Sheila Schiwal holds a job where she only deals with sunny and smiling customers. In her line of work, crotchety or grumpy folks are never present. So, just what does she do for a living you marvel?
Schiwal is the owner of Charbonneau’s Chocolate Company, a family-run operation in Stevensville, where daily operations are amusing and convivial for proprietor and patron alike. “Actually,” recalls Schiwal during our interview, “I do remember one lady coming in upset because she was lactose intolerant.”
Schiwal, who took over the business from her mother, comes from a family abundant with “Chocoholics.” Therefore, it’s only natural that the sweetest bit of fortuity got the whole enterprise started. “My dad was at an auction looking for restaurant equipment,” says Schiwal. “He fell upon some candy making equipment. He knew it was a good thing.”
Six months later, in the fall of 2002, after all the necessary appliances and machinery had been added, Charbonneau’s Chocolate opened for business. The surname Charbonneau was selected for three reasons: French names are often associated with elegant foods; it’s a memorable Montana history name – Toussaint Charbonneau was a French Canadian fur trader who married Sacagawea and joined the Lewis and Clark expedition; and the family name that belongs to her grandfather.
From its somewhat camouflaged location at 755 Main Street, Charbonneau’s Chocolate aims to supply folks with everything they desire to keep their addiction to chocolate alive and healthy. With over 122 varieties of irresistible gourmet chocolates in panoramic view, the store is a mandatory stop for enthusiastic candy and confectionary lovers. Working with only the finest, freshest and highest-quality ingredients (no vegetable fats are added, cocoa butter and cocoa liqueur are used), Charbonneau’s Chocolate takes tremendous care and pride in its work.
Every piece of chocolate is hand-rolled and hand-dipped. According to Schiwal, the company emulates the European method of chocolate production, making each chocolate morsel smooth and densely concentrated with rich and creamy chocolate.
Using wide metal copper pots and marble tables, the company does things the old-fashioned way, says Schiwal. “We don’t use machines to dip anything. Nobody does dipping like we do anymore.” All the chocolate is made from scratch, something that’s quite time-consuming and slightly more costly for the customer, “but well worth it,” she adds. Some of the delightfully decorated results: velvety German chocolate and delicious raspberry truffles; white almond and pecan delight bars; and the Meriwether, which consists of rum cream that’s dipped in milk chocolate and rolled in almonds.
A batch of chocolate can spoil if it’s not being watched or held properly, and batches that start to separate have to be tossed away. It takes 8-hours start to finish for one batch of chocolate to be ready for consumption. One batch is enough for about one tray’s worth, roughly around 100 pieces. As a mother, Schiwal speaks from experience when she ribs about chocolate being like a teenager because it’s real temperamental. “And if you don’t handle it right, the whole thing will be ruined.”
Schiwal’s staff is also rather inventive when it comes to creating original and humorous novelty confections. One of the more popular candy bars has a label that reads “Moose Nuggets: Thanks for dropping by!” “Our novelty bars are unique because they taste good and they are funny,” says Schiwal.
When many people think of a candy store, they envisage a young, peppy neighborhood kid with $1 dollar in his pocket, determined to spend every last penny. The kid and the candy store fit together like the pit and the pendulum, so it’s no surprise that Charbonneau’s Chocolate Company hosts lots of field trips and has a banquet room for chocolate parties. Schiwal gives the little ones two rules: eat all the candy you want and don’t throw-up.
Contests are held for elementary school kids and prizes are given. Kids get the chance to decorate some chocolate and, only fittingly, are granted permission to eat their own creations. “They feel as though they are working in a chocolate factory,” says Schiwal. “They love it.”
Schiwal throws fondue parties and creates fully-edible party platters. And while her powerful chocolate cravings have pretty much subsided, she is always sampling the goods in an effort to make certain that things taste just right; and she maintains a weakness for her ever-so scrumptious personal favorite: the dark rum truffle.
New diets and rapidly moving trends affect the chocolate business. With scientific studies confirming and praising the health benefits of eating dark chocolate (it’s reported to be a potent antioxidant), Schiwal finds more people coming into the store and buying dark chocolate by the score. Rich black and sweet red flavors of liquorice, made by the Australian company Kookaburra are also enormously popular, says Schiwal. “We have liquorice fanatics in Missoula that make special trips here to get it.”
Furthermore, Schiwal has added a few modern ideas to some of her mom’s old recipes, like producing sugar-free and low-carb candy. She even accepts special requests from folks desperate to enjoy that sweet something that only she can make. “People come here to find their favorites, and that’s because they can’t find them anywhere else,” she smiles. “We can satisfy their desire for the very best.”