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Sweet Deals: Chocolatier Linda Grishman has a candy-do attitude 

click to enlarge JORDAN SILVERMAN
  • Jordan Silverman

Chocoholics, beware: Learning about Linda Grishman’s job could activate your cravings. You might even want to jot down the phone number of a local 12-step program. The 52-year-old Bur-lington resident makes chocolate — all day, every day — in the basement of her New North End home.

Not feeling weak in the knees yet? Consider Grishman’s Moo Chews, which she describes as “caramels paired with freshly roasted cashews hand-dipped in silky milk or molten dark chocolate.” Or her Peanut Butter Pigouts, which don’t need much explanation.

During an interview on National Public Radio last year, former Food TV host David Rosengarten listed the quintessential Grishman chocolate bar as one of the three best in the world. The other two were French. Hers are crafted in various flavors and a trio of styles: Moonlight in Vermont, Dashing Through the Snow and Gay Bars. That’s right — Gay Bars, triangular and initially wrapped in pink foil to celebrate diversity.

“I came up with that in 1995,” explains Grishman, overlooking the candy-making equipment in the depths of her otherwise unremarkable white ranch house. “Eureka! A chocolate bar for the gay community.”

With a social conscience, clever marketing ideas and a penchant for handmade “artisan” chocolate, the South African native found a career that many would consider fun. Her shoestring operation turned into a thriving cottage industry that attracts retail and wholesale customers across the country. Orders are received from Oregon to Florida, Minnesota to Texas, via her company’s Web site at www.vermontchocolate.com.

The Moonlight bars, which Grishman devised in 1996 “to find something for Vermont that would be a hit,” are particularly popular. “I sell thousands a week,” she says of the tasty chocolate squares. “There are eight different types, like praline, mint chip, cappuccino, espresso crunch. They saved my business and my life. A lot of Vermonters are fans. Governor Dean buys them.”

That imprimatur — from a doctor, no less — might be testimony to Grishman’s chocolate credo. “I’m a purist,” she points out. “I use 100 percent pure and natural ingredients. And no additional sugar or butter in my truffle mixture. I don’t want to overpower chocolate with other things.”

After growing up in a Johannesburg home where only good, imported chocolate was eaten, Grishman had a rude awakening when she immigrated to the United States in 1976. “When I first bit into a Hershey bar, I spit it out,” she recalls. “That’s crap.”

A discerning sweet tooth was not listed on Grishman’s resume 25 years ago, however. A business school graduate, she had personal reasons for relocating. “My dream was always to get the hell out of South Africa. It’s very materialistic, and apartheid was a huge factor in my decision. The government was so rigid then, I knew it would become a bloodbath. White people just had their heads in the sand. All my close family got out.”

In New York City, Grishman found a seasonal job at the United Nations, typing and editing documents for the General Assembly from September through January. The rest of the year, she handled similar tasks for the delegations from Ireland, Israel and Australia.

Grishman was in New York when she was first introduced to the chocolate trade in 1983. A friend named Arthur asked her to help him sell the peanut butter balls he had begun making. “I had the personality to do it,” she muses. “I was never afraid of anything.”

Arthur was a struggling actor who drove a limousine for jazz singer Peggy Lee by night, a gig that allowed him to chauffeur Grishman around town delivering the unwrapped chocolates in little paper cups during the day. “I was making the rounds of gourmet shops,” she remembers. “The peanut butter balls were selling like, well, like hotcakes — 1000 to 1500 of them a week.”

After three months, however, Arthur gave Grishman the recipe and backed out of the scheme because it was too time-consuming. “He was melting Hershey bars and God-knows-what,” she says of her decision to find a better formula. “I went to a chocolate show at the Americana Hotel and heard about a Belgian chocolate, Callebaut. I found a wholesaler where I could order 50 pounds of it at a time, a huge amount.”

She learned the process for “tempering” chocolate: Melt it with cocoa butter at 110 degrees, then “seed” with chunks of chocolate that stabilize the molten mixture. Turn the heat down to 85 degrees, then back up to 90, stirring all the while. “It didn’t always work,” she recalls of the effort. “It took a lot of trial and error.”

Grishman tracked down more outlets, other “chi-chi stores,” that wanted her new, improved peanut butter cups manufactured in the kitchen of her apartment on West 21st Street in Manhattan. “I was schlepping this stuff around in two brown bags filled with boxes of chocolates. After Arthur quit, I traveled by subway,” she explains. “Then, I branched out to truffles.”

Highly motivated, Grishman even signed up for truffle lessons. “It was a big waste of money, but I happened to sit next to a woman who worked for the premier chocolate maker in New York,” she says. This goddess of chocolate had a candy counter on the bottom floor of Blooming-dale’s, the upscale department store. “Truffles only,” Grishman says. “She was very helpful. I learned a lot from her.”

Grishman began to experiment. “I was flavoring my truffles with raspberry, Grand Marnier, Kahlua, even black pepper. Soon, I was selling as many truffles as peanut butter cups. Other gourmet shops called. A big-shot chef at the Doral Tuscany Hotel started giving my truffles away at the end of every meal. He became a major customer.”

Though celebrated in the old Lovin’ Spoonful song, summer in the city is no picnic. So Grishman and her romantic partner, a New Jersey college professor, took regular refuge at a vacation home in Quebec while a friend took over the chocolate business back in her Big Apple apartment. But Grishman always drove back home through Vermont. In 1991, when she grew tired of New York and wanted a change, she thought, “‘What about Burlington?’ I knew it was a progressive, artsy place. I felt I’d be happy here, even though I didn’t know a soul.”

Despite her affinity for the Queen City, the first job Grishman landed was at Green Mountain Chocolates in Duxbury. Unhappy with the assembly-line setting, she finally returned to her roots with a home-based operation. “I decided to sell my chocolates at craft shows,” she says. “I made thousands of dollars on a weekend that way for three years, while living in Warren.”

The workload increased when Grishman agreed to turn out truffles for the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, which included a small, two-candy box with every stuffed animal. “They threw even more business my way,” she says. “In March 1992, I created butter crunch brittle for the company to use instead of chocolate in the summer. It was divine.”

From Mother’s Day in May through October, Grishman found herself laboring 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., producing “thousands and thousands of butter crunch brittles. I had two employees. At that time, I was based in a South Burlington condo. I kept boxes in the living room, used the second bedroom for storage and an extra refrigerator, made chocolate in the kitchen, and the dining room was my packaging area.”

The financial rewards were good enough for her to afford her current house. “In 1992, I earned $100,000,” Grishman says. But she had difficulties getting paid by her largest client, Vermont Teddy Bear, which was in financial trouble at the time. Though she eventually was paid in full, friends told her “not to keep all my eggs in one basket.” She took that advice to heart.

Grishman resumed marketing her candies “in different directions,” she says. People suggested she try a cow theme and — voilà! — cow crunch, moo chews and moo mints came into being. “I was back covering gourmet shops all over Vermont, by car — no more limos and no more subways,” she says. “Orders came in slowly. It was a bit frightening, because I had a mortgage to pay and needed to upgrade my equipment.”

When she invented Gay Bars in 1995, Grishman took them to an annual gay and lesbian expo in New York. There, she was able to flag down an Associated Press photographer, whose shot of her and the unique candy was published across the country. Her phone started ringing.

One steady customer has been the Peace and Justice Store in downtown Burlington. “People love ’em,” reports co-manager Kathy Bouton. “Especially visitors from out of state, who often buy them as gifts to take home. We sell a lot of Gay Bars, and the smaller mini-Gays, all year round.”

Bouton offers a personal assessment: “They come in different flavors, and I’ve tried every one of them. My favorite is dark chocolate with almonds.”

The store also handled Grishman’s specialty chocolates made in conjunction with this year’s University of Vermont staging of The Vagina Monologues, a popular and provocative play by Eve Ensler. They are shaped, naturally, like that intimate part of a woman’s body.

Grishman’s creative approach to chocolate making has definitely helped her attract publicity. In 1999 she got a post-Thanksgiving pat-on-the-back from New York Times food writer Marion Burros, who has a getaway home in Vermont. “I doubled my Christmas sales from that article,” Grishman acknowledges.

These days, Grishman’s name is synonymous with edibles that are high-end, au naturel and fashioned with care. “I roast my own coffee beans for the cappuccino and espresso Moonlights,” she notes. “I just don’t have my own coffee or cocoa plantation.”

Her Sweet on Vermont line is a box of nine chocolates — three each of caramel, mint and hazelnut praline — that sells for about $12 retail. One pound of the Peanut Butter Pigouts costs $20, and 24 Truffles are $32.

Grishman is frequently asked if she’s a chocoholic. “Not as much as people might think,” she says. “But, even after all these years, the smell of it is still as wonderful and perfumy as ever for me.”

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