Enterprising Vermont Women Whip Up Chocolates, Cookies & Hot Sauce
by Michelle A. L. Singer

Vermont has gained a national and even international reputation for its fine food and drink—craft beer, artisan cheese, and restaurants specializing in local, organic produce. Vermont Woman interviewed three women in the business of crafting delectable treats—everything from gourmet chocolates to organic granola, vegan cookies, and artisanal hot sauces. All three women—Jaquelyn Rieke, Claire Georges, and Leigh Williams—make a point of sourcing good ingredients: ethically produced, organic, and often local.

Jaquelyn Rieke of Nutty Steph's fabulous chocolates in Middlesex has lots to smile about. Photo: Jan Doerler

Jaquelyn Rieke of Nutty Steph's, Middlesex

When you enter the doors of Nutty Steph's chocolate and granola shop in Middlesex on Route 2, chances are good "Steph" herself, wearing her characteristic bright red lipstick, will greet you with a genuine welcome. Jaquelyn Rieke, who gave the Stephanie part of her name to the business, has been the owner and visionary of Nutty Steph's for 14 years. In that time, the business has grown and changed.

Just married this past spring, Rieke is at the beginning of yet another chapter. "The wedding was a very special opportunity to gather together the various facets of my life," she says, "including the Nutty Steph's community—mentors, coworkers, and their families. My wedding was also an incredible opportunity for me personally to take five solid weeks away from work, which I had not done in 14 years."

Rieke has been on the go since she started Nutty Steph's, baking up her first batch of Vermont maple-sweetened granola and delivering it by rollerblade in Montpelier. She has been in the current shop in Middlesex next to Red Hen Baking for 10 years and says she feels like they are poised to jump to the next level as a business.

They have recently found new sourcing in Maine for the organic dry rolled oats used in their granola that are processed on demand and not stripped of essential fibers and nutrients. The result is a heartier oat that serves as the base of the famous nut, maple, and oat combination known as Nutty Steph's granola and, when covered in chocolate, Magic Chunks.

As the main sales force and visionary for the business, Rieke works with over 100 vendors in Vermont. She has grown the business to include a team of dedicated and enthusiastic employees and an entire line of amazing small batch chocolate products, including 15 different kinds of chocolate bars and maple toffee topped with pistachios.

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"People ask if I ever get sick of it, and the answer is no," she says. "I simply love to eat our granola and chocolate! Another benefit of running Nutty Steph's is the firsthand window it provides me for peering into the philosophical paradoxes of being human, such as commerce and the planet, efficiency and creativity, collaboration and authority. Nutty Steph's has been a constant factor in my adult life, testing me from every angle, driving me ever closer to certain pillars of strength: integrity, stability, perseverance. These are among the inexplicable 'perks' of my job as the founder of Nutty Steph's."

Her shop is the place where she and her staff can educate folks on cocoa—the flavors and the source. The shop has samples of fermented cacao beans available, which when roasted and ground become the base for Nutty Steph's chocolate. The beans have a surprising nutty, vinegar, wine taste that is strong and not unpleasant, but if you don't care for it you can chase it with one of many samples of dark chocolate they offer. She and shopkeeper Sophie Kirpan have both traveled, at separate times, to Ecuador in South America where their chocolate comes from. Rieke recalls meeting a cacao tree for the first time two years ago saying, "It was like I had been working with someone for a long time, but we had never met."

Kirpan describes the experience in their website's blog: "I was able to meet the farmers who grow the cacao for our chocolate, and to visit the factory where all of the ingredients come together to create the chocolate disks that we receive in Vermont.

My trip to meet the farmers and makers of our chocolate was life changing and 100% reaffirming that we have found the best possible country and the strongest chocolate sourcing company to work with. Most notably, the farmers who grow the cacao own their own land and are able to grow cacao alongside a plethora of other tropical fruits, spices and plants, ensuring that they have a variety of crops from which they can glean additional income." The cacao is wild grown and comes directly from Ecuador, skipping the typical route from Europe and then to the United States that most chocolate makes.

They want the shop to be a place where people can discover something new, like dulce, a caramelized white chocolate. Nutty Steph's put its signature on dulce chocolate, which originated in France four years ago, by adding sea salt and creating a salted caramel bar, which won the company the 2014 Good Food Award.

"We make simple foods that are ingredient driven," says Rieke. Along with knowing that no slave labor or deforestation was used in creating the chocolate, Nutty Steph's products are always free of artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, preservatives, corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, or GMOs. They rely on local cream and butter, pure maple syrup, and featured ingredients that inspire them, like Fat Toad Farm Farmstead Goat's Milk Caramel and Potlickers Raspberry Smoked Maple Jam.

Another way Rieke channels inspiration is by mentoring aspiring young business owners and chocolatiers. "Currently, I participate privately with Twinfield Together [Mentoring Program] and through Nutty Steph's with the U-32 entrepreneurship class," she says.

"As a business owner, teaching and training was never my strong suit because I am a speed demon, always rushing ahead, and also because of a shortage of self-confidence, lacking an understanding of the value of my own knowledge. As it turns out, fruitful results often follow from a process of slowing down, so working with youth, disadvantaged populations, and with the particular needs of differing individuals is actually the key to success for a person like me."

Proper sourcing, simple recipes, and great employees all seem worth it to have such good chocolate. When she travels, Rieke must consider what chocolate she's likely to want and bring it along. She only had to take one three-day trip without bringing any of her products to learn that lesson—rather like bringing your own maple syrup with you when you travel out of the Northeast.

You can stop in her shop, open Monday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. and Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m., at 961 US-2 in Middlesex. You can also order online at www.nuttystephs.com


Claire Georges of Butterfly Bakery, Montpelier

Chances are, if you have been to the farmers' market in Montpelier on a Saturday, you've met Claire Georges of Butterfly Bakery. She has had a vending space there since 2004—most of her adult life. She's been a steady presence selling her line of whole grain, vegan, and maple-syrup-sweetened cookies, snaps, chocolate peanut butter chunks, and granola. Most recently, she has introduced a line of hot sauces and mustard, including a wildly popular line of Vermont craft beer hot sauces. In the past few years, she's taken on a larger production space, hired employees, and seen a 50 percent growth in her business and a 100 percent growth in her family as she and her husband welcomed two daughters.

Her new space on Gallison Hill Road is fully three times bigger than the space she previously worked in on Barre Street in Montpelier, now the location of Woodbelly Pizza. In true Vermont fashion, with only one or two degrees of separation between people, Woodbelly was also the caterer at the Georges' wedding.


Claire Fitts Georges of the Butterfly Bakery of Vermont in Montpelier weighs peppers for her amazing hot sauces.
photo: courtesy Butterfly Bakery of Vermont


In her new space, she has a room dedicated to baking, a large walk-in freezer, an office, and a packing and mailing area. Georges founded Butterfly Bakery in 2003 and did all the baking herself for the next 10 years.

"It was chugging along at a steady rate but growth was stagnant. I was focusing too much on production and not on sales, marketing, and other aspects essential to growth," she says.

She knew when her first daughter came along in 2014 that the business needed to provide a more substantial stream of revenue or she had to find something that was. Though she has a degree in Computer Science and Applied Math from Oberlin College and could probably make more money programming, she says, she decided to double down on her love of making food and on Butterfly Bakery. She hired her first employee and decided to take her hot sauce beyond the farmers' market.

What began as an experiment using leftover peppers from vendors at the farmers' market that were not good candidates for the food shelf has become a line of craft beer hot sauces that is finding a far-flung audience and selling, ironically, like hot cakes. Georges began to experiment with craft ingredients like beer, mead, and cider. It wasn't long after she dropped off a bottle of Heady Pepper Hot Sauce, made with Heady Topper beer, at the Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury that she got a call, "How do we get more of this?"

In 2015, she bought 2,500 pounds of peppers to make hot sauce and barely made enough to meet the demand for the year, so she doubled her order with local farms for 2016, buying over 5,000 pounds. "I managed to squeak by with just enough hot sauce," she says.

This year, Georges contracted for 17,000 pounds of peppers from 10 different Vermont farms and will end the season with 20,000 pounds. She keeps them in her large walk-in freezer when they are not being destemmed by a small crew. She hopes it's enough to meet the demand for her hot sauce this year, which is now accounting for 50 percent of her business's yearly growth.

"Hot sauce is trendy right now," she says. "There are fan clubs on Facebook for hot sauce. There are no fan clubs for mustard."
Georges just spent the better part of the summer and fall making hot sauce but was nowhere near done for the season. They have nine big flavors of hot sauce that are available year-round, five made with Vermont craft beers and four teetotalers. All other specialty flavors are made in small batches and have limited runs. All of her products are as Vermont as she can make them, using ingredients from local farms and sugar shacks, and are sold in stores all over Vermont.

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Along with Heady Topper, her craft beer line of hot sauces includes 14th Star's Maple Breakfast Stout, Switchback's Ale, Queen City Brewery's Yorkshire Porter and Stowe's Tips Up Hard Cider. Her nonbeer hot sauce flavors are Maple Sugar Shack Sriracha, Vermont Habs, Smoked Onion, and Cilantro Onion. She's already sold 11,000 bottles this season.

When her first daughter was born and she contemplated maternity leave as a self-employed business owner, Georges had to take a hard look at her products and how they got made. Around the same time she launched her craft beer hot sauces, Georges also had the opportunity to mentor an intern who learned so much she became invaluable and now manages all the weekly baking for the business. That helped Georges make the transition to business owner and parent. She has since refined and adjusted what she can keep on shelves at food co-ops and markets that carry her products as she has grown the business in the direction of new items.

Right now, she works on the three days when her daughters are in daycare and preschool and works by e-mail and text on the other days. She goes back in the evenings after the girls have gone to bed to put in a few more hours. "I come from a long line of workaholics," she says, "but now there are other demands on my time, like splashing in puddles with toddlers."
You can buy her products at butterflybakeryvt.com and food co-ops and markets all over Vermont.


Leigh Williams of Laughing Moon Chocolates, Stowe

Watching Leigh Williams, founder and owner of Laughing Moon Chocolates on Main Street in Stowe Village, hand-dip truffles in melted milk chocolate, you would guess she has done it many times. The way she deftly swishes each ball of ganache until it's completely coated, then bounces it gently in her hand as if she's weighing it, and, most impressively, twirls the liquid chocolate to make a perfect little swirl on top, you could believe she's made thousands—and she has.

In business since 2001, Williams sells as much as 50 pounds of chocolate per day. "Making truffles is at least a three-day process," she tells me. The center of the truffle, or ganache, is a mix of semisweet chocolate, heavy cream, and Vermont butter, which is also handmade at the shop. That process accounts for one day, including the likely addition of a special ingredient like Heady Topper, the famous Vermont beer, or Green Mountain Distillers' Maple Liquor to make the Vermont Maple truffle. The ganache must then sit overnight until the next day when it can be expertly covered by hand in milk chocolate, and then set again before it's ready to box, sell, and eat.


Leigh Williams of Laughing Moon Chocolates, Stowe Photo: courtesy Laughing Moon Chocolates


People stop in to the retail shop not just for truffles but also for buttercreams, nut clusters, fudge, chocolate bars, chocolate-dipped fruit, and more. The shop even has a case of sugar-free and vegan options. Laughing Moon makes all its own soft centers, like ganache, caramel, and buttercrunch, focusing on small-scale chocolate making by hand.

It’s working: “We are busier than ever,” says Williams. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, Laughing Moon Chocolates does one-third of the business they will do for the year. February 13th may be the business’s biggest single sales day and the day they see the most men all year, says General Manager Brittany Tatro. “But it’s more manageable [than Christmas],” says Tatro, who has worked at Laughing Moon for 12 years. “Christmas is busy for six weeks straight.”

“There’s nothing as big as Christmas,” agrees Williams. All of Laughing Moon’s employees will put in extra hours during the holiday season, but it’s Williams who takes on the most hours, working seven days a week. Even though they only have only a short respite until they need to begin preparing for Easter, Williams says it does even out, and she’s able to enjoy more time off in the summer, which in Vermont works out well.

In her 16 years of business, Williams says, “I’ve had to learn the same lessons a number of times.” She has had to decide what’s most important: to grow the business for more profit or to continue to handmake her products, which by necessity limits what she can produce and keeps the business small.

“I don’t have economy of scale,” she explains. “It has become clear to me that the business is not suited to investors.” Her value comes from staying small and, most of all, handmade. For Williams, that’s what works.

A sample of the delicious chocolates
produced by Leigh and her staff.

She has also learned to prepare and staff the shop’s needs so that it can accommodate and maintain the shop’s substantial volume of sales. Laughing Moon offers corporate, wholesale, and mail orders in addition to the retail shop, where free daily chocolate-dipping demonstrations and other events are hosted.

As Laughing Moon enters its 16th holiday season, it will continue to offer the “best hot chocolate on the planet” as well as seasonal favorites like snowballs, made from homemade marshmallows, caramel, white chocolate, and coconut. The company will also be hosting its annual holiday tradition of offering handmade candy cane demonstrations on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from November 24 through December 23.

The public is invited to watch employees boil, pull, turn, roll, and twist the classic holiday candy, and a limited number of guests can reserve a spot to participate and make their own canes. A choice of five flavors is available: peppermint, spearmint, cinnamon, wintergreen, and maple. The demonstrations are so popular—with as many as 50 people in the shop at one time—that the shop offers two on Saturdays: one at 11:00 a.m. and another at 2:00 p.m. To make a reservation to attend a demonstration and make your own candy cane, call the shop at (802) 253-9591. You can read more at www.laughingmoonchocolates.com




Michelle A.L. Singer lives in East Montpelier. You can reach her at michellealsinger@gmail.com.