The sweet treat of the mountains
A large wooden bear greets visitors with a sign hanging from its snout: We Are Open. Step through the log cabin door of this old-time candy shop and you will immediately smell the fragrance of pure cocoa. Behind a glass counter sit hundreds of confectioneries made of rich ingredients, original recipes and handcrafted techniques that haven’t changed in more than 40 years. It’s the chocolate of the Adirondacks.
From the ski resort of Whiteface Mountain, Adirondack Chocolates is a six-minute drive north on Route 86 in Wilmington, New York. The business produces and sells about 30,000 pounds of chocolate each year.
It began with German immigrant Herman Van Holten. Van Holten apprenticed chocolatiering in Jersey City, New Jersey, in the 1950s and moved to Jay, New York, a town of only 2,132 people, in 1976. In 1977, he opened The Candyman.
“It was a really well-established company…out in the middle of nowhere,” current co-owner Joe Dougherty says.
Dougherty and his partner, Cortland Forrence, bought the business in 1995. As a sales manager at a Hilton Hotel in Lake Placid, Dougherty didn’t know anything about retail — or chocolate. But when The Candyman went up for sale, Doughtery saw an opportunity for self-employment and growth.
“It was something that I jumped right into because I enjoyed the challenge of it,” he says.
Dougherty opened a second branch store in Lake Placid in 1997. Five years later, finding that they had outgrown their Jay store, they moved to Wilmington. The original white Candyman sign pays homage to Van Holten and his legacy on a wall inside the store, but Doughtery’s business was renamed Adirondack Chocolates in 2014.
Dougherty kept Van Holten’s recipes from the 1970s but today’s resources come from all-over, like chocolate slabs from Pennsylvania or pretzels from Tupper Lake, New York.
Chocolate production manager Mary-Ellen Walker has worked for Dougherty since 1999. She had a background in cake decorating and decided to go back to work when her youngest child was away at college.
“I started out thinking it was going to be temporary, but then I just got into it and enjoyed my work,” Walker says.
Dougherty says he’s fortunate for the crew that takes care of both stores.
“People love good chocolate,” Dougherty says. But, he adds, “the key to a successful business is having great employees,”
Depending on supply, demand and season, Walker spends up to four days a week in the kitchen. On bigger production days, her small team of three chocolatiers help run the larger machines.
“They’re long days, but it’s the sense of accomplishment of getting so much done,” Walker says. “I feel like I’m making people happy with chocolate.”
Many tools are essential in chocolate production, but the kitchen’s best one for large amounts of candy is its 25-foot-long chocolate enrober, a machine used in the confectionery industry to coat food items. Enrobing allows the chocolate to blanket each candy evenly.
Each day, Walker preps ingredients, like Adirondack Chocolate’s coconut patties. They’re dipped in chocolate on the bottom, allowed to cool on a cooling conveyor belt, advanced through the enrober, glazed in melted chocolate and pushed through another cooling tunnel at the end.
To make almond bark, Walker spreads three layers of chocolate and almonds uniformly in a large pan, drizzles it with additional chocolate on top and lets the pan cool before cutting the chocolate into squares.
All of the chocolate is hand-crafted. As each patty emerges from the enrober still pliant, a gloved hand gently touches, drags and finishes its top with three fingers, creating striped peaks. Those same fingers also create “ski trails,” a hand-waved drizzle of white chocolate as the finishing touch.
For chocolate-cup candies, Walker says some companies put their cups through the enrober once, creating a thin outer layer of chocolate. But because Adirondack Chocolates fills their cups by hand, each one has a thicker layer of chocolate surrounding the filling.
“Herman’s way of making them was always in the cup, and the outside layer is a little thicker,” Walker says. “That’s just the way it’s always been.”
And though the candies may look the same, there’s no mistaking one flavor for another. As each cup is filled, a design is hand-piped on top to make identification easier. C is for caramel, M for maple, S for strawberry, N for nougat, V for vanilla, and so on.
Other candies, like chocolate truffles, have different signatures. Red stripes top cherries jubilee, pink and white stripes decorate strawberry cheesecake and a dash of sea salt signifies sea-salt caramel.
The company also makes chocolate molds particular to the region, like bears, moose or hockey players on white lollipop sticks. Cream-filled eggs and chocolate bunnies — some as tall as 3 feet — are made for Easter and Santas and snowmen for Christmastime.
Almond-butter crunches, chocolate-covered pretzels, caramel turtles, fudge squares and nonpareils, or “Adirondack Snow Drops,” are best-sellers. When tourism is high in the spring and summer, marshmallow desserts like chocolate-covered Rice Krispies treats and Peeps line the shelves.
Sweet-toothed shoppers can sample their favorite flavors from the chocolate counter and purchase half or full-pound bags for $11.25 or $21.98. So step back in time, when happiness was handmade by the little chocolate shop in the Adirondacks.