Some people go looking for a business to buy, but in Laurie Thompson's case, the business came looking for her.
In 2010 she was working as a sales representative for an Ontario winery and liked to buy treats from Chelsea Chocolates in the tiny town of Craighurst, Ont., which she passed by on trips to see customers in nearby Barrie. Once, she introduced the proprietors to a chocolate liqueur, which soon found its way into their truffles.
The two owners, who had started the company in their basement in 1995, were getting ready to retire and wanted to sell to someone they liked. Ms. Thompson was their choice.
"They tracked me down and for some reason felt I – and my husband – were the right fit," Ms. Thompson says, adding that she grew up enjoying cooking and baking but had no experience making chocolates. "When you own a small business, it's your baby, you put your heart and soul into it, so you want to see it succeed further when you retire."
Loving their product as she did, she didn't need much convincing.
After looking at the numbers, Ms. Thompson and her husband, John, agreed to buy the chocolate factory, along with the adjacent house, in 2010 and got set to make Chelsea Chocolates theirs. Ms. Thompson quit her job, signed up to study confectionery techniques through Humber College and made the leap into small business ownership. It was, she says, "like jumping off a huge cliff."
Although Mr. Thompson has kept his full-time job at a heating and air conditioning company in Barrie, he works at Chelsea, too, manning the little retail store on weekends and attending wedding shows and other venues to bring in new business.
"I had to stay married," he laughs. "I was tossed in on the package."
The Thompsons' leap of faith has paid off. Not only are they enjoying themselves, they have managed to increase retail sales by 50 per cent, compared to when they started, partly by staying open seven days a week.
Proximity to the four-seasons Horseshoe Resort, with its 600 condo and timeshare units, generates a healthy amount of foot traffic – so much so that during holiday periods around Valentine's Day, Easter and Christmas, the little store overflows with chocolate lovers. The company also has 80 to 100 corporate clients, who buy gift baskets, custom logos and packaged chocolates to promote their brands and reward customers.
The Thompsons estimate that with the help of one full-time staffer and a stable of local part-timers called in as needed, they process 10 to 15 kilograms of chocolate a day – 30 kilos during peak periods. They have produced as many as 5,000 truffles a day.
There are 20 kinds of truffles, from the traditional to the trendy, such as pumpkin spice and key lime. The chocolates come in a variety of creative shapes for every possible celebration, including both mother and father turkeys for Thanksgiving. Chocolates made with ice wine, whisky and beer have also proven popular.
Everything is made by hand, on the premises. "That's what makes us unique," Mr. Thompson says, "because here you can taste chocolates that were literally made that day."
Indeed, the little factory at the back of the shop sends the aroma of chocolate wafting into the store, helping to increase on-the-spot sales and providing empirical evidence of freshness.
The chocolate is imported from Belgium, where standards for processing are among the highest in the world. It comes in the form of callets, similar to chocolate chips. It is then processed in-house using the traditional method of heating and cooling that creates the desired consistency without using waxes and other additives.
The business, while profitable, hasn't been without challenges. It took a while to figure out foot-traffic patterns, for instance, and to know how much product to have on hand at different times.
Then there's the growth question, one that bedevils many a small business. The Thompsons are selling what they make and have excess capacity to make more, but hiring a full-time sales representative to bring in more business seems too costly at the moment, and they don't want to take on more debt or bring in an outside investor.
"We're banging our heads over how to expand," Mr. Thompson says.
One taste of their chocolate, though, and it's easy to see how they've come this far on word of mouth.