Norman Love: Designing a chocolate destination
In building his own confectionery operation, Love has steadfastly held true to his philosophy of creating confections that reflect uncompromising quality, and eyecatching aesthetics.
Editor's note: Editor-in-Chief Bernie Pacyniak recently went on a trip to Florida, visiting three candy companies while there. "Despite the obvious differences between the companies, all three entities have been fueled by dreams. Norman Love dreamed of opening his own business. Bernie and Edgar Schaked, of the Chocolate Kingdom, had always wanted to provide an educational experience about their one passion: chocolate. And the owners of Grimaldi Candies saw the potential to take Grimaldi Candies beyond retail and into a national wholesaling arena.
What’s more important is that all three have and are realizing their dreams. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how they achieved their goals. Each confectioner offers insights into the business of making and selling chocolates and confections. And each one continues to build upon that success. May all our road trips be so fulfilling."
In the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, while inspecting his corn field, hears a voice that whispers to him, “If you build it, they will come.” Shortly thereafter, he sees a baseball field. The movie, of course, details his struggles after Kinsella goes ahead and builds the baseball field.
Confectioner Norman Love also had a vision, although it didn’t entail voices or members of the disgraced Black Sox. His vision, after years of working as a pastry chef, involved running his own business. Thus, when he and his wife, Mary — with the help of friends — purchased land near the Southwest International Airport in Fort Myers, the motivation was more price than prime real estate.
“We bought the land for virtually nothing,” he says. The two then proceeded to build the business. And, as in the Field of Dreams, consumers and customers did come. Of course, being named one of America’s top 10 artisan chocolatiers by USA Today in 2002, helped put Love on the map. Ongoing accolades from Consumer Reports, Dessert and other magazines, as well as numerous appearances on television shows, reinforced the recognition.
Today, Norman Love Confections (NLC) operates out of an 11,000-sq.-ft. complex that includes confectionery and gelato retail shops, as well as production and warehouse space for confections and pastries. The work force also has expanded, jumping from two (Norman and Mary) to 53.
And while success has changed Love’s role in the business, it hasn’t changed his philosophy or his work ethic.
“I’ll always be grateful to the Ritz Carlton [Love spent 13 years with the luxury hotel chain] for teaching me about continuous improvement. It instilled in me a philosophy about going to work to be the best, 24/7. “
That drive toward, well, call it perfection, can be seen in the confections that Love presents to the public and to wholesale customers. In addition to only using the finest ingredients, such as sourcing chocolate from Max Felchlin and Guittard Chocolate Co., Love and his team have perfected the art of hand painting and airbrushing colorful designs into chocolate moulds, thus creating miniature edible masterpieces.
“Americans love to eat with their eyes,” he says. “I started my career as a pastry chef, that’s been my life. However, my passion is chocolate. So when it comes to designing new flavors, line extensions, I always think about them as desserts. Then, it’s a matter of transferring that flavor profile into a confection.”
Love, of course, would be the first to say that his success doesn’t emanate from him alone. Rather, as he stresses, he’s assembled a team that buys into his philosophy. Many of his senior employees have been with Love for at least eight years or longer.
“It’s about passion, efficiency, competency and integrity,” Love says. “Again, it’s all about being better than yesterday. My aim is to create an environment where employees are respected, financially rewarded, and empowered. If you hire creative people, you have to allow them to be creative. So it’s a collaborative effort.”
One can see several examples of that collaborative effort in some of the new launches that have recently come from NLC. And although sipping chocolate is a fairly common product line for many chocolatiers, Love’s take on this beverage makes it a bit more interactive and exciting.
The Norman Love Potions, which come in five varieties, feature a 14-oz. tin of rich bittersweet chocolate made with pure cane sugar and vanilla beans and are accompanied by five test tubes of infused sugar. The five different varieties of sugars include: Dragon’s Fire (sugar infused with jalapeno and cayenne peppers and a touch of cinnamon and vanilla); Pure Darkness (extra dark cocoa infused sugar); Holiday Spirit (fresh grated spices and pure cane sugar); Liquid Gold (golden caramel and sea salt ground to fine sugar); Tropical Oasis (sweetened creamy coconut powder); and Winter’s Chill (sweet peppermint candy cane sugar).
A Sustainable stove-top solution
In developing his new line of Love Origin chocolates, Norman Love wanted to find not only the best fine-flavored cocoa beans, but only suppliers connected to the community. In doing the research, Maura Methany, chef chocolatier and head of design and innovation who spearheaded the project, discovered the rare Nacional cocoa bean from Peru’s Marañón Canyon, Fortunato No. 4.
She also discovered that the farmers’ health was at risk because of a strange mix of government, environment and need. In the cacao-rich Marañón Canyon of Peru, 5,000 farm families live in the canyon, which can only be reached by barge or long boats that cross the river. This is a remote region of Peru, where residents have few creature comforts, but the fertile soil allows wild coffee, cacao and tropical fruits to grow in abundance.
While farmers grow many crops and those who grow cacao are proud of the Pure Nacional that Peru considers a national treasure, another crop grows there that threatens the residents’ existence: rice.
Brought to the canyon years ago through a government subsidy, farmers now struggle to make a profit on this non-native crop, which leaves behind stacks of rice hulls up to 40 feet high. The hulls naturally contain silica, which can damage lungs. When the temperatures rise, the mounds spontaneously combust and smolder for weeks, sending silica-laden smoke throughout the area, endangering the health of the residents.
Simple rice stoves, designed by a Canadian nonprofit organization, can burn the husks safely. The free and readily available husks burn hotter and faster than wood, which is expensive and rare in the canyon and creates more smoke and slower cooking times. Reducing the dependency on wood also helps with the prevention of rainforest deforestation.
A stove costs $60 to make. And, Dan Pearson, co-founder and president of Marañón Chocolate, and his business partner, Brian Horsley, are working with the nonprofit organization, Discover Hope, to purchase and build rice stoves for the farmers. They have raised enough money so far to build 200 stoves using materials sent from European-based donations. The goal is to eventually supply all 5,000 Marañón Canyon families with a stove.
To help realize that goal, every time a consumer purchases Love Origins product, Norman Love Confections donates a portion of the proceeds to the Rice Stove Project, a program whose mission is to build specially designed rice stoves.
“Just as we work to help improve lives in our own community, we want to help improve living conditions for those who work to provide such wonderful ingredients and yet lack basic necessities and live with serious health hazards,” says Norman Love.
And as Metheny points out, “Supporting this product is about bettering the lives of the workers and conditions of the plantations that make our business possible.”
—Valerie King, editorial intern
Contrast the whimsical nature of Norman Love Potions with another recent launch, Love Origins, which reflects a shift from sipping chocolate to serious chocolate.
“Love Origins reflects our effort to research and identify organic, sustainable, Fair Trade-type cocoa suppliers,” says Love. “We wanted to find small producers that give back to the environment, to the workers, that are involved in the well-being of the community, such as schools, water supply and housing. Extra pay for the premium beans was a given.”
It took about eight months to locate what Love calls “Fair Trade-plus” suppliers. Thanks to long-time NLC employee Maura Metheny, who oversees innovation/design, the company zeroed in on suppliers who not only met flavor parameters, but sustainability requirements as well. As a result, the Love Origins line includes six sleeves of high cocoa mass dark chocolate wafers in a compact box featuring the following origins: Bolivian 87 percent, made with organic beans from Bolivia; Tainori 64 percent, La Red 70 percent and Hacienda Elvesia 74 percent, from The Dominican Republic, and Alto el Sol 65 percent and Fortunato No. 4 68 percent, from Peru.
In discovering these suppliers, Love also learned first-hand the challenges many of the farmers faced in harvesting fine-flavored cocoa beans. That led him to commit to the Rice Stove Project, which involves funding specially designed stoves that burn rice husks, eliminating the release of silica into the air, a health hazard. (See sidebar).
Although Love notes that he’s “never been an agricultural guy; that hasn’t been my thing,” he always found it important to support the community, be it local or global.
“I vowed that as a small business entity we would give back to the community since we’re supported by the community,” Love explains. In fact, NLC supports about 250 charities, encompassing local, national and international organizations.
That kind of support doesn’t go unnoticed. During Candy Industry Magazine’s visit to Love’s Fort Myers retail store, there was a steady stream of customers on a Wednesday morning. Local and out-of-towners have beaten a path to find Love.
It’s also set in motion plans for expansion. Next year, Love looks to complete a two-story warehouse addition, which would free up room within the confectionery and pastry production areas.
He’s also planning to open two new retail stores in Estero and Sarasota, Fla., and looks forward to having his new book, Norman Love Confections, Story of Love, come out this spring.
“It’s really a book about my business, focusing on my team and inspirational events, such as working with amazing professionals, such as Julia Child, and great ingredients,” he says.
What can we expect from the famed confectioner down the road?
“I’m working on a new ‘Love of Cake’ line, which will include silly, simple American cake flavors such as Red Velvet cake, German chocolate cake, chocolate fudge cake, coconut layer cake and the like,” he says. And expect “A Whole Lotta Love” in the form of a gift package that includes a complete array of NLC products, ranging from truffles, toffees, caramels, bars and barks.
Love also looks to update his website, which is six years old. In today’s digital world, that quickly translates into ancient. As the entrepreneurial chocolatier points out, about 20 percent of all transactions are done on mobile devises.
“Our website isn’t formatted for mobile devices,” he says. “We need to bring our technology up to speed and put apps in place. Right now, 15 percent of all our revenues come from e-commerce.”
Oh yes, in the interim, Love oversaw the World Chocolate Masters competition in Paris as head juror last October. He’s also was selected as one of the world’s top 10 pastry chefs/chocolatiers and was invited to Igino Massari’s Symposium in Milan this coming May.
All that, however, is just decorative drizzle on the task at hand. He’s still focused on running a successful business.
“Each month I get a dozen and half offers from around the world regarding franchises, partnerships, distributorships,” he says. “And I listen to every opportunity. But I need to be selective. I’ve very conservative when it comes to growth. I simply don’t want to compromise the product.
“Greed comes when you start cutting corners,” Love continues. “I’ve always said that it’s not about how much, it’s about how good. If you do everything right, the financials will come. So when a customer’s expectations are met or are exceeded, you’ll have that loyalty forever.”
Seems the master chocolatier has also mastered the art of running a business.
Ironically, two years ago the Boston Red Sox opened a new spring training facility literally next door to NLC. Build it with Love, and they’ll come.