, messy hunks.
(By the way, those flavors have given Davis an eight-year insight into a remarkable difference between Minnesota’s capital and its largest city. At the new store and at Minneapolis farmers markets, she says, “We can’t keep the Thai and Cubano truffles and Scotch figs in stock.” The Thai truffle combines lime, ginger, coconut, cayenne, and sambal pepper and the Cubano features a deep coffee flavor tinged with dulce de leche. St. Paulites, on the other hand, like the more traditional Wonder truffle, which is unadulterated dark chocolate, and the Orange Dream truffle, and brandied cherries.)
While the truffles are where River Chocolate Company began and still the heart and soul of the operation, the big sellers are now the jars of chocolate sauce. Davis says she used to put out pots of the creamy chocolate used in the truffle centers just for farmers market shoppers to taste, but customers would ask — well, beg, actually — to buy the jars themselves.
River Chocolate makes seven kinds of chocolate sauce, as well as caramel and Scotch butter sauce (the caramel sauce with a fair bit of Jameson poured in). The “sauces” are actually a little thicker than Nutella at room temperature, but thin enough for dipping and pouring after you place the jar in a bowl of 90-degree water for about a minute. The flavors have modern notes — chili, coffee, cardamom — but many are dug up from Davis’s own childhood memories, like blood orange and raspberry.
“My mom, who was English, lived for 40 years on tea, chocolate, toast, and marmalade,” Davis says. “I got a lot of my tastes from her: Fruit and chocolate, nuts and chocolate.”
Davis’s husband, Allen, is the chef in the family, and prepares all the sauces in their 1,200-square-foot kitchen in River Falls, WI. (Another staffer is in charge of the truffles now.) But Davis is the one who likes to play with the flavors. It was her idea to layer thin slices of dried mango on top of a disk of white chocolate and sprinkle it with chili powder, salt, and lime. She also candies organic Szechuan ginger, dips it in chocolate, and sprinkles it with coarse salt.
The couple came to chocolate as a way to get into the local food business after careers in event management. “I just burned out on weddings,” Davis says. “And I’m a farmers market freak. I was lucky enough to live in California in the ’80s. It was good days for food. I learned about food there. My mother being English, you don’t learn a lot about food.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, consumers were just waking up to single-plantation chocolates, cacao percentages, and, generally, anything beyond Hershey’s. Davis and Whitney got hooked on tasting different kinds of chocolates and enrolled in a chocolate-making school just outside Montreal.
Now, Davis is enthusiastically encouraging customers to sample chocolates in her own store. She starts unscrewing jars as soon as folks walk through the door and is more than happy to talk them through what they’re tasting.
The Moroccan Orange Sauce is one-third Belgian chocolate — “That’s what you hang your flavors on” — one-third Tanzanian, which stands up well to the bitterness of the blood orange, and one-third Venezuelan for its floral and winey notes.
The chocolate in the Kumbe Sauce is almost entirely Tanzanian, she says, “because it allows us to put coffee in there” without the strong flavor of coffee overwhelming the chocolate. The Mexican Coffee Sauce, on the other hand, uses chocolates that come from South and Central America to complement the Central American coffee and the cinnamon and vanilla flavors.
The Wicked Good chocolate sauce — no New England roots here, but a reference to the chile flavor — is based on Callebaut’s couverture (its top line), which holds off the fire for a good three or more seconds before it kicks in on your tongue.
For the truffles, the couple chose Belgian chocolate as a base because of its long, silky finish.
What Davis probably won’t mention while she’s showing visitors around is the percentage of cacao in each product. “We’re shooting for the perfect balance of chocolate and cream,” she says. “We’re not all about percentage. Percentage does not equal quality. People got a little crazy about percentage.”
And what about the Classic Caramel Sauce and the Scotch Butter Sauce? How much of a difference does a bit of whiskey make? More jars open and more tasting spoons appear and a long conversation comparing them ensues. Davis has come a long way since those early days when she chopped exquisitely made truffles into quarters before anyone could see them. Chocolate may bring shoppers in the door, but her warmth and hospitality will make them linger.
River Chocolate Company
Gourmet Chocolate Shop in Linden Hills
2822 W 43rd St
Minneapolis, MN 55410
OWNERS: Deirdre Davis and Allen Whitney