The art of trufflesPublished 10:29am Thursday, May 1, 2014
The Chocolate Garden offers tasty treats in Coloma
COLOMA—When Tina Buck decided to make unique Christmas gifts for her colleagues and clients at a Chicago-based advertising firm, she had no idea that her homemade chocolate truffles would eventually become her passion and her livelihood.
With Sara Lee as one of their major accounts, the group spent a lot of time talking about chocolate, so Buck thought that truffles—considered to be the most decadent form of chocolate—would be an appropriate gift.
“I tore out a bunch of recipes, and I noticed that the ingredients were all very, very similar. So, I didn’t alter the ingredients so much as the percentages,” Buck recalled. “And, I ended up creating some techniques that turned out to be unique in the industry, which I didn’t realize at the time. That’s the benefit of being self-taught—of not going to culinary school.”
The responses to Buck’s creations were overwhelmingly positive, so she continued making truffles as gifts each Christmas for the next 15 years, decorating the boxes and making special tags for them.
“I gave them out, and people went crazy for them,” Buck said. “At first, I thought it was just being polite, but it happened every year. The reaction was the same every year. People told me that they were the best truffles they had ever had.”
Feeling as though her “creative muscles” were not getting enough exercise with her advertising career, Buck finally decided to take the plunge and devote all of her energy to making and selling the best truffles available.
And, having grown up in the small town of North Adams, Mich., Buck missed the rural life. She also missed being close to family, so she relocated to Coloma.
“I chose this area for two reasons. My brother and sister-in-law had relocated to St. Joseph with my nieces, and I wanted to be near them,” Buck said. “Also, this area reminded me of where I grew up. I was really missing being surrounded by greenery and farmland.”
Now, Buck’s Chocolate Garden is literally nestled in a peach orchard, and 15 years into the game, her truffles have garnered national attention. “USA Today,” “The Chicago Tribune,” “The Food Network,” “Midwest Living” and “The Travel Channel” have all featured her products.
“Honestly, I think it’s just our focus on the product and the experience—focusing on doing one thing, and doing it very well,” Buck explained. “We have a philosophy of doing fewer things better, so we focus on truffles. We don’t do ‘everything under the sun dipped in chocolate.’ We don’t jump on the bandwagons and just follow the trends.”
Having received so much national attention, The Chocolate Garden has become a tourist destination, and many of Buck’s customers come long distances to get her unique truffles.
“It’s funny because, while we do have a local following, the majority of our customers come from Chicago and the Detroit area, from Indiana and from Grand Rapids,” Buck said. “It is easier to get people from 45 minutes away to come here than to get St. Joseph people to come here. I do feel like people don’t often enough take advantage of what is in their own backyards.”
In fact, many would-be local customers ask if the truffles are available for purchase anywhere closer to their homes. However, due to cost, freshness, and production capacity, Buck only sells truffles at her shop at 2691 Friday Road in Coloma and through her website, www.chocolategarden.com.
For Buck, everything—including sales numbers—comes second to her goal of creating the best truffle and the best chocolate experience possible.
“I absolutely refuse to sacrifice the quality and freshness to sell more. My goal is to be as proud, at the end of the day, as I can be of what we have done,” Buck explained. “When that is your focus, the profitability and the ability to stay in business come.”
With that as her mission, Buck has had to make certain choices that customers don’t always understand.
“Pretty much everything we do is different. We like to have people leave their expectations at the door because we are purposefully not those other mom-and-pop chocolate shops,” Buck said. “We’re trying to do something different and, we think, better.”
One difference that customers will notice at The Chocolate Garden is that every product is already packaged. There are no candy counters from which to pick and choose.
“Everything here is packaged,” Buck noted. “Often, we’re trained to think that ‘packaged’ means ‘not fresh,’ but really, in our case, packaged means ‘very fresh.’”
Truffles from The Chocolate Garden must be packaged as soon as they are made because of the unique processes that Buck developed when she was first experimenting with the delicacies.
“Our truffles are not like anybody else’s truffles,” Buck said. “One of the techniques that I created when I was experimenting results in our truffles not having that hard, sometimes waxy, outer shell that every other truffle, confection, bon bon and pretty much any other chocolate candy has.”
Rather, the creamy texture of the truffle is present in every bite.
“That results in a creamy, sensuous, luxurious experience, and it takes that to the extreme,” Buck explained. “You don’t have to fight through that hard, waxy outer shell to get to the yummy, luscious part.”
While that hard outer shell causes a truffle to lose some of the creamy quality that the candy is famous for, it also helps to preserve it by creating an oxygen barrier, which is why other chocolate companies can leave their truffles uncovered and they don’t get stale and hard.
“Since we don’t have that, we make and immediately package our truffles to provide the oxygen barrier. For us, we have to package it,” Buck explained. “We try to stay about a half a step ahead of demand. Things are literally being made and packaged and brought down into the store.”
The secret process by which Buck achieves the creamy quality of the truffles is complex and time-consuming, but she feels that it is absolutely necessary.
“We make all of our truffles on-site, by hand. It’s very labor intensive. It’s a two-day process,” Buck said. “Every single one is made by hand.”
Since the truffles come packaged, Buck added a tasting bar three years ago so that customers can get a sense of the flavors they prefer.
“It accommodates seven people at a time. And, for $2.99, you can try any three of our 26 flavors, and that gives people an opportunity to get an experience with it,” Buck said.
Once customers have an idea of what appeals to their tastes, they can choose from a variety of packages that include 2, 4, 9, or 16 pieces.
“Every flavor is packaged in sets of two, and there are also six different combo two-packs. There are multiple assortments,” Buck said. “I don’t remember the exact number, but there are like 200 different ways you can get our truffles.”
Buck also offers a large, 36-piece assortment called “Wine and Roses.” When customers purchase that assortment, $10 of the purchase price goes towards another of Buck’s passions—finding a cure for cystic fibrosis. In fact, over the last 15 years, The Chocolate Garden has raised more than $117,000 for research into the disease with which both her niece and a long-time employee’s daughter were diagnosed.
Those assortments include two varieties made with local wines.
“We use two wines from local wineries. One of them is, literally, right up on the hill—you can see it from here—Contessa. We use their most popular red wine, called Lago Rosso. We make a truffle with that,” Buck said. “We also make a truffle with St. Julian’s Solera Cream Sherry, which by the way, is the most award-winning sherry that’s produced in the United States.”
Buck has also developed a process by which customers can consume her chocolates in a drinkable form. Customers can order the patent-pending drinks there or purchase the mixtures to take home and drink later.
“The Garden Mocha and the Decadent Drinking Chocolate are like ‘conk-you-in-the-head’ chocolatey. The Truffle Latte has a more subtle flavor,” Buck said. “We’re looking for the most intense chocolate experience possible.”
If you, too, are looking for the most intense chocolate experience possible, The Chocolate Garden seems like a likely place to find it—and it is right in your own backyard.