A little shop on Atwood Avenue is getting ready for a chocolate explosion.
That’s figurative, but not by much. For almost six months, Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier has been preparing for a massive spike in sales. The catalyst is a spot on a new Food Network Show, “America’s Best,” hosted by Alton Brown.
On the show, Gail Ambrosius’ chocolates are named the “Best Little Box of Chocolates,” one of the 10 best sweets in the country. The spot is set to run at 8 p.m. on Thursday.
Ambrosius doesn’t know who tipped off the network for the “sweets” episode.
“I’ve had a few customers come in and say they’d written to Food Network on my behalf and said that, ‘Oh, you’ve got to try this chocolate,’” said Ambrosius, who opened her shop in 2004 and moved to a storefront at 2086 Atwood Ave. in 2006.
“Who knows how it really came about?”
A sweet secret
Film crews came to the shop in March, when Ambrosius and her staff were sworn to secrecy — apparently so no other network could scoop the story. A local crew and network producer stayed all day, filming Ambrosius working in the kitchen making her jewel-like dark truffles.
“The producer … had questions like, ‘Why would you consider yourself the best chocolate?’” Ambrosius said. “At that moment, I didn’t know what the whole gist of the show was. They were being very vague about it.”
To prepare for national coverage, Ambrosius contacted her mentor at the Small Business Development Center on campus. Jack Reiners helped Ambrosius streamline online ordering and ramp up production.
Ambrosius has already appeared in an “America’s Best” feature in the Food Network Magazine (September 2010). Other treats in the sweets category include chocolate-dipped pie on a stick from Key West, Fl., bananas foster from New Orleans, and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream from Columbus, Ohio.
Wisconsin artisans are frequent fodder for the Food Network. Paula Deen’s sons, Jamie and Bobby, shot an episode of “Road Tasted” four years ago, stopping at Sprecher Brewing Co. for root beer, a kringle shop in Racine and Beechwood Cheese Factory in Adell.
“After it ran, we were overwhelmed,” said Kris Heise, who helps run Beechwood Cheese. “Our shipping room was the size of a large bathroom.
They warned us, ‘Be prepared, you could get up to 500 orders.’
“It exceeded 2,000. Some of the people had to wait for us to make more cheese.”
Ambrosius’ chocolate shop currently does a modest shipping business, sending out one or two boxes per day with predictable increases around holidays. Now, staff are taking bets on how many orders will go out after “America’s Best” runs. Ambrosius said she expects her fourth quarter sales to almost double from the same time last year.
In the midst of the Food Network excitement, Ambrosius has started testing a few ideas she brought home from Paris last spring. She went on a chocolate-tasting mission at more than 25 shops, which accomplished two things — it reinforced what she’s already doing in Madison, and it inspired her next project.
“I bought so much chocolate, I had to buy an extra suitcase,” Ambrosius said. “It struck me … everything kind of tasted the same. Everybody had gorgeous packaging and a beautiful store, but the chocolates themselves all seemed very similar from shop to shop.
“Everybody we shared these with said, ‘Yeah, these are good, but we like yours better.’”
One of the things that impressed Ambrosius the most was a box of pralines, or nutty chocolates, from La Maison du Chocolat. Now, she’s working on a praline box, set to be finalized after the first of the year. She’s experimenting with a hazelnut praline, already for sale at the Atwood storefront.
A praline that is tentatively called the Pistachio Bomb combines pistachio butter, pistachio paste, a bit of lime zest, a thin layer of almond paste and chili verde sea salt.
Bacon has been popping up in chocolates everywhere, notably in the Mo’s Bacon Bar made by Vosges Haut Chocolate in Chicago. But Ambrosius is ill-inclined to begin frying bacon in her small kitchen.
“Chocolate absorbs a lot of odor and I don’t want all my chocolate to taste like bacon,” she said. “And that fat in the air? I’m not into it.”
She’s decided that what people like in bacon chocolate is the smokiness, the savory element. So she’s trying out chocolate combinations called pecan smokies, which could end up either as wafers or in bar form, like the popular Three Hot Nuts bar.
“I found this really nice Applewood smoked sea salt,” Ambrosius said. “I want to incorporate that with the cacao.”
For the Food Network, Ambrosius focused on the chocolates that are not seasonal or new, to be sure to fill orders. The shop also put its monthly tastings, typically held the third Thursday of each month, on hiatus until the new year.
“We’ve had new people come in from around the state or dropping their kids off at school who’ve said, ‘Oh, I’ve seen you in the Food Network magazine,’” said Sandy Mouras, a manager at the shop. “We’re trying to have as much stuff available as we can. It’s an interesting time for it to come out, because it’s the change of the seasons. We don’t want to tell them about the mint truffle ... we’re trying to say seasonally minded.”
Consistent favorites include sea salt caramel, rica organica made from Costa Rican cacao, chocolates spiked with cognac and Cointreau, as well as vanilla, espresso, jasmine and earl grey.
The initial Food Network-spurred spike may be the first of many. At Beechwood Cheese, Heise said every time their “Road Tasted” episode airs, they get a boost in business. (It will re-run on Oct. 21 at 3:30 a.m.).
Ambrosius has won accolades in the past — the Three Hot Nuts bar won “best bar” in the Next Generation Chocolatier competition in New York City in 2008. But though business is booming, Ambrosius has no plans to expand, and her commitment to local and repeat customers remains strong.
“I just want to get through this fall and this Christmas,” Ambrosius said. “I want to see what happens and take my cues from my customers. I don’t want to move for the sake of moving.”
Still, with new fall flavors like cranberry, pumpkin and cardamom orange set to come out in October combined with the national reach of the network, the uptick in sales may keep the Ambrosius kitchen churning out extra sweets for months to come.
“Everybody’s getting really pumped,” said Megan Sicking, an Ambrosius employee. “It’s been a couple months of preparation and planning. We’re ready to go!”