Bill Brown is still recovering from his busiest Valentine’s Day yet.
The local chocolatier and founder of William Dean Chocolates in Belleair Bluffs said sales for his gourmet chocolates were up 50 percent from last year. The same thing happened over Christmas.
“We ran out of chocolate,” he laughed.
But Brown can’t take too much time off to relax. He has a lot more than chocolate on his plate right now.
In a few months, he will open an offshoot of his wildly popular business at Midtown Tampa, the massive mixed-use development and entertainment hub at the southeast corner of N Dale Mabry Highway and Interstate 275.
The $500 million project from New York-based real estate developer Bromley Companies was projected to open in time for the Super Bowl and recently launched a dual-branded Aloft and Element hotel, one of the anchoring concepts of the complex. Also joining the glitzy development are an REI co-op, a Whole Foods Market, BellaBrava, Shake Shack and a yet-to-be-named fine dining restaurant from chef Chris Ponte, among other businesses.
Brown says he hopes to open his new spot by May or June. It’s a huge undertaking for the culinary entrepreneur, who launched his flagship business in 2007 and has attracted widespread acclaim for his intricately painted chocolate truffles, including spots on The View and The Tonight Show and an appearance in The Hunger Games. In addition to the new location, his team is moving all of the business’ production — chocolates, pastries and cakes — to a separate facility in Clearwater.
Though the Belleair Bluffs flagship is primarily known for its artisan chocolates, Brown says the Tampa spot will be more of a Parisian-inspired cafe, with breakfast and lunch options including sandwiches, salads, brunch dishes like croque madame and quiche, baguettes and other freshly baked breads and full coffee and tea service. It’s a first for Brown, who started making chocolates as a hobby before leaving his gig in the corporate world 15 years ago.
“There’s a part of me that to some degree always wanted to be a little bit more of a restaurateur,” Brown said. “I’m big on exposing people to things that I’ve found wonderful that people have never had.”
Brown is certainly not shy about trying new things. Though his business started with chocolates as the main attraction, he soon expanded to include pate de fruits (fruit jellies), macarons and homemade gelatos. He gets his inspiration along the way through industry research (he is big on French pastry chef Christophe Adam’s envelope-pushing eclairs right now) and his own culinary adventures (his popular lemongrass coconut truffle was inspired by his love for Thai tom kha gai soup). His latest obsession is lao larb gai — a Laotian minced chicken salad — that he hopes to include in some shape on the new menu.
“I can’t wait to share that with people,” Brown said.
The roughly 1,400-square-foot space will sit adjacent to Joffrey’s Coffee & Tea and will include 12 to 14 seats inside and a large, shaded patio outside that will seat an additional 30 to 40 people. Inside the cafe, glass cases displaying Brown’s signature chocolates will greet customers, while other cases will include pastries like croissants and eclairs, petite gateaus (small cakes and confections), macarons, gelato and larger cakes and treats.
“When you walk in I want it to feel like you’re in Paris,” Brown said.
Will the expansion mean changes are afoot for the Belleair Bluffs location? Yes, and no.
Though that business has remained open throughout the pandemic, the focus has primarily been on to-go and online sales to curb the number of customers in the store. Now that Brown is moving all the chocolate production to a new Clearwater facility, more space will eventually open up to diners. And though the French pastries and breads will start at the Midtown Tampa location, they will eventually also be sold at the flagship spot.
The concept will get a little bit of rebranding in the process, too. Brown, who named the business after both his father, William, and grandfather, Dean, said he thinks that “William Dean Chocolates” might simply be rebranded to “William Dean.” And in the coming years, he hopes to expand with more locations in St. Petersburg and Wesley Chapel.
For now, Brown has his work cut out for him. But he’s enjoying the ride.
“I pinch myself,” he said. “I wonder if I am in the last stages of life and this is just a happy dream.”