Tim Gearhart outgrew his space in the Main Street Market five years ago, but it wasn’t until late last fall that he opened his new store in the Vinegar Hill Shopping Center next door to Staples. Gearhart’s business had grown enormously since it opened in 2001, back when he used two forks to hand-dip every piece of chocolate, and “it got to the point where we had to make a change,” he says. “We loved the Main Street Market, it’s a great part of our DNA, but it was time to leave, and it came down to how important it was to produce where we sell.”
“We could have made [our products] somewhere else much cheaper and trucked them to the [West Main Street] store, but in the end, we decided not only to make the move, but to take the opportunity to enhance our footprint in Charlottesville,” he says, adding that his goal is to make the city a destination for chocolate in the same way it is for wine and beer.
Gearharts’ small, dark, former location “wasn’t exactly a place to bring family when they were in town,” he says, but he has room enough in his new eat-in café for plenty of customers to enjoy his wares, which, in addition to the 12,000 pieces of chocolate made daily (“when we’re going full-tilt,” he says), now include chocolate- centric desserts, such as cakes, tortes, cookies, brownies and cupcakes. And you can’t beat the view: A large window on one side of the cafe allows guests to watch the magic happen in the “chocolate room” of the new kitchen. It’s here where Mayas (cocoa-dusted bittersweet chocolate ganache balls that are part of Gearharts’ signature line of 16 chocolates) are hand-rolled (as many as 600 a day during the Christmas rush), and fillings, such as nuts, fruit and caramel, are coated in chocolate by an enrobing machine that can cover 2,000 pieces an hour and has allowed Gearhart to retire his dipping forks. Two hundred chocolate bars are also hand-wrapped every day in this space.
But Gearhart, a Marine Corps cook, Culinary Institute of America grad and former pastry chef at Hamiltons’ at First & Main, says he hasn’t created “an endless factory.”
“We’re not doing anything different from what we did on day one,” he says. “We’re just doing more of it,” including serving custom chocolates to French President François Hollande during a State Department luncheon, says Gearhart, who uses a blend of Valrhona chocolate made exclusively for him in France. When pressed, he says the Peanut Butter Pups (milk chocolate and peanut butter puppies with dark-chocolate faces and almond ears) are among his best sellers. Gearhart’s products can be found in 300 stores around Virginia, everywhere from mom-and-pop wine shops to Whole Foods.
“I love making people happy, and what better way to do it than with chocolate?” he says. “I tell my employees how lucky we are to get to do something like this every day. It’s not a bad gig.”