Bill Brown had an epiphany in his kitchen a few years ago. A former dot-com warrior turned executive at Ceridian in St. Petersburg, Brown was making chocolate truffles for co-workers, inspired by an episode of Alton Brown's Good Eats on the Food Network. "For the first time in my life it clicked that this is what I'm supposed to do,'' Brown recalls. "I could just feel it in every part of me.''
Soon he was learning everything he could about chocolate and about creating hand-painted, artisan jewels that dazzled everyone who tried them.
One day he was back home in Kansas City, Mo., at a Dean and Deluca store with his mom, who couldn't believe anyone would pay $60 a pound for chocolate. "Yours are better than these,'' she said. A manager overheard them, and before long Brown had a deal to sell his chocolates through the high-end specialty food chain.
Brown quit his corporate job, raised seed money from friends and family, and opened a small kitchen and storefront in a shopping plaza in Largo.
Three years later, William Dean Chocolates is a rising star in the world of hand-crafted chocolates, winning more than 60 national awards, including best in show at the New York Chocolate Show and 11 gold medals at the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon.
Business has more than doubled, and Brown plans to triple his current space, where the kitchen is about the size of the one he has at home and the retail outlet not much bigger than a walk-in closet.
The company — named for his father (William) and grandfather (Dean), also his first and middle names — has earned its reputation with the polished, stunning beauty of its hand-painted chocolates ($1.75 each) and the unusual flavors derived from fresh, all-natural ingredients.
The other day, a pot of passion fruit was reducing on a small induction heater while a pot of plums, figs and cherries in port wine waited to be pureed. Brown buys lemongrass from a small Asian market in Largo. He uses fresh key limes and other fruit, some of it bought at Publix or Costco. But much of his chocolate is a custom blend from the French chocolate manufacturer Valrhona, which some consider the finest in the world.
The William Dean Signature truffle uses a custom blend from Valrhona of chocolate with 64 percent cacao. The Mexican Mango has sea salt infused with green chiles and habaneros with mango jelly. The rosemary caramel includes fresh rosemary steeped in cream. There are chocolates with butternut squash and curry, blue cheese, strawberry balsamic. The lineup has expanded to chocolate bars (with nuts, dried fruit, even wasabi) and pate de fruit (small squares of fruit jelly coated in sugar).
With little money for advertising, word has spread almost by chance. Take, for example, the Whoopi Goldberg connection. A loyal customer took chocolates on a trip to New York City in 2008, met Goldberg backstage while she was performing in Xanadu on Broadway and gave her a box. The next day, Goldberg's assistant called for more. Then another 400 for an episode of The View, on which Goldberg called them her favorite chocolates in the world.
"Whoopi was the first person to really notice us,'' says Brown, 50. "We were nobody. Well, we're still nobody, but we were really nobody then.''
Even more gratifying: accolades from the country's best chocolatiers. "A celebrity saying they like you doesn't mean you're any good,'' Brown says. "Having Norman Love, one of the top chocolatiers in the world, saying he loves my chocolate — that was a huge moment.''
The place has the feel of a dot-com startup, with Brown at the helm, chocolatier (and former customer) Wyatt Rachal in the kitchen and two others handling retail and mail orders. There are long days and nights, but Brown retains the passion he felt in his kitchen five years ago.
And the word keeps spreading. Last week the Food Network called. They'd heard about this guy making amazing chocolates in Largo.
Could he send a video?