Robyn Dochterman (above, left with Kyla Oesterreich) can’t catch a break — a summer break, that is. The co-owner (with partner Deidre Pope) and head chocolatier at the St. Croix Chocolate Company in Marine on St. Croix opened her tiny chocolate lair in a converted house in June 2010 and barely has had time for a vacation since.
“People in the chocolate business think summer is a dead time, but the tourists think we’re just open in the summer,” she laughs. “And then we’re busy with mail orders and gifts through the rest of the year.”
To say this summer has been exceptional would be misleading. The shop is busier than ever — especially when you consider the weekly trips to the Mill City Farmers Market so Minneapolitans can get their fix of hand-crafted bonbons — but Dochterman has been focusing on a new project all summer that unite three of her passions: chocolate, the St. Croix River Valley, and Wisconsin artist Laura McCaul’s artisan clay tiles.
Friday marks the debut of Dochterman’s new organic chocolate bars, which feature the striking, nature-inspired design of McCaul’s signature tiles. Made with chocolate from TCHO, a premier, fair-trade chocolate manufacturer based in San Francisco, the rich, hefty (125-gram) brown bars are more likely to be mistaken for art than a treat. Dochterman became a fan of McCaul’s work after interviewing her for a story during her pre-chocolate career as a journalist (she was an editor at the Star Tribune for 13 years) and approached her about collaborating on an edible project.
“I always thought it would be wonderful if my tiles could be used for chocolates. Fifteen, 20 years later, it actually happened!” says McCaul, who fires her tiles on cooking sheets and dries them on pastry racks. “I consider my studio to be a large kitchen.”
So McCaul custom-designed two tiles — a wren for the 53 percent dark / milk chocolate blend and a blackbird for the 60 percent dark chocolate variety — that Dochterman had converted into molds.
“I knew I wanted something specific to the St. Croix River Valley [for the design], but that’s all the direction I gave her,” Dochterman says.
But finalizing the design and sourcing the chocolate only brought Dochterman halfway to her dream. Special bars require special packaging, and no regular box would do.
“Even with the most sustainable chocolate, if you place it in a box that you throw away, that doesn’t add up for me,” Dochterman says.
Working with a Chicago-based company called Distant Village, Dochterman found the perfect box: handmade, free-trade, and crafted from sustainable grasses in the Philippines. Most importantly, its roomy proportions would hold and display the large, sculpted bars attractively and, since they aren’t branded, can be used as keepsakes after the bar is long gone. But tree-free, artisan-crafted boxes don’t come cheap, so Dochterman turned to Kickstarter this spring to fund her first order. In less than a month, with the help of 119 supporters, she raised 130 percent of the money she needed to keep the project moving.
“It was good for me to share the project at that point and share feedback” with backers, she says. “This was a big, resounding success.”
Dochterman, Pope, and McCaul will celebrate their collaboration at an official launch party Friday, and the bars will be available at the Marine on St. Croix shop for $18 each, as well as retailers like the Golden Fig and Local D’Lish. While they already have some other ideas in the works, for now they’re happy to share the new creations with their backers, who had to wait until the peak of summer heat had passed to get their bars in the mail, and walk-in customers. And the result is worth the time and effort … and missed opportunities for a vacation.
“It’s very satisfying because I feel like, ‘Wow, we made something I can be really proud of,'” Dochterman says.
St. Croix Chocolate Company, 261 Parker St, Marine on St. Croix, MN 55047; 651.433.1400.