Life is good in the St. Croix Valley, and two local businesses are helping make it even sweeter. This community is home to two shops that sell high quality, handmade chocolates and sweets year-round. With creative flavor innovations, as well as traditional favorites, Knoke’s Chocolates and Nuts in Hudson, and St. Croix Chocolate Co. in Marine on St. Croix offer products that appeal to even the most discerning sweet tooth.
Knoke’s opened its doors in July 2000 as simply Knoke’s Chocolate Shop—the nuts came later—and it quickly became a labor of love for owner Dave Knoke. “I was in sales at the time and did a lot of traveling,” he says, “but I really liked the chocolate business.” Eventually he became the full-time proprietor, and about two years ago, he purchased a nut-roasting business to complement the sweets line.
The store has experienced steady growth since its opening, even during a recession. Knoke notes that high-quality candy might be one of the few things to be immune to economic downturns; people may have to cut back on lavish trips or many kinds of material goods, but still be able to treat themselves to a fine chocolate without breaking the bank.
In 2011, Knoke expanded to a larger space, and keeps anywhere from five to eight people employed full time, with many more part-time and temp workers during the holidays. While some candy stores are open only in summer, Knoke says his prime season runs from Christmas through Mother’s Day, with Valentine’s Day and Easter also important.
Customers will find more than 70 kinds of chocolates to choose from—everything from creams, caramels and truffles to classics like toffee and turtles. But the store doesn’t sell just chocolate. It also offers a large line of nostalgia candies, such as brittles and sponge candies at Christmastime or chocolate-dipped strawberries for Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. Additionally, locally produced Brown’s and Cedar Crest ice cream is available year-round.
When asked for the key to great chocolate, Knoke says, “I don’t know. I’m just good at it. I use top-notch ingredients. I don’t skimp. I tinker with recipes.” He also points to the human factor, saying, “We make it all here; it’s all fresh. People handle it, not machines. There’s a lot of TLC involved.”
For Valentine’s Day, chocolate-dipped strawberries are a popular item. But that’s not all, says Knoke. “Kids come in and pick out boxes for Mom or Grandma. Of course they’re picking the things they themselves like, but it still means a lot,” he says. But sometimes nostalgia trumps a child’s personal taste. “They might come in and say, ‘Oh, Grandpa likes maple nut ice cream, so I’m going to get that.’ They might not even like it, but they love the connection.”
Robyn Dochterman of St. Croix Chocolate Co. also came to the candy-making world from another direction. A former Star Tribune journalist and garden blogger, she viewed the offer of a buyout from the newspaper during the recession as the opportunity to pursue something else she was passionate about—fine food.
“I wasn’t sure where in the food world to go,” says Dochterman with a laugh. “I thought maybe artisan cheese, so I took a weeklong course. But there was too much chemistry.” She then studied artisan breads, which led to pastry, which eventually led to chocolate. “It’s perfect, because it’s a little science, a little art,” she says. “And, unlike being a baker, I can get up whenever I want!”
Once she landed on chocolate, Dochterman moved ahead quickly, attending multiple culinary school courses a week at a time. The final confirmation that she was doing the right thing was when she found a building in Marine on St. Croix. “I had a building, and I had a passion,” she says. “The universe was telling me something.”
Dochterman agrees with Knoke that chocolate sells well, even during an economic downturn. “It’s an affordable luxury,” she says. “You can buy the upper echelon for $2. It makes you feel good.”
Everything St. Croix Chocolate Co. sells is made in-house. On any day, there will be somewhere between 12 and 20 varieties of chocolates, which are all European-inspired. “Europeans are very much about quality and technique,” Dochterman says. “Americans enjoy big flavor. They don’t want the nuance of raspberry, but for the mouth to go ‘Wow!’ I try to marry those techniques.”
When asked about the most important aspect of producing high-quality chocolates, Dochterman says, “An instructor once told me, ‘Every step is the most important step.’ There’s some truth to that. We eat with the eyes, so they must be beautiful. Texture is important, too.”
As for appearance, early on she discovered that it was actually possible to make something too attractive. “We kept hearing, ‘Oh, it’s too pretty to eat,’” she says. “We had a strategy meeting. It was an obstacle. But we figured out a solution. When people said that, we just responded, ‘We’ll make more.’ ”
Especially popular are the seasonal hand-painted chocolates. At Christmas, there are chocolate Nativity sets. Halloween involves edible 3D pumpkins.
What works for Valentine’s Day? Customization. “People can come here and make up their own gift,” Dochterman says. “Someone can come in and say, ‘I want chocolates for someone who likes coffee.’ We’ll help find four different coffee-flavored things. Maybe we’ll put them in an edible chocolate box, or put them in a coffee mug. It’s completely personalized to the recipient’s tastes.”
She sees a lot of fathers coming in with their kids to buy Valentine’s Day treats for their mothers. “We see kids on all ends of the tasting spectrum,” she says. “I’m stunned by the number of kids with an advanced palate. There is a whole generation of kids who are pretty savvy.” But being kids, it’s not just taste that draws them. “They’re drawn to color. We have a passion-fruit chocolate with a purple swirl that attracts them. We caution them that it’s very tart, not so sweet, more like Sour Patch Kids. When they have that context, they’re fine.”