Christy Herrmann of Sweet Divas Chocolates in downtown St. Petersburg is decorating edible, lace-covered boxes to fill with Belgian chocolates. Olivier Rodriguez of CocoAddiction in St. Pete Beach is hand-painting gem-shaped chocolates to resemble emeralds and diamonds. And Jennifer Hill of Peterbrooke Chocolatier in downtown Tampa will be dipping locally sourced strawberries in a variety of chocolate concoctions while keeping chocolate-infused wines and champagnes on ice.
All three chocolatiers say the weeks surrounding Valentine’s Day are their busiest of the year and they are hoping candy is a pandemic-proof passion. All three are self-taught and inspired by their shared affairs with chocolate.
Sweet Divas Chocolates
Christy Herrmann was four years retired from a demanding career in the computer industry when she decided to open a chocolate shop. The decision was more of a need to get out of the house rather than get into a new business, all prompted by the retirement of her late husband, Conrad.
“It was like having a grand piano in the kitchen — you love it and it’s wonderful, but it’s underfoot and in the wrong place all the time,” she said. “I came home one night and he was arranging the spices alphabetically. I knew that one of us had to get out of the house.”
Herrmann had dabbled in a few crafts, including candy making, and she had been making homemade ice cream for Conrad for years. At the same time, her daughter-in-law, Jeanne Bessler, was looking to leave her career as a dental hygienist. Both women wanted to do something that would make people happy.
“No one is unhappy coming into a chocolate shop,” said Herrmann. “No one says, ‘I have to go get chocolates tomorrow — oh what will I do?’”
The two embarked on the delicious task of tasting chocolates from throughout the world. “For us the Swiss chocolate was too sweet and the French was too bitter but we loved the Belgian chocolates,” Herrmann said. Finding a storefront location on St. Petersburg’s popular Beach Drive sealed the deal.
“For the most part, we sell ganache-filled chocolates, but we also do barks, chocolate-dipped pretzels and chocolate-dipped Oreos,” said Herrmann, who continues to sell the homemade ice creams her husband loved so much as well as cookies, cupcakes and even wedding cakes. The goodies are prepared in an off-site commercial kitchen in Pinellas Park.
After 10 years, Herrmann, who now runs the business herself, has built strong relationships with her customers. “I’ve met so many fabulous people and have the opportunity to talk to them and share the love of chocolate,” she said. “It just makes for such a wonderful experience. You come in and you smell it and you feel good.”
Sweet Divas is open seven days a week and closes only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The minimum purchase is one piece, because Herrmann understands the need to satisfy an immediate chocolate craving. Customers can also buy personalized boxes of chocolates, selecting each piece themselves.
Sweet Divas Chocolates, 400 Beach Drive NE, No. 181, St. Petersburg. 727-379-4567. sweetdivaschocolates.com.
Olivier Rodriguez grew up in the alpine town of Annecy, France, where his family owned restaurants and food was the star of all gatherings. He moved to the United States in 1999 and spent years working alongside some of the best chefs in the hotel industry in Sarasota, Orlando, Las Vegas and Miami. During a stint at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, his friend, head chef Gregory Pugin, asked Rodriguez to prepare some artisan chocolates for the dessert menu.
“You show me something once and I can do it,” said Rodriguez, who experimented filling chocolates with things like orange Grand Marnier, raspberry Chambord and Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. “We got very good feedback so we decided to come up with CocoAddiction.”
Rodriguez, along with Pugin, began packaging and selling the special-order chocolates throughout the Miami area. When his girlfriend accepted a job in Tampa, Rodriguez moved too. He and Pugin decided to expand CocoAddiction to a store and found a spot on Corey Avenue in St. Pete Beach. They officially opened a cafelike bakery, coffee shop and candy store last April.
Pugin remains in Miami and consults remotely while Rodriguez designs and makes the chocolates at the shop. Each piece takes two days to create between the chocolate coatings and the colorful artwork. Customers can select individual pieces or fill a variety of luxuriously packed boxes in several sizes. Rodriguez also makes and sells macarons, French-inspired tarts, chocolate-covered almonds or cashews, chocolate candied ginger and chocolate bars, as well as specialty spreads and jams. On weekends, he has designed 6-inch or 9-inch cakes available to purchase. Customers can also place special orders.
Rodriguez uses local ingredients for his fillings, including fresh lemons he picks himself and Made Coffee from Clearwater. Opening a business during a pandemic has been challenging, but Rodriguez said that what he can’t predict in the marketplace he can make up for in customer service. If he’s in the shop, even if it’s closed, he will happily invite customers in to purchase chocolates or place orders.
“Anything to share the addiction,” he said.
CocoAddiction, 344 Corey Avenue, St. Pete Beach. 727-390-COCO (2626). cocoaddiction-mia.com.
Jennifer Hill first fell in love with Peterbrooke chocolates while living in Jacksonville, where the company was founded in 1983. “In that area, Peterbrooke was the stuff,” she said.
A schoolteacher for 17 years and a self-described chocolate freak, Hill applied online several times to open a franchise of the European chocolates, but never got a response. Finally, after moving to Tampa seven years ago, she attended a franchise expo at the Tampa Convention Center. The first booth she saw was Peterbrooke Chocolatier, and she was on a mission. She was awarded the franchise and found a prime location in downtown Tampa near the Glazer Children’s Museum and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
Unfortunately, Hill said, “I signed the lease the day the city shut down on March 13.” After the pandemic lockdown, she opened in September 2020 with the help of her three grown children. “We opened the store as a family and we knew we could make it happen,” she said. Her daughter, Sydney Morton, is the head chocolatier while daughter Drew does the marketing and son Beau helps operate the store. Some of the chocolates are imported from the chain’s factory in Jacksonville, but most of the products are made on site.
Hill sells a variety of filled chocolates, truffles and caramels along with ice creams and gelato. But one of her specialties is custom-designed chocolates featuring company logos or sports themes. She has a Super Bowl party favorite, true-to-size chocolate footballs with or without popcorn inside, as well as miniature chocolate helmets. She also designs personalized wedding favors and makes decorative baskets filled with a variety of chocolates she can select or customers can create on their own.
For Valentine’s Day, Hill recommends chocolates to pair with various wines or champagnes. She also sells chocolate versions of both. This year, she is especially excited about a new offering: ruby red chocolate from Ecuador with some hints of fruit in the flavor for dipping chocolates and strawberries.
“We have a lot of love here and we love sharing it,” Hill said.
Peterbrooke Chocolatier Tampa Downtown, 777 N Ashley Drive, Suite D-2, Tampa. 813-585-1703. peterbrookechocolatiertampadowntown.com.