Courtesy of Stephanie Jackson
VERGENNES — After seven years as a key establishment in the downtown area, Middlebury Chocolates bid the town farewell last month. The cozy spot tucked away in Frog Hollow Alley hosted a potluck featuring Understory Farm’s roast pork on Aug. 27 as a way to have a final moment with members of the community.
The chocolatiers who started Middlebury Chocolates are Stephanie and Andrew Jackson. The couple were professional audio engineers prior to creating the shop, and moved to Vermont from North Carolina in 2010.
“My husband and I made some chocolates to give to a friend in town, and they were so good that they wanted to sell them,” Stephanie said over the phone. “So, we started selling at Carol’s Hungry Mind Café.”
It became clear that the Jacksons had a special talent as chocolatiers at the same time that they became interested in starting a coffee shop in Middlebury.
“We just had this idea that we’d start a little coffee shop and wanted something to go with the coffee,” Stephanie Jackson explained. “The chocolate kind of took on a life of its own.”
The couple had no intention of making chocolate when the store first opened. After having their second child, the two were ready to explore a new adventure in rural Vermont. Andrew Jackson is from upstate New York and has family from Johnson, Vermont. The Jacksons described New England as a great place to raise kids.
“We’ve kind of been stuck here ever since — but in a good way” Stephanie Jackson joked.
In almost a decade, the company has changed and grown. The chocolate industry itself has also grown since Middlebury Chocolates opened its doors. When they started the business, Stephanie Jackson explained, there were around two dozen small batch chocolate makers in the United States. Today, she estimates that there are over 300 chocolate companies, all with similar goals of the Jacksons of a business model that is humble and works to bring sustainable foods to the table.
“It’s kind of exciting to see that people are making or care about how their food’s being farmed,” Stephanie Jackson said. “There’s a lot more spotlight on direct and fair-trade organics. Educating the public was a big hurdle that we had to get over.”
Along with the chocolate industry, the town of Middlebury has also changed since Middlebury Chocolates’ arrival. Restaurants and businesses have changed hands. The people in town also change often, as each year brings a new class of students to Middlebury College.
“Watching the flux of people is always interesting,” Stephanie Jackson noted.
Although Middlebury Chocolates retail store no longer exists, the company has moved to a commercial kitchen in Vergennes in the revitalized Kennedy Brothers building. The structure is made up of cider operations as well as several office spaces.
“There’s a café and farmers’ market here — it’s got a really nice vibe,” Stephanie Jackson noted.
The decision to shift to a different mode of operation was initially based on the fourth child the couple is expecting.
“That was a big, surprising jolt,” Stephanie. Jackson shared. “We knew we were stretched thin as it were. Something needed to give so that we could give the full attention to our family. It was very bittersweet.”
In moving to Vergennes, the company will transition its focus to wholesale and keep the business growing steadily. Selling online, as well as to a few local businesses such as the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, has been the main priority in the first few weeks in their new commercial kitchen. In order to stay in the loop of local customers the company is working on developing a Community Supported Agriculture plan where people can come and pick up chocolates on a regular basis.
Middlebury Chocolates’ relationship with the college has also been an interesting dynamic since its opening. According to Stephanie Jackson, there were a few years in a row that the college tried to create a presence from the company on campus, but she admitted that their price point was too high. The couple hopes to stay connected with the school in some form, however, and has already talked to faculty about bringing a special pop up to a Commons at some point this year. In the past, the company has also worked with the college’s Alumni Relations department, often sending Middlebury Chocolates’ products to donors.
Due to the fact that the store swiftly closed its doors just a couple of weeks before classes started for the fall semester, some students speculated that the timing of the closure was calculated.
“We weren’t trying to sneak out or anything,” Stephanie Jackson assured The Campus. “It mainly happened to be great timing with our lease and the place we were in.”
She explained that the building that Middlebury Chocolates resided in, at the end of Frog Hollow Alley, had planned work to install natural gas in the coming months. The construction would have forced the storefront to close for a period regardless, so their landlord gave them the opportunity to terminate their lease prematurely.
“We wanted to move before the busy season really kicks in,” Stephanie Jackson said.
She did not deny the possibility of another future retail store.
“Part of me says yes,” she admitted. “But I can’t promise that.”
With she and her husband mostly running the store, the hours were tremendously demanding.
“Retail is like a small child or a puppy — you have to nurture it constantly,” Stephanie Jackson said.
“There was never a time that we didn’t work 12 hours a day, seven days a week.” The extensive hours is something that Stefan Eisler, an employee who started working for the couple back in Middlebury, tries to alleviate for them a bit each week. “I like to make sure they can spend time with their family,” he stated. “Anything I can do to help out.”
The store has hired college students to help out over the years in Middlebury, however, and still employs Eisler, who has found some advantages from the move. “It’s like I have my own laboratory now,” Eisler said in a phone interview.
Looking forward, the company hopes to keep up the in-person experience by holding tastings at tea houses, cafes, or vineyards in the region. The business is hoping to partner with people in the community to facilitate a similar feel to that which the retail store evoked.
“We love our community and would love to see how much we can bring it together,” Stephanie Jackson expressed.