Sugar Work

Confectionary sweethearts

by Keith Morrill

amarahs_1115Since 2003, Angela and David Emerson have hand-crafted candies of all kinds at Amarah’s Chocolates in Williston’s Taft Corners Shopping Center.

Angela and David Emerson believe that the sweetest things in life have to be earned. The couple operates by that timeless Vermont philosophy that there are no shortcuts, no handouts, no free lunches — or desserts, for that matter. They have worked hard to harvest the fruits of their labor. It just so happens the fruits of their labor are mostly dipped in chocolate.

That’s one of the perks of owning a chocolate shop.

Much of what they learned about making chocolate and about the sugar arts was self-taught or shown to them by other Vermonters willing to lend a hand.

Together, the Emersons run Amarah’s Chocolates, a mom-and-pop confectionery in the Taft Corners Shopping Center in Williston, where they’ve been crafting sweets since 2003.

Amarah’s is strictly a two-person operation. As the company’s president, Angela handles everything from serving in-store customers to online sales, from shipping to strategic planning. Her specialty is decorating the chocolates and doing the sugar work.

David works as the shop’s sole chocolatier, producing treats like their signature cherry cordials and salted caramels. Mouthwatering morsels aside, there’s one other thing Amarah’s excels at, and that is creating a space with a homey atmosphere.

Perhaps this is why Jeff Paul, one of owners of Ramunto’s Brick Oven Pizza a few doors down, has taken to calling David the Willy Wonka of Williston. “You don’t have a lot of stores like this anymore,” says Paul, speaking of the sense of community and wonder one gets when walking into Amarah’s shop. “They are somewhat of an enigma. In this day and age, you don’t see a lot of people having the means nor the fortitude to try something like this.”

It makes for some long hours, keeping the shop open seven days a week during peak season, which lasts from Nov. 1 to Easter, and six days a week during the off-season, but the Emersons say they wouldn’t have it any other way.

This philosophy of self-reliance is more than just an approach to business, and the Emersons have operated by it since long before launching Amarah’s. It has permeated everything they do, from raising their two children, Amarah and Jared, whose public education was supplemented with homeschooling instruction, to pursuing their own hobbies.

David is a tech and gaming enthusiast, and has taught himself how to build and mod (gamer speak for modify) his own computers. Angela is a wildlife enthusiast and a skilled outdoorswoman and survivalist, skills she says were either self-taught or handed down by her parents.

The two grew up in Vermont: Angela hails from Montpelier, and David from Berlin. They grew up in families of limited means, and realized that whatever they wanted to do in life, they would have to be self-made and self-taught.

After high school, David went to work at the Lague Inn in Montpelier, where he stayed for 14 years. Angela worked a number of jobs, intermittently finding employment in the health care field in positions such as a licensed optician and a licensed nursing assistant. When she was 22, she put in a yearlong stint as a clerk at the Lague Inn, where she met David, who was her supervisor. They were married not long after, and recently celebrated their 25th anniversary.

However, it was the year spent working as manager of the retail space for Green Mountain Chocolates that would make the biggest professional impact on Angela — she found she had a knack for sales and a fascination for the art of chocolate making. Along the way, she picked up the basics of tempering and decorating chocolate.

She left the job to return to the medical field, but quickly soured on what she describes as less-than-ideal working conditions and an industry whose heart wasn’t always in the right place. She turned to the idea of starting her own business. “I told David of this cockamamie idea that I had,” says Angela.

By this time, David had left his job at the Lague Inn and was a stay-at-home caregiver for a then-young Amarah, while Jared attended public school.

It took nearly three years to assemble the business plan while juggling the responsibilities of work and family life. Angela and David knew they wanted to sink or swim by their own hard work, the strength of their own ideas, and the quality of their own product. “We didn’t want to do the investor thing,” explains Angela. “We didn’t want to pull in partners.”

Instead, by means of a small business loan, they opened the shop, equipped with only a few small-capacity chocolate melters that they used to hand-dip fruit and pretzels. It took a few years to work up to the high-capacity tempering machines that are essential for the sort of volume they now do.

Much of what they learned about making chocolate and about the sugar arts was self-taught or shown to them by other Vermonters willing to lend a hand. One such instructor was Cal King, who, though now retired, was owner of Piece of Cake in Essex Junction.

“When they first started, they started out with nothing, and they didn’t know much,” says King. They worked out a bartering system in which Amarah’s Chocolate provided King with some sweets she needed to decorate her own cakes, and in trade King instructed them in the essentials of cake decorating, teaching them the basic piping techniques needed to decorate their chocolates.

“They worked so hard. I was so impressed with them, and I still am.” Even in retirement, says King, she frequents Amarah’s Chocolate.

Things have not always been smooth. The Emersons ran into a few tight spots, a trifecta of catastrophes that they say almost sank them. The first involved the company’s name, which was Ambrosia Chocolate Co. until 2006 when the Emersons received a cease-and-desist order from lawyers of the global food-processing company Archer Daniels Midland. Archer Daniels had already trademarked Ambrosia Chocolate, but offered to let them use the name in trade for a percentage of profits.

“Did you know that, in Vermont, an attorney is only legally liable to check this on a state level?” Angela asks. “I wish we had known that.”

It’s not surprising that the Emersons declined the offer, instead opting to change the name of their business. Doing so, however, meant that they had to throw out and replace everything with the Ambrosia Chocolate moniker on it — custom bags, labels, and cards. The $10,000-plus cost of it almost crippled the business.

The next year, their son, Jared, then 15 years old, became severely ill. Initially, doctors from Vermont to Boston were convinced that he had cancer, and recommended a number of actions including chemo, invasive surgeries, and amputation of one leg. The travel required for countless consultations and treatments meant that Amarah’s Chocolate had to close its doors periodically. Angela says it was an easy decision to make. “I can’t replace him. I can replace the business.” 

Throughout the ordeal, something about Jared’s diagnosis didn’t settle well with Angela, and as a result of her own research, she came to believe that her son had recurrent unifocal osteomyelitis, a rare autoimmune deficiency that expresses itself in inflammation of the bone marrow.

Angela finally located a doctor at the Children’s Hospital of Boston who specialized in the disease and was able to confirm her suspicions. It was a close call, because it was the day before he was to go in for a bone graft. A simple prescription brought Jared’s health under control, and allowed the Emersons to resume life and business as usual.

The final blow came in 2009 and ’10 when Angela’s parents died within six months of each other. In the months leading to and following their deaths, she was constantly in transit to care for them and their personal effects. The strain it put on the business was immense, and Angela says there were times when they were barely holding things together.

The Emersons’ willingness to drop everything for family backs up their claim that their priorities and morals are in the right place, and have been a guide in both life and business. There are times, though, that these guiding principles have been a double-edged blade. “I think our morals and our pride sometimes hold us back,” explains Angela.

They admit that that they could be more financially successful — that they could have grown the business more as they’ve seen other entrepreneurs in the chocolate industry do. Doing so, however, would have required them to compromise on their values or, worse, on quality. Everything made in the shop is done by hand, right down to each perfectly placed stem on the cherry cordials, and to sacrifice that process would be to sacrifice part of what makes Amarah’s Chocolate unique. “I don’t want to skimp on quality,” says Angela. “And once you have a mass-production facility, you can’t control it.”

“We are not growing all that fast,” adds David, “but it’s still ours.”

“The fastest way isn’t always the best,” adds Angela. “Slow and easy.” •