A chocolate bar featuring the Door County peninsula was the very first product Kara VanderLeest created for her business, DC Chocolate Design. It has also become one of her bestsellers, particularly popular with visitors.
When Cole and Kara VanderLeest met in Milwaukee and began dating, chocolate was just a delicious treat. Kara studied food science and worked for a chocolate company. When that company moved operations, she moved to Door County. Cole grew up in Sturgeon Bay, and he was working at Fred and Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar and Grill, a Sister Bay restaurant that closed in 2020 when the owners sought to retire. Going back to his teen years, Cole has worked his way through the area, from Ephraim and Sister Bay to Fish Creek. machine chocolate
They launched the business out of their home, with Kara as the chocolatier, selling wholesale and at farmers markets. In 2021, they moved to their current store at 9341 Spring Road, Unit A6, in Fish Creek. Last year, they created an Advent calendar featuring handmade chocolate truffles, bars and treats. The calendars, which are shipped all over the country, proved so popular they are bringing them back and expanding production. Shipping continues through the day after Thanksgiving (Nov. 25). The retail store is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday until Dec. 23. DC Chocolate Design closes for January and reopens in February.
DC Chocolate Design also will be at the annual Christkindlmarkt in Sister Bay, held over three weekends, Nov. 25 to 27, Dec. 2 to 4, and Dec. 9 to 11.
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Kara: I studied food science at the University of Illinois in Champaign. I moved to Milwaukee and worked for ADM Cocoa, what most Milwaukeeans would call Ambrosia. I was an R&D scientist there. Cole and I met in Milwaukee. He got a job opportunity in Door County, where he is from. Then Ambrosia got split in half and part of it got sold to Cargill. … I decided at that point to move to Door County. That's when we opened the business.
Kara: We first started with our Door Bars. It is square and says Door County and has a picture of the peninsula. We still make those. They come in milk chocolate, dark chocolate, with cherries, and dark chocolate almond sea salt. That’s what we started with, and it is still our best wholesale product. It has a nice shelf life, and it is a good gift to bring back from Door County.
Kara: Chocolate is an interesting ingredient for me. It is where the science meets the art. The science is really important because chocolate, if you follow the rules and know how it works, it is a lot easier to work with. As long as it is never burned or comes in contact with water and you follow your temperatures, it is a really nice ingredient to manipulate.
Kara: We do ganaches and a honey caramel, and we also do cremes. The honey caramel we do sea salt honey caramel, a cherry honey caramel, a spicy honey caramel. … The cremes are a thicker buttercream base, but we may do a cherry or peanut butter. We stay pretty classic with our ganache recipe, just chocolate and cream.
Kara: My favorite classic is the dark chocolate vanilla cream. It is a really nice contrast with dark chocolate and cream. But I always love our newest flavor. Our latest is vanilla latte, half vanilla cream and half espresso ganache chocolate in a milk chocolate shell.
Cole: The caramels probably sell the best, because everyone knows what they taste like.
Cole: You are in Door County.
Kara: As a kid, my favorite part of leading to the (Christmas) season was opening a chocolate every day. I had seen other Advent calendars; I thought it would be so cool to make one ourselves. This is our second year making our Advent calendar.
There will be five caramels, and then four cremes and five ganaches, so 14 truffles, then 11 other chocolates. Every single day is different. No repeats. There will be a milk chocolate piece, a dark chocolate, white chocolate, some chocolate covered cherries, some chocolate covered nuts, a wrapped caramel.
Cole: A good variety of what we offer …
Kara: And some things we do special just for the calendar. You have to get a little creative when you do 25 things. I always tell people, "You may not love every single day, but the next day is 100% different."
Cole: We ship across the country. Last year we even shipped one to Hawaii, which was a first. It got there in three days, and as far as I know, it made it there without melting. That was a good test.
Kara: Our hot cocoa is really popular during the holidays.
Cole: We do a hot chocolate spoon, a cute wooden spoon with chocolate, a cute stocking stuffer. You just stir it into your hot milk and you have gourmet chocolate.
Cole: If we go back to when we started in 2018, the community up here is very, very supportive. There is a big movement toward supporting small businesses, but up here it is just the culture. When we started the business, we just asked people, “Can we sell this product in your store?” Everyone said yes. It is amazing to have people say yes.
More:Door County bucket list: 15 things you have to do on the peninsula, including fish boils, wineries, goats in Sister Bay and more
Kara: And we joined a group of shops here; there are always people that come shopping at the group of shops. That was a good way to get customers who may not know about us, but they stumbled in and came back this year. That’s really wonderful and a fun thing. … Plus, Cole makes a really great espresso drink on the cafe side to our business. We get a lot of people who know they want chocolate, but we also get people who know they want coffee in the morning. Or tea.
Cole: I got a business degree at UW-Milwaukee, studied marketing supply chain. What moved me back up here and what I did for five years was manage Fred and Fuzzy’s, a big outdoor restaurant. That was what brought us back here. … I’d never worked in a coffee shop. I just love coffee. I think there are a lot of us that do.
I did a lot of YouTube videos and researching with friends that have coffee shops. We kept it simple when we started, just a couple (made in-house) syrups. We’ve slowly grown that. This fall we had a pumpkin spice latte and we had an apple pie chai, which was a little more unique. I simmered down a local apple cider and added some spices and made it into this sweet syrup that pairs well with chai.
Kara: Our biggest investment has been the chocolate tempering machine. I love to temper by hand. There is something beautiful and soothing about tempering by hand, but it is not efficient. Having the chocolate tempering machines allows you to have tempered chocolate on hand for the whole day.
Kara: I love chocolate. I still eat chocolate every day. I prefer chocolate with nuts or chocolate with dried cherries. I will have a truffle every now and then, but probably not every day. I also really love a good slice of cake or ice cream, but it should probably be chocolate cake or ice cream. I still love chocolate, but I don’t need to eat the whole bar. There is always more.
Cole: Once you have a good piece of chocolate, that’s what makes you really fall in love with it. Growing up, we never bought the “good chocolate,” so now I indulge. The peanut butter and chocolate is probably my favorite truffle, so if there is an extra one, that usually goes to me.
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