George Williams became a chocolate maker by accident. Over eight years ago, a couple approached him about leasing a property. “They came to my office downtown and asked if I had any retail space. They told me they had a burning desire to open a chocolate business and asked, ‘How about if we partner up?’”
He remodeled the space, down Times Arcade Alley, right in the center of downtown Brevard, bought and installed equipment, even paid for their moving expenses, and was ready for them to take over. But they reneged on their agreement. “Knowing what I know now, these folks did not know a lot about chocolate.” Since he refuses to be discouraged by obstacles, George thought to himself, “How hard can it be?” For the next three months he proceeded “to ruin a lot of chocolate. I turned a lot of milk chocolate white.” At 70 years old, he works twelve hours a day, seven days a week, but for him “it’s a fun business. I eat chocolate every day.”
George seems an unlikely candidate for a chocolate connoisseur. He is a low-key kind of guy, warm and entirely down to earth, who can talk to anybody, an “everyman,” and his circuitous path into chocolate making begins with his experiences in business in general. George was born in Rockwood, Tennessee. He had been living for a number of years in Florida, but moved up to Brevard to take over his father’s company, Brevard Glass and Glazing. “Dad had a glass and glazing company he was closing, so I took over the business.” George and his son David ran the glass and glazing company for fifteen years, and they closed it in 1990.
George wasn’t sure what to do next, and he thought he’d build a house for his family. His wife said, “You don’t know anything about building a house.” He tells me proudly, “I’ve been married to the wrong woman for 47 years; I’m very fortunate.” He built his house, and, having succeeded in building one house, he went on to build others. He became interested in renovating old buildings, and other real estate ventures, which he continues to pursue concurrent with managing Downtown Chocolates.
For the last eight years, he has been making chocolate. When I ask him how one learns to make chocolate, he tells me the recipes are easy but calls the mastery of chocolate-making “a bear.” Making chocolate is a chemical process, almost a feat of alchemy, as he describes it. To create chocolate with a smooth consistency and shiny finish, for use in molded or dipped chocolates, one must temper it. During the months he taught himself to make chocolate, there were times when the chocolate would be perfectly manageable, but heat and humidity affect the process and it’s difficult to melt it to the right temperature. George Williams uses a Belgian chocolate that comes in bulk. He mastered the chocolate-making process and now melts it, tempers it, and produces a wonderful array of flavored truffles, turtles, barks, and dipped chocolates in milk, white and dark varieties.
He relates how when he first opened, “An advertising guy wanted to sell advertising to me. I gave him fifty business cards and $100.00 to hand out the cards.” The business cards promised a free chocolate for people who visited the store, and he’s never done any “advertising” since then. The visual array of chocolates is alluring, and they look perfect. Glossy caps of truffles in dark, milk and white chocolate are inventively decorated. A white globe filled with a cherry kirsch cream is topped with a tiny sprig of dried cherry. “Dark and Stormy” is a square of white ganache that bursts into the mouth, a piracy of rum and ginger. Bourbon pecan is a gooey, rich button of flavor, inside a crunchy robe of pecans. Lavender, my favorite, is a subtle deep chocolate, just slightly tasting of the herb, so that it gives dimension to the dark ganache. According to Lindsay Edwards, a vet tech who began working at Downtown Chocolates in college, their toffee is very popular. Its buttery density is the result of standing over the pot and stirring it for a full hour. George finds a book and reads while he stirs. Their turtles are an over-the-top experience, a plunge into a pool of caramel, pecans breaking from their shell of dark chocolate. Their combination milk, white and dark chocolate bark is a visual abstract painting.
Despite the delicious finished products, George shares with me the way these are all the results of experiments. He likes to come up with something new; he “gets tired of the same stuff over and over.” But he assures me “I’ve made some chocolates you would spit out!” And he is willing to fulfill the whims of his customers. At a customer’s request, he has even made chocolate-covered pork rinds!
George is always looking for ways to please his customers, and he has come up with some great ideas to incorporate into what he offers. For example, he has a machine that can print onto chocolate. Lawyers or real estate agents might bring in a business card, and he can replicate the printing on a business-sized square of white chocolate. One of his boxes of truffles features one of these white rectangular pieces, with a picture imprinted on it of the famous Brevard White Squirrel, which is a unique, and very real, breed of squirrel found in Brevard, North Carolina. “You can take any pictures, and transfer them. One guy asked me to transfer a photo of a Harley Davidson; I’ve even done baby pictures.”
He bought molds for the white chocolate squirrel lollypops that caught my eye. I have to admit I think they are adorable. The “Emergency Chocolate Bar” with a red cross on the label, was designed and printed by his wife Kathie Williams, who does all the labels. As George says of his wife, “She’s my boss.” She has some degree of involvement in the shop, since she also offers seasonal decorating suggestions, and, as George says, “She’s my in-house critic.” George has expanded the shop’s offerings to include coffee. There are some gaily-draped huge burlap coffee sacks on the back wall, and George explains to me, “We sell a lot of coffee.”
In the summer he offers ice cream from Wells Dairy in Wisconsin. George tried many different brands of ice cream, before settling on what he considers a superior choice. During the summer, the shop sells milkshakes and malts. “A lot of kids don’t know what a malt is. It’s ice cream, malt, and milk, and that’s it.” Williams makes it sound so delicious that I’m already vowing to return in the summer and taste one!
George is an incredibly friendly person, and if I’m inclined to come back to the shop, it’s an indication that others feel the same way. For George, the most important part of the business is the contact with people. “I’m a people person. Everybody who leaves here smiles. People have great stories if you will listen to them. You can buy one chocolate here and put it on your credit card. No minimum sale.” His customers have taken Downtown Chocolates home to Belgium, Jerusalem, Japan, Ireland, Guatemala, Sweden and Finland. And individuals drive in from Charlotte or from Tennessee to replenish their personal stashes of chocolate.
George’s philosophy about getting on in life is that you don’t need to know anything, you just need to go step by step. He thinks to himself, “I can do that.” Taking the initiative has led to success in his business ventures. As George says, people move through life and are thrown “curve balls.” His response is, “You can feel sorry for yourself or you can think, ‘Where do I go from here?’” He goes into the back of the chocolate shop and returns with a slew of color, xeroxed photographs of wrecked houses. They look abandoned, filled with junk, decrepit, roofs fallen in. He tells me that everyone would say, “Tear it down.” His response was, “People have no vision.” He shows me the glossy color brochure of a house after he has renovated it, and the difference is unimaginable, magical. He profited, and as he says it in his modest, matter-of-fact fashion, made “a butt load of money.” But he assures me that better than the money is the satisfaction that you just take a wrecked house and fix it.
George’s confidence, and his creative, inventive philosophy of effort extends to the way in which he runs the business. Lindsay calls out from the back of the store that, “He’s a great boss!” He gives autonomy to his seven employees, all part-timers, because, as he asserts, “You can’t make a mistake in here.” One employee, a polite young man I spoke with on the phone, Juan Mascaro, is the son of the Athletic Director at Brevard College. He’s a soccer player and a dark crème brulee truffle man. Another long-term employee, Terry, refers to “the school of George.” George himself admits, “I’d hate to go to culinary school and find out what I’m doing wrong.” “You just start; you just try, and it’s okay to fail.” By the time I leave the store I am inspired by George Williams’ strength, intelligence, humor, and humility.
Obviously, people return to this low-key, relaxed, café store for more than chocolates. Despite the sophistication of the sheet fountain, built of salvaged copper metal, that George built and installed outside the store, with its outdoor benches and wide windows, its front of brick salvaged from across the street, Downtown Chocolates is a casual place. The space is filled with tables, and one can imagine people coming in for a cup of coffee and a treat, sitting for as long as they like and passing the time.
Employee Juan Mascaro describes shifting between making chocolate, while it’s at just the right temperature to work with, and going back and forth from the kitchen to serve the shop’s customers. There is nothing fancy here, except the decorated chocolates, and anyone would feel at home.
But the story of Downtown Chocolates is really only one aspect of a much more compelling and more important story, and that is the larger story of Williams’ development as an entrepreneur. Once he had built his first house, the experience led to other renovations, more expansive real estate ventures, and he began buying up and renovating properties other people considered hopeless prospects. His imagination, his vision and his confidence in his own abilities led to the renovation of the alley where Downtown Chocolates is located and of which it is a part.
The story of his renovation of Times Arcade Alley begins with his daughter. His daughter, Jennifer Brandenburg, had managed a restaurant in Winston Salem. Jennifer got married and wanted to open a restaurant in Brevard. George “had a bunch of these old buildings,” and redid this alley with the help of his son David, who has worked on all of his real estate ventures. The old buildings included an abandoned beauty shop, a woodworking shop and a storage area. He and his son tied the shops into one large space, put a porch over a parking area to create an outdoor deck, and floored the entire space with 6,000 slices of pine post, which make a beautiful “tiled” wood floor so sophisticated it looks European, though historically that kind of flooring has had an industrial appeal due to its durability. The squares in the floor support the patterns of squares all over the restaurant, which Jennifer named “The Square Root.” Initially the theme of squares was based on the preexisting leaded-glass squares in the storefront. In his characteristic fashion, George worked on the renovation without spending a lot of money. He used goat fencing up against a counter to create a barrier and echo the theme of more squares. He scavenged the decorative tin roofing “out of some guy’s trash pile.” The bar, a 20 foot long solid piece made from spalted maple taken off of nearby King Street, looks sculptural. It’s magnificent. The bar-back is a Brunswick he managed to find; it’s unique, art-deco in style, and he says he has been told, “They’re not many of them around anymore.” People said it was a “terrible location for a restaurant,” but it became “a destination,” the busiest restaurant in town. His daughter ran it for four years, but it was so successful she had no life, so they sold the restaurant but still own the building.
Further along the alley, on one side, is a building with five large murals in spaces for windows that used to be covered with bars. “It looked like a prison.” So George worked with the local Arts Council to have the bars removed and have five artists replace them with murals, but of course, George supplied the wood panels on which the artists would make the paintings. He rigged up a solar panel, so that his sign for Downtown Chocolates would be lit up at night. He says it’s important “to think outside the box.” “People don’t do, because they don’t get started. People are afraid of failure, but being broke is not terminal. Anything above that is a semi-success.” He believes, “Success is if your children love and respect you. Then everything else doesn’t matter that much. You can’t be afraid; if you fail, then you learn.”
Although George Williams doesn’t tell me this, I can infer that he has taken that philosophy and shared it. His wife, Kathie, is the Director of the Children’s Center, a non-profit for neglected and abused children, located at 95 Johnson Street in Brevard. At one time, he tells me, “I had as many as fourteen kids we took in off the streets.” He had one foster child, just out of reform school, who was very talented at basketball. “Brevard College was interested.” He took the young man over to the college, and the coach, who was a new head coach, asked if George had the time to help out. The boy only participated for six months, but George has stayed on as the Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach at Brevard College for the last fourteen years.
But Downtown Chocolates’ raison d’etre is not to make money. As George tells it, “It’s not why you do things.” He shares stories about real estate ventures he has embarked on in Brevard, and because his approach is so unconventional, he has been able to assist others without taking advantage of them. He swapped deeds with the beleaguered owner of a junkyard, who was being pestered because he owned an eyesore. “The guy really just wanted to get out of the town.” George was able to build houses on the property, and everybody was happy. It’s easy to see why people would trust George. He says that it’s important to learn about people, “what they are; what they stand for.” He has a huge vision, and imagination, the ability to look at abandoned houses, decrepit buildings, and re-envision them, and he brings his vision to reality because of his determination. Now he’s ready to do something else, because Downtown Chocolates can run itself.
Written by: Tina Barr | Photography by: Linda D. Cluxton