It’s sweet work if you can get it

It’s sweet work if you can get it

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, one might expect the chocolate-making kitchens at Harbor Candy in Ogunquit to be bustling. But on a Thursday afternoon in late January, all three full-time chocolatiers have gone home. And owner Jean Sotiropoulos-Foss has only a few boxes of samplers to assemble and get ready for shipping before she is ready to close the door and call it a day.

“Valentine’s Day is a last-minute thing,” explains Sotiropoulos-Foss, whose little shop of chocolates has been a fixture on Main Street since 1960. “Calls come in at the extreme eleventh hour. They (husbands, boyfriends and other loved ones) realize, ‘She’s going to kill me if I don’t buy her chocolates.’”

Luckily, eleventh-hour orders don’t faze Sotiropoulos-Foss. After more than 50 years in the business, first as an assistant to her father, and then as the sole proprietor, she’s fairly certain how many last-minute sales are on the horizon – as well as the kinds of purchases people will make.

Harbor Candy’s chocolates aren’t made very far in advance, anyway. Sotiropoulos-Foss uses no preservatives in her products, and boxes of truffles carry the warning to refrigerate them and consume them within two weeks (not a problem for most people).

“There’s a difference in taste if chocolate has been recently made,” Sotiropoulos-Foss explains. “With a big company you can’t get that taste if it’s stored (for long periods of time) and distributed … “We want to maintain the consistency of what we make.”

Sotiropoulos-Foss, who grew up in Haverhill, Mass., learned the business working for her father, George Sotiropoulos. He made the candy in his New Hampshire candy factory and delivered it to the store in Ogunquit by car. There, Jean’s mother and two sisters ran the shop in a block of historic buildings that used to house two grocery stores, an old-fashioned pharmacy with a soda fountain, and the post office. She bought the business from her father in the 1970s when he was ready to retire. She decided to specialize in locally made chocolates.

“I wouldn’t just be a reseller,” she says. “I liked the idea of creating product.”

Though she’s grown up in the business, Sotiropoulos-Foss actually doesn’t consider herself a chocolatier. That’s a designation reserved for her three full-time employees who make the chocolates and shape the shop’s unique creations in her kitchen. She did an extended stint in the kitchen last year when one of her chocolatiers moved away. While she found it was a good thing “to be forced to do, ” she prefers to spend her time re-thinking recipes, learning about new products, and overseeing the day-to-day work of packing, shipping and running the business. She’s been to a chocolate cooking school in Paris and to numerous candy shops in Europe. She sends herself and her employees to workshops from time to time, and invites consultants in to keep her candy-making business up to date.

Like other chocolate makers, Harbor Candy has been capitalizing on the popularity of dark chocolate since studies in the early 2000s began extolling its antioxidant and heart-healthy attributes. While commercial varieties of dark chocolate that contain up to 80 percent cacao can taste bitter, Harbor Candy’s dark chocolate is rich and smooth, especially wrapped around a slice of crystallized ginger. (Trust me on this one.)

A more recent addition to the catalog is also gaining a following among health-conscious chocoholics: The vegan “milk” chocolate, made with soy and rice milk instead of milk and cream. The vegan line of products includes peanut butter cups, chocolate bark, chocolate almond bars and truffles. Sotiropoulos-Foss, who is a vegetarian, donates 20 percent of the profits from the Vegan Sampler to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She just won a national award from the animal rights group for the best vegan chocolates of 2009.

“The recipe components went together well, almost instantaneously,” recalls Sotiropoulos-Foss. “It was very much from scratch.”

Things are, admittedly, quiet for a businesswoman in Ogunquit during the winter months, but Sotiropoulos-Foss is not only a businesswoman, she is also a vocal, active member of the local community. She was the spokesperson for Protect Wells Water, a group that fought back the efforts of Nestle Waters North America – owner of Poland Spring water – to extract water from the Branch Brook aquifer last spring. The irony isn’t lost on her.

“I can remember when the name Nestle was synonymous with the ethical and considerate salesmen my father bought chocolate from,” she says. “It was a hard thing for me to see what they’ve become.”

With that battle behind her, Sotiropoulos-Foss confesses that she is looking for a new challenge. A young 70, she believes it’s important to try different things as a way of re-energizing herself and her business.

“I feel like I could do this forever,” she says.

As for Valentine’s Day, Sotiropoulos-Foss says it generates only a fraction of the income that Christmas and Easter do. Still, she says, she will sell, mainly through her Web site (www.harborcandy.com), “a couple hundred pounds of chocolate,” before Feb. 14. The big favorite will likely be the Truffles Sampler, packed in a red, heart-shaped box or a white box with maroon ribbon for $39.

“Something about truffles feels very special, elegant,” says Sotiropoulos-Foss.

When it comes to truffles and other chocolates, Sotiropoulos-Foss admits she’s no different from most women (and men).

“On bad days, I eat chocolate,” she says.

Luckily, chocolate is made to be eaten in small quantities, she says, adding, “It’s like an injection. It can be emotionally soothing.”

Jean Sotiropoulos-Foss’ Harbor Candy shop has been a fixture in Ogunquit since 1960. “I feel like I could do this forever,” she says.

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