Article and photos by Callie Broaddus
A gray door — topped by the number 12 and framed on either side by cozy red shop windows exhibiting shimmering gold chocolate boxes and wooden pieces from a nearby antique shop — opens into a bright room that makes you pause on the doorstep. Soak it in. The smell of chocolate hits you. The glimmer of bright pink foil encases balls of the highest quality chocolate, catching your eye jar after jar. Bottles of carefully selected wine and bubbly sit atop wooden barrels, ready to be scooped up, and an enormous vessel of sugarplums sits atop a row of display cases containing handmade chocolates from America’s best master chocolatiers.
Once you come to your senses and remember that you are blocking the door, you might return the warm smile and greeting of the store’s proprietor. Stephanie Yowell, who opened Middleburg’s Finest Chocolates in September of 2015, is nearly always the face behind the counter.
Yowell selects all the treats, wine and local art in the shop herself. “I’ve had a lot of applicants for quality control people,” she jokes. With a host of talented local artists and a growing number of award-winning wineries in Loudon County, Yowell only needs to travel to find her chocolate.
She attends chocolate conventions (yes, those exist), where master chocolatiers bring their materials and tools to create handmade treats on the spot. “…But they don’t want to do the retail end of it. So we have the benefit of actually tasting and choosing,” Yowell explains. “I brought in some other master chocolatiers that I’ve found along the way that specialize in certain things. And when someone specializes in one thing, they’re going to do it well.”
In her store, quality is paramount. “I don’t do anything from overseas. Everything is U.S.-made,” says Yowell, explaining that she wants to avoid any loss of freshness in the time it takes foreign chocolate to ship. But she hasn’t needed to look overseas to find specialized chocolatiers with award-winning records. Speaking of the company from which she sources her truffles, she says, “They don’t do creams, they don’t do barks, they don’t do anything else but truffles. They’ve been around for 100 years, so the recipe has been in the family, and the fifth generation is now running the company. So, it’s stuff like that that I look for, that’s unique.”
Yowell’s only consistent help is in her friend and part-time employee, Andi Michael, who works as an energy healer when she’s not tending the shop. According to Yowell, Michael has been an integral part of her business, allowing her to maintain consistent store hours when she is traveling to conventions, taking a rare day off or swamped with holiday shoppers. “I’ve been lucky with Andi,” says Yowell, “Oh my gosh, she’s amazing. She takes care of it like I would.”
Michael has no doubt who deserves the credit for the store’s growing success. “She is really smart,” she says, speaking of Yowell, “First of all, she’s got an amazing memory. And she’s really good with customers. She’s calm and unflappable.” Michael explains that when Yowell purchased the shop formerly called Shenandoah Fine Chocolates nearly 18 months ago, she ramped up its opening hours, often keeping the shop open seven days a week. “Then of course changing the windows, and making them all vibrant and beautiful. And she’s got a great eye, I think, for displaying things.”
“First of all, she’s got an amazing memory. And she’s really good with customers. She’s calm and unflappable.”
– Andi Michael
Speaking of the recently finished roadwork in town, Michael says that Yowell had grown the business despite it all. “She’s persevered, and she’s grown the shop, and she’s made it I think more efficient and more effective. And opened herself up to, I think, tons of opportunities.”
One of the opportunities Michael refers to is a Valentine’s weekend wine and chocolate pairing with 50 West Vineyards, just down the road from the store. Yowell and Michael hope to be involved in more special events like this one in the future and are also looking forward to weddings and a new website to drive online sales. But for now, Yowell says her goal is just for more people to realize the shop is there. “I’ve seen more now that people are coming back,” she says, with a hopeful note in her voice.
Once you’ve steppedfully into the shop, you might hear Michael repeat her axiom, “Who has more fun than us?” ML
Dark chocolate-covered orange taffy
Cinnamon gummy bears
Middleburg’s Finest Chocolates
12 E Washington St, Middleburg, VA 20117