Located in the historic town of Geneva, Ill., Graham’s Fine Chocolates & Ice Cream blends in well as a friendly, family-owned chocolate shop. But that’s just the crema in a cup of espresso; it’s become much more than that.
Robert Untiedt, founder of Graham’s Fine Chocolates & Ice Cream, discovered the quaint town of Geneva in 1987 when he began selling candy at the first Graham’s location at a local shopping center called The Berry Shops. A surprisingly swift six years later the company got the opportunity to move its operation to a beautiful Greek Revival house just kitty corner to the shops. The new location proved fruitful for sales, driving in 20-25% more customers than before. The 4,000-sq.-ft. architectural landmark also gave the family a lot more space to make its handmade candies and ice cream with a large window for customers to see everything being made. And the family didn’t stop there. Business continued to grow throughout the years as the Untiedts purchased an additional retail store in Wheaton, Ill. in 2000 and a chocolate lounge called “Graham’s 318” in 2005. Today, candy and ice cream is sold at the Geneva and Wheaton stores while coffee, pastries, gelato and chocolate fondue are made at Graham’s 318. Amazingly, Untiedt didn’t start out to be a chocolatier.
“Actually I’m a musician first,” Untiedt says. “I went to college to be an instrumental music teacher and ended up teaching high school for about three years.” A fellow musician and friend of Untiedt’s, Tom Treece, worked for candy consulting firm Knechtal Labs during the daytime and convinced Untiedt to work for the company’s next door neighbor, Pistachio Farms.
“[Pistachio Farms] did everything you would see in traditional domestic candies like caramels, turtles and brittles, but instead of putting a walnut or pecan in a turtle, they would use a pistachio,” Untiedt explains. “So the only nut on the premises was a pistachio.”
Untiedt picked a great starting point at Pistachio Farms because not only did he get hands-on experience, but he also learned from the top candy makers in the industry. From there, Untiedt worked at Long Grove Confectionery where he continued to hone his skills.
It was the switch from music to sweets that opened Untiedt’s eyes to an entirely different kind of dream.
“One of my childhood loves was to have my own ice cream parlor,” Untiedt says. “Of course, I was in candy so that wasn’t going to work, but I could do a similar thing with candy.” From that realization, Untiedt decided to open up his own store. He left Long Grove and began searching for the right location for his own candy store. When he came across Geneva, Ill., the site just clicked.
“I didn’t realize how great a spot I had picked until after I was actually here,” Untiedt says. “There’s a lot of history; the people in the community are very close-knit and love to see a local entrepreneur make good in an area; especially their downtown area.”
In the town of Geneva, Graham’s has made quite a name for itself. But where did the name come from?
“We used Graham’s because that’s my mother’s maiden name,” Untiedt explains. “Untiedt Chocolates just didn’t sound right,” he laughs. Yet Pechous (his sister-in-law’s name) didn’t roll off the tongue either.
As mentioned earlier, Robert Untiedt is the founder of the business. He and his wife Beckie have two daughters, Jayni and Maddi Smith. Joining the Untiedts are Beckie’s twin sister Bonnie Pechous and her daughter Bethani. Each family member plays a different role in the shop. Robert handles the business side of the company along with making some of the candy; Beckie is in charge of human resources; Jayni does the advertising, graphic design and baking; Maddi and Bethani are baristas at Graham’s 318; and Bonnie is in charge of packaging and shipping.
“We want the chocolates to be as beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside,” Bonnie says, “so a lot of attention is paid to presentation.” Where presentation is critical, Graham’s creates chocolates for weddings, anniversaries, baby showers and other events. Delicious chocolate kissing doves, white chocolate swans and tuxedo bride and groom strawberries are made to accompany weddings. Ribbons on the products can also be imprinted with any message to personalize an event. But products made for specific events aren’t all Graham’s specializes in.
In accordance with the town’s history, Graham’s has a different name for its turtles.
“Geneva used to be primarily Swedish,” Robert says. “Skalies is short for Skölman, which is a turtle character in the Bamse cartoon in Sweden.” Rightfully so, the company’s turtles must be called Skalies. But these chocolates aren’t just popular because of their name.
Employees take pride in creating Skalies because it takes talent. First, whole pecans are spread out onto a large pan. A Graham’s employee methodically deposits globs of homemade caramel onto the pecans. Then the candies are dipped in creamy milk or dark chocolate. Aside from talent going into the creation of the Graham’s products, the ingredients used also help to generate a delicious finished product.
“We try to use as many local products as we can,” Robert says. “We use Wisconsin butter and European butter, depending on what we’re making.” The family also gets ingredients from a local lavender grower, a local spice house, the farmer’s market and a local pie maker.
“We give back to the community just as much as they give to us,” Beckie says. “They’re loyal to us and we’re loyal back.” This kind of community support goes a long way. For example, a local restaurant promotes Graham’s ice cream by selling it as a dessert. And Graham’s ice creams come in many great flavors.
“We try to incorporate as much of our candies in the ice creams as we can,” Robert says. “That way you get the crossover and the similarities in the two products.” Along with delicious flavors Toffee Bar, Caramel Swirl, Honey Lavender and White Chocolate Macadamia is Robert’s personal favorite Double Dark.
“[Robert] has always had dark chocolate as a focus of his because that’s always been something that he loved,” Beckie says. Before the trend for dark chocolate began, Robert was already ahead of the game. And he continues to stick with the trends by using a 70% dark chocolate and introducing single-origin chocolates.
“Among several different companies, we use Santander chocolate, which is a Columbian chocolate, because it’s a single-origin chocolate with a lot of flavor notes,” Robert says. “They also have a socially responsible philosophy to their business.” Santander makes sure that the cacao growers receive a fair wage for their products. The company also works with farmers to help improve their growing capabilities, Robert says. Graham’s also gets 70-85% single-origin chocolates from Blommer Chocolate Co., Guittard Chocolate Co. and Barry Callebaut. And the trends keep going.
”The trends don’t stop with the chocolate alone,” Bonnie says. “They continue along with the packaging.” Current popular packaging colors are earth tones. “Right now the big colors are the aqua blues and browns,” she explains. Those same trends trickle over into the family’s chocolate lounge two doors down.
Graham’s 318 features coffee, gelato and chocolate fondue. The lounge has an Italian theme thanks to the coffee and gelato and features Italian LavAzza coffee directly from Italy. The Untiedt’s try to keep the gelato close to its roots.
”My wife and I went on a trip to Italy because of the gelato that’s over there and were so enamored by the way they did things,” Robert says. “We started picking up on a lot of the Italian purees and a lot of things that they use.” By using many authentic Italian ingredients, the company’s gelato is as close to true Italian gelato as possible.
“It’s softer than your traditional ice cream and the flavors just seem to jump out,” Robert says.
As mentioned earlier, Graham’s likes to merge its candy with its ice cream whenever possible to get the best of both worlds. At Graham’s 318, the employees like to mix things up as well. If you like coffee and gelato, then you’ll love Graham’s gelato espresso drink. A scoop of gelato is placed in a coffee cup first. Then espresso is made in the same cup to make a creamy, coffee drink. Even the espresso machine is a conversation piece.
Untiedt buys most of the store’s espresso from a local Chicago coffee roaster, Metropolis. “With their advice, we bought the espresso machine in the Netherlands that was designed by an architect who took the Italian workings of an espresso machine and kicked them up a notch,” Robert explains. Its futuristic design is something to marvel at while waiting for a delicious espresso.
As if that weren’t enough, the lounge also offers chocolate fondue.
“It turns the whole eating experience into an event,” Robert says about the fondue. Homemade pound cake and angel food cake are used as dippers in the liquid chocolate. Offering the chocolate fondue at nighttime brings in a lot of families and couples to share in the fun and sometimes messy dessert. On Thursday nights during the summers, the chocolate lounge delights in offering entertainment on the outside patio-everything from jazz performances to poetry readings.
With a strong staff, variety of products and commitment to quality, Graham’s plans to continue expanding every year. But as the years pass, what will happen when Robert and Beckie decide to retire?
“It would be a mom and dad’s dream [to pass the business down to our daughters],” Robert says. “But it’s all up to the girls.”
“Going really big is not what we want to do,” he adds. “We want to service our community first.” And Jayni and Maddi agree.
“I love being part of the whole activity from beginning to end,” Robert says. “From the beginning when you see the candy being made to the end where somebody is there buying it and enjoying it. I love that tangible contact with the end user.”
“We love the reaction,” Beckie adds. “I’m humbled by the excitement; that they really love the product.”
Tis the season...Every year at Christmas time, Geneva, Ill. has a Christmas Walk. On the first Friday of December, the whole street shuts down and all the businesses give something away. Graham's plays a large role in the walk thanks to their homemade candy canes, made especially for the event. The first candy can e the store makes is the largest.
"The candy canes are so soft at first they're chewy, before they harden," Jayni says.
In reenacting the town's Swedish tradition, the Christmas angel, Saint Lucia, wears a halo of candles and brings gifts to children at the beginning of the Christmas season. She waits at the courthouse, three blocks away from Graham's. When the first cane is finished, it is places on a pillow and carried to Saint Lucia with drums and trumpets leading the way. The person that carries the candy cane is chosen from a raffle. All the money raised during the Christmas Walk goes to the local Steel Beam Theatre. In addition to raising money, the event brings the community even closer together and shows support for all of the businesses.