By Fatimah Waseem, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013
Inside the Chocolatier
Arlington resident Bailey Lynch, 12, says taking the shop's chocolate making classes has made her appreciate the shop's commitment to sweet, fresh chocolate. (Photo: Fatimah Waseem)
Both chocolate lovers, Eric and Crisoire Reid opened their first shop in the Kentlands in Gaithersburg in 2010. They fell in love at a bakery in the Dominican Republic, Crisoire's homeland, and married three weeks later. (Banner photo and above photo courtesy of Eric Reid)
Kate Corrie, 8 (left), and Emily Sellman, 9, peer at the chocolates after attending the factory tour, which is a common favorite for kids. (Photo: Fatimah Waseem)
GAITHERSBURG, Md. - A diehard chocolate lover, Eric Bernard knows early Saturday morning is the best time to snag SPAGnVOLA’ fresh, hand-sorted chocolate nibs. He’s been buying the tiny chocolate confections every week since the shop opened on Main Street in 2010.
A hidden gem in the local community, SPAGnVOLA is Montgomery County’s only chocolatier that controls the process from bean to bar. The chocolate shop has drawn customers for its handcrafted chocolates and rich family history, a tradition its owners hope to continue as the shop opens a third location near National Harbor on Thursday.
“They’re not just selling chocolate. They’re selling a family story,” said Bernard, 43, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Before the chocolatier’s $18 bonbons, $15 truffles and $8 bars reach customers, the chocolates travel from the owner’s 350-acre farm on the eastern hills of the Dominican Republic to the 2,200-square-foot boutique.
Decorated with rusty orange walls, dangling warm yellow lights, and six round tables, the shop is run by Eric Reid, 43. His wife, Crisoire Reid, 39, crafts the chocolates in the store’s factory basement. The couple opened the shop's second location in Gaithersburg at Lakeforest Mall in May. The main location is in the Kentlands in Gaithersburg.
Crisoire’s sister runs the family’s farm – Hato Mayor Del Rey - where eight workers pluck cacao pods, scoop beans out of pups, ferment them with banana leaves, and ship the dry beans to Gaithersburg for heating, smoothing and crafting.
“Our chocolates are a piece of our land; you don't eat it, you 'experience' it, and your soul becomes part of our land,” Crisoire said.
RAISING THE BAR
Controlling the process from bean to bar allows the owners to ensure quality cultivation, manufacturing, and a fair working environment for the farm’s eight workers, the Reids say.
Workers in the Dominican Republic are paid hourly wages 25 percent higher than area farms and cultivate and sell 10 percent of the crop on their own, Eric said.
“The owners love the community and the chocolate,” said Midge Costello, a 15-year-old student from Rockville who visited the shop on a recent weekend. “It makes you really appreciate what goes into the business.”
In addition to providing premium quality chocolates, the store exemplifies “good corporate citizenship and community engagement,” Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney Katz said.
The shop regularly partners with local organizations to provide unpaid internships to children and young adults with autism. It was awarded Montgomery County’s best small business award from the county’s more than 33,000 small businesses in May.
Interns like Jon Liniak, 12, sort through the cocoa seeds and are taught social and professional skills to transition into a full-time career.
“Their work shows they care about the community in the Dominican Republic and in the United States,” said Mark Ford, a 57-year-old engineer based in Gaithersburg.
The store, which shares 30 designated parking spaces and an open parking lot with several other stores on Main Street, offers 20-minute tours of its 1,100-square-foot factory on Saturday mornings and two-hour chocolate-making classes on Sunday mornings.
Using the owner’s traditional recipe – 54 percent milk chocolate – students roast, winnow and grind cacao beans into small truffles on a speckled granite table.
“It’s a fine art. You have to temper the chocolate, coax the beans out, and give time,” said 12-year-old Bailey Lynch. She travels from Arlington, Va., to attend Saturday morning chocolate making classes at the shop.
A SWEET BEGINNING
The couple met for the first time at a bakery in the eastern hills of the Dominican Republic while Eric was on a business trip from the United States.
United by their passion for agriculture, the couple married three weeks later and settled into Crisoire’s 350-acre estate.
“She wanted to sell hogs. I’d always wanted to try my hand at tangerines,” Eric said. “Put those two together and you get something crazy.”
Their love for chocolate kindled three years after they unsuccessfully sold hogs, tangerines, cacao beans and sugar at the local bazaar. Large chocolate companies had pre-set contracts and small companies only wanted 250-pound bags of cacao beans a year.
“No one we knew was producing chocolate from farm-to-bar, so we thought, ‘Why not?’ ” Eric said. “Let’s do something new.”
The Reids named the store SPAGnVOLA based on a 16th century voyage map of the island of Hispaniola, known today as the Dominican Republic and Haiti, saying they want to continue to use the store to “bring back a taste of home.”
The new location in Oxon Hill will include a 600-square-foot shop identical to the Lakeforest Mall location that opened in May.
“The cocoa tree called us, and it continues to call us from thousands of miles away,” Crisoire said.