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The pandemic could have doomed this Tampa chocolate shop. How did it survive?

A Peterbrooke Chocolatier opens in a deserted downtown. You might have expected a “for rent” sign soon after. A tale of adapting.
Owner Jennifer Hill works at her Peterbrooke Chocolatier shop in downtown Tampa. She opened in the middle of the pandemic.
Owner Jennifer Hill works at her Peterbrooke Chocolatier shop in downtown Tampa. She opened in the middle of the pandemic. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jul. 1, 2021

Doomed.

This is what I thought walking past a bright and fancy new chocolate shop that opened at the bottom of Tampa’s SkyPoint high-rise last fall — a surprise in a downtown-turned-ghost-town by the pandemic.

Gone were the tourists, conventioneers, downtown workers, Riverwalkers and schoolkids on field trips to nearby museums who might have been be tempted by something sweet. Foot traffic had slowed to a whisper.

Still, Tampa’s mayor came and gamely cut a ribbon. And then Jennifer Hill, owner of the Peterbrooke Chocolatier, had to come up with a strategy to save her dream.

Owner Jennifer Hill helps a costumer with the selection of assorted chocolates at Peterbrooke Chocolatier, Monday on Monday in Tampa.
Owner Jennifer Hill helps a costumer with the selection of assorted chocolates at Peterbrooke Chocolatier, Monday on Monday in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“I signed the lease to this location on Thursday. On Friday, the entire city of Tampa shut down,” she said. “The pandemic didn’t care.”

Hill, 47, got to know the Peterbrooke brand back when her family lived in Jacksonville. Although I don’t think “know” accurately covers the relationship.

She was a teacher, and her students would bring her Peterbrooke chocolates. “I kept telling them, ‘You keep bringing me this, you get straight A’s,’” she said. She took her daughters and her Girl Scout troops on tours at the company’s chocolate factory.

In 2019, she was teaching in Pinellas County and planning to retire when she went with her daughter, who has a marketing degree, to a franchise expo at the Tampa Convention Center.

There it was: Peterbrooke.

By the time the coronavirus crisis was in full swing, she’d already paid her fees and lawyered her papers for her prime location at (what had been) a busy downtown corner. There was no turning back.

“September 23rd, we flipped on the open sign,” she said.

Head chocolatier Sydney Morton, 21, works dipping strawberries in chocolate, at Peterbrooke Chocolatier on Monday in Tampa.
Head chocolatier Sydney Morton, 21, works dipping strawberries in chocolate, at Peterbrooke Chocolatier on Monday in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

In October and November, they flatlined. Bigger businesses, chains and behemoths, fell in the pandemic — how could theirs survive? There were some “pretty dark” moments,” she said.

Gelato — what Hill calls their side-hustle — helped. Downtown residents were still around to get cones and cups of pistachio and stracciatella, dashing downstairs during hockey games while the Zamboni was on the ice. The store carried dog-friendly gelato, too.

She got a license to sell prosecco, chocolate wine and red wine amongst all those chocolate alligators, dipped pretzels and drizzled popcorn. (Red wine actually pairs best with chocolate, she says.) She found kinship in nearby businesses — the pizza joint, the falafel place — getting through it like her.

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And she ate chocolate. Every day, she ate chocolate.

Freshly dipped strawberries sit on a lined tray at Peterbrooke Chocolatier.
Freshly dipped strawberries sit on a lined tray at Peterbrooke Chocolatier. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

The museums eventually reopened with camps and classes. Tourists trickled back and started making her shop a last stop on their way to the airport.

Downtown foot traffic is picking up. She’s having parties — more of them for grown-ups than kids, as it turns out, where guests make candy bars, dipped apples and such. Food tours are now stopping in twice a week, and she’s partnering with a company that puts on mystery picnics. (Mystery picnics will have to be a story for another day, but they appear to involve a picnic basket and clues and food pick-ups through the city.)

She’s paying the bills. She recently pronounced the business, which has eight employees and where all three of her children have worked, “stable.”

“I’m starting to gain momentum as people come back to work,” she said.

I was wrong on that whole doomed thing. Like a lot of people in this pandemic, Hill has adapted, fingers crossed, to keep the doors open to whatever the world is going to look like next.

Owner Jennifer Hill (left) and daughter, head chocolatier Sydney Morton, pose for a portrait at Peterbrooke Chocolatier, Monday, June 28, 2021 in Tampa.
Owner Jennifer Hill (left) and daughter, head chocolatier Sydney Morton, pose for a portrait at Peterbrooke Chocolatier, Monday, June 28, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
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