Bill Brown was an executive with a global business services company and had never made candy when he was inspired by a television program to make hand-rolled truffles as a surprise for his staff.
The surprise was on him.
Candymaking, particularly chocolate, became a passion that took him from hobbyist to a serious student of top chocolatiers, and finally to a second career as William Dean Chocolates, a business named after his father, William, and his grandfather Dean.
From the beginning, Brown specialized in handmade, hand-painted artisan chocolates, each piece a little work of art in such exotic flavors as lemongrass and coconut, strawberry balsamic, honey-anise and biscotti, Grand Marnier caramel, grapefruit and tarragon caramel.
Even before he opened his doors, chocolate lovers came knocking.
Bryan King traveled throughout the world while in the military and had developed a discriminating taste for chocolate. He learned of Brown's business while eating at a nearby French restaurant and knocked on the door a few weeks before Brown opened.
"He has a talent that I noticed the first time I went in there," King said. "He just understands."
When King and his wife, Marilyn, went to France for their wedding three years ago, they carried Brown's chocolates across the Atlantic with them as special wedding favors.
Margaret Chiarelli and her husband, Vince, whose tennis store at the time was in the same shopping arcade as Brown's business, became devoted customers soon after he opened in the fall of 2007.
"She's the reason we're open on Mondays," Brown said of Chiarelli. "It's the only day she can come in because their shop is closed then."
The chocolate aficionado talked about the allure of Brown's business.
"The first thing that attracted me was the artistic nature of his pieces. They are completely out of the ordinary," Margaret Chiarelli said. "Second was the amazing flavors he's able to put into these little pieces. You can pick up nuances of things like you would with a fine wine. Third is the outstanding quality. Fourth is how he has taken a vision and developed it into a wonderful enterprise.
"An intangible is that he produces whatever he's working on with love," she added. "It's not just a commodity. To me, that's a remarkable quality."
In the four years since he opened in a small space in Largo, Brown's reputation for creating taste sensations inside colorfully decorated candies has brought him national and international recognition.
His customers include such celebrities as Whoopi Goldberg, a longtime supporter. He has made confections for weddings, major league sports teams, universities and resorts, and even for a dinner for Pope Benedict XVI when he visited Washington, D.C., in 2008.
Brown's business grew so rapidly that his 800-square-foot space soon was maxed out. He decided last year it was time to move into larger quarters. He leased two vacant storefronts totaling 3,500 square feet in a shopping center on the southwest corner of Indian Rocks Road and West Bay Drive. Most of the space — 2,400 square feet — would be for the kitchen and bakery, and the remainder for a retail shop. The investment, which included renovating the interior and purchasing new equipment, was $450,000.
"This is a risk," said Brown, 51, who lives in Largo. "But if you want to grow, you have to take a risk."
He opened last month, though both the kitchen and the retail areas are still undergoing modifications. Everything will be in place for the early January grand opening, Brown said.
"Our first priority is getting through the Christmas rush, getting the chocolate people want for the holiday," he said.
Brown said he is pleased with the workability of the huge kitchen with its gelato and chocolate machines (the chocolate comes from Valrhona, France). Visitors can view the candymaking process through the glass storefront.
In the retail shop, a sparkling chandelier hangs above cases filled with chocolates, handmade gelatos, gourmet popcorn and other confections. Customers can choose from an assortment of coffees, teas and soft drinks and sit at tables to drink and eat.
French macaroons, high-end cupcakes, cheesecakes and torts are coming soon, as well as classes in making chocolate, gelato and more.
"I think it's pretty much what I had hoped for," Brown said. "The challenge has been getting staff and having the time to train them. We've gone from a two-person staff to 10 to 12 people working with me and that requires a lot more structuring. I need both kitchen and retail managers."
Susan Brown, senior vice president of Stahl & Associates Insurance, has been a customer since Brown opened. For three years, Brown has produced holiday baskets for about 200 of the firm's biggest clients.
"He's got a beautiful business," she said. "The gelato is out of this world. That whole thing where you can see into the factory and how they do it kind of reminds me of Willy Wonka. It's so neat. If you're in the business of making chocolate, you're making people happy."