An unusual Philadelphia basement made the woman that makes some of the best chocolate you’ll taste.
What Kelly Walker’s grandmother and great grandmother kept in their basement wasn’t like what other grandmothers and great grandmothers kept in theirs.
When Walker was young, she’d often travel to Philadelphia with her mother to visit the home the family matriarchs shared. Their basement was as close as most get to standing in a bona fide chocolate factory.
“They used to take us down into their basement where they had been making chocolate,” Walker said. “They let us pick out our favorite assortment.”
One day, Walker asked: “What’s the deal with the chocolate?”
The deal was that Walker’s great grandmother, Mabel, had been a professional chocolatier, which Walker estimates to have been sometime in the 1920s. The profession rubbed off on Walker’s grandmother. The mother-daughter team often made chocolate together in the home they’d later share.
“The two of them together would still make chocolate and work on this giant marble table,” Walker said. “I always thought it was the greatest thing in the world that they had a little chocolate shop in the basement.”
At age seven, Walker told her grandmother that she’d own her own chocolate store one day.
“That would be wonderful,” her grandmother said. “Just make sure you’re closed on Sundays.”
Walker kept that resolve well into her teens. But she intended to merely operate a chocolate store, not make chocolate. “I don’t think I pictured myself making it until much later,” she said. It came when Walker was 18 and her mother, who before then expressed no interest in learning the family trade, asked Walker if she’d like to drive to Philadelphia to get their first lesson in chocolate making.
“I think she realized one day that chocolate making might be dead and gone if we don’t see it for ourselves, and learn, and preserve that,” Walker said. Some time later, Walker, her mother, and grandmother (her great grandmother had died by then) gathered in that Philadelphia basement for a crash course in chocolate making.
“We got to sit and taste different types of chocolate,” Walker said, recalling those several days of instruction. “She talked about what chocolate is [and] supposed to feel like when you’re eating it.” You see, not only is the flavor of chocolate important, so is its texture. “It snaps and then melts” at room temperature, Walker said. “[It’s a] really incredible substance, which is why I enjoy working with it so much.”
Walker’s grandmother also tried to impart the patience that a chocolatier needs, especially since the three-day crash course yielded only one full batch of her grandmother’s chocolate-coated butter cream. Patience would become a major part in Walker’s chocolate business future, but it was excitement that filled her when she left Philadelphia with the chocolate she helped make, along with notes she’d scribbled on paper, napkins, and “whatever I could find.”
Reality tempered that excitement soon after she returned home and began making chocolate on her own. “I think in my youth and arrogance I grossly underestimated what was happening while watching my grandma make it look easy,” Walker said. She was still committed to opening her own store, but she realized her own chocolate-making limitations, limitations that could only be overcome with years of patient perfecting.
While she worked on the chocolate-making aspect of her business during her spare time, Walker worked jobs in banking, insurance, and even managed a restaurant. Those positions weren’t come to lackadaisically. Walker chose them deliberately because each, in its own way, would strengthen her business acumen whenever she opened her chocolate store. “Anything I [could] do that could teach me some function of the total job,” she said.
Walker finally decided to start her own business as a lesson for her son. “There was something about me wanting him to know that if you try hard at something, you can make it work.” So in 2008, a decade after that initial lesson in her grandmother’s basement, Walker quit her full-time job and opened Chocolates by Kelly.
It wasn’t an easy start.
“The odds were pretty well-stacked against me,” she said. “With the economy being as bad as it was, no one was interested in lending me any money.” She eventually found an affordable location in Forest Hill, where the business currently is, and busied herself with making chocolate, maintaining a high level of quality, and maximizing efficiency because she couldn’t afford to hire help. Long days meant she’d often slept overnight at the business. “It was a real marathon,” she said.
But one that got easier.
— ∮∮∮ —
Most businesses gauge their success through money–how much it spends versus how much it earns. But Walker has a different metric. “Something that was an obvious marker for me was: how much bulk chocolate in a year am I buying?” She began with 40 lbs. of chocolate the first year. Then it was 100 lbs. the next. “All the sudden, [in 2010] I find myself buying 2,000 lbs. of chocolate1 and people are still coming.” They’re still coming today.
She attributes her success, not only to her chocolate, but the environment the shop creates. “It’s important for us around here to make a place that makes you happy,” Walker said. Not many businesses have customers who dance in elation after sampling their product, which Walker has seen before. “When the thing that you produce brings out the desire to dance…it’s a really great day,” she said. “It’s the best thing to watch no matter how many times you see it.”
One of the reason why Chocolates by Kelly has struck a nerve (a tastebud?) in Richmond is that the store constantly rotates its offerings. It has regular items but adapts to seasons and to the fancies of its owner.
Walker can also make specific chocolate treats on the spot. She recalled when, some time ago, a man in his late 70s came in the store and asked if almond bark chocolate was available. It wasn’t, but Kelly invited the man into the kitchen to watch her make some. About 15 minutes later, the man had his almond bark. “He was so delighted that we would do that, he comes back every couple of months and sits in the chair,” Walker said, like he first did, happily chatting while he waits for his chocolate.
“We like being able to have that ability,” Walker said. “To learn the ins and outs of chocolate so well, and to learn chocolate in depth, in a way that we could manipulate it at a moment’s notice.”
No matter what kind of chocolate Kelly and her full-time staff of three produce, all chocolate must go through tempering, wherein cocoa butter is crystalized. “Chocolate has to go through this series of temperature increases and decreases while it’s being stirred in the most exact way,” she said. That process can yield chocolate that’s soft or hard, crumbly or firm, or melts too easily or not easily enough. The chocolatier must perfect that process.
Not only has Walker accomplished that, she’s perfecting her business as a whole. Chocolates by Kelly items are available in her Forest Hill shop, and several local retailers carry them too (see sidebar).
Find Chocolates by Kelly
- Ellwood Thompson’s
- Little House Green Grocery
- Once Upon A Vine South
- Good Foods Grocery
- New Kent Winery
- Blue Bee Cider
- Farm Table
- Mattie’s Mountain Mud (online and in-store)
Several Chocolates by Kelly chocolates will be available on Valentine’s Day at the Science Museum of Virginia, following an event in which couples hike The Fan and perform couples yoga at the museum. The following day, Chocolates by Kelly will be available after the Viniterra Race for the Chocolate 10k/5k at New Kent Winery.
Walker is also looking to expand her local chocolate empire. “I’m very, very seriously considering an additional location in Church Hill,” she said. However she’s hesitant to increase her production in the hopes of securing a distribution deal with the likes of a Whole Foods or Kroger. “I want to make sure I can support that sort of volume,” she said. “I’m still in the phase where I’m trying to sell directly to the customer.”
Every time customers open the doors to Chocolate by Kelly, they smell the sum of Walker’s decade-long strive for perfection. Scents not unlike those that came from that Philadelphia basement.
Chocolates by Kelly is located at 5047 Forest Hill Avenue and (despite her grandmother’s suggestion against it) is open on Sundays.
photo courtesy of Page Hayes
- Which Walker stores (in bulk) on pallets in cold storage. ↩