Willy Wonka inspired generations of kids to dream of owning a chocolate factory when they grew up—but Sara Miller and Mary and Michael Ervin have achieved it in real life. Ethereal Confections isn’t a factory on the scale of Wonka’s, and there’s no chocolate river. But they do make their own chocolate from cocoa beans, which they turn into truffles, peanut butter cups, and bars in flavors like pistachio-cranberry or strawberry with rose petal and pink peppercorn.
Mary and Sara, now 36 and 37, became friends in college and worked in design for five years before they decided to launch Ethereal Confections as a side project in 2011. (Michael, who’s Mary’s brother and was Sara’s husband at the time, has been part of the business since the beginning but stayed mostly behind the scenes in a supporting role, which has become more active over the past few years.) They began making confections like truffles, bars, and chocolate barks with nuts and dried fruit in a shared kitchen and selling them at the Woodstock farmers’ market. Before the end of the summer business was good enough that they rented a 400-square-foot shop in the center of town. They quickly outgrew that as well. In their current location, a former restaurant, they run a cafe with panini, soup, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and cocktails in addition to their chocolate bars and confections. And once again, they’ve run out of space.
Soon they’ll be moving to a 10,000-square-foot building where they’ll not only expand their cafe and chocolate operations, but also add an incubator kitchen, a speakeasy, and more classes and tastings. They’ll be staying in Woodstock, which they say has supported their business from the start. “When we first started selling [chocolate] I was at farmer’s markets in Wisconsin and Mary was selling here in Woodstock,” Sara says. “We had a much better reception in Woodstock; people were more excited about what we were doing.”
To help out with the costs of renovating the building they’re moving into, they’ve created a Kickstarter to raise $30,000 (rewards include special-edition chocolate bars, food from their cafe, and invitations to parties at the new space). Michael says that when they announced their expansion plans on Facebook, the post got exponentially more views and reactions than anything they’d ever posted. “We thought, if the community support is already there—was there some way we could tell people about what we’re doing and get them to back us?”
In the new space, the owners are hoping to be able to upgrade some of their equipment for making chocolate. Rather than buying chocolate from another company to turn into confections and bars, they make their own chocolate from cocoa beans—which was still a rarity among small producers when Ethereal started doing it five years ago. According to Michael, it was one of the first 20 or 30 companies in the U.S. to do bean-to-bar chocolate (there are now about 180 across the U.S. and Canada). Mary had worked at a chocolate shop in college, and says her boss there told her making chocolate from cocoa beans wasn’t something small companies could do. “He told me you needed a big factory with a lot of equipment,” she says. But on a trip to Madison not long after they launched their business, Sara and Mary talked to a chocolate shop owner who said she was about to try making her own chocolate from beans. “As soon as I knew that was a thing you could do, I wanted to do it,” Mary says.
There’s a reason it wasn’t common: equipment for making chocolate on a smaller scale didn’t exist. “You really had to make it yourself,” Michael says. “I’ve always said the machine we use for the winnowing process, it was like building your own light saber. The main grinders we use are repurposed Indian lentil grinders. We have an old bread proofer we bought to keep chocolate liquid.” There wasn’t a lot of information out there about how to make chocolate, either. “To learn to do it, we talked to a lot of chocolate makers,” Michael says. “There are some old books you can buy from the 50s that talk about chocolate making.”
They source their cocoa beans from Central and South America and the Caribbean, visiting the farms that they work with; last year alone, Mary and Michael went to Ecuador, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. “We want to understand how it’s been grown, where our money is being used,” Michael says.
In addition to making chocolate, Ethereal educates people about it: for several years, the shop has offered classes, and the owners hope to do even more in the new space. There are bean-to-bar classes, where people make their own chocolate from scratch, and pairings where attendees taste chocolate with beer, wine, or spirits. They focus on local companies so that the owners can come out and talk about their products, often partnering with Chicago breweries and distilleries for pairings.
If they don’t meet their funding goal on Kickstarter, Mary says, they’ll still move to their new location—which used to be an Elks Lodge—but may not be able to launch all their planned projects right away. All three owners say they’re excited about offering a place for the community to gather. “These fraternal organizations that used to be everywhere are dying, and we’re taking that place,” Michael says. “People want a place to gather, have food, socialize, run events—and the best they can find, often, is the Starbucks.”