Made in Tampa Bay: Chocolate treats like none other can help you express your love

Whether you’re a dark chocolate purist who sticks to bars or an adventurous soul who can’t get enough of boutique flavors, there’s a chocolate maker in Tampa Bay who can find a sweet treat to fit your taste. 

The following travelogue through some of Tampa Bay’s most popular confectionary destinations reveals delicious offerings – and will likely make you drool or at least want for more.

A sweet family tradition

Long before Oprah named their toffee one of her “favorite things,” Tampa residents Jim and Lisa Schalk shared a confection obsession. It’s Jim’s family recipe, their toffee, jagged squares that take butter and sugar to new heights. Covered with white, dark or milk chocolate and studded with California almonds and Georgia pecans, the candy with the delicate crunch is, as Lisa descries it, addictive. She convinced her husband to form a company and share their toffee with the world 14 years ago. Today, Toffee to Go continues to grow.

“We recently opened a new production facility in Pinellas Park,” Lisa says. “Small batch cooking is necessary to get that perfect crunch, and we now have more space and stovetops to do that.”

After the toffee is hand mixed and packed, it travels nationwide to personal and corporate customers as well as to the company store. Inside Toffee to Go at 3251 West Bay to Bay Blvd. in South Tampa, brightly covered boxes hold toffee wrapped in milk chocolate almond, dark chocolate pecan and white chocolate macadamia nut. Customization is available for boxes and ribbon. The best seller, a variety pack, offers tastes of three flavors. 

For the Schalks, one of the sweetest parts of the business is its multigenerational progression. Both their daughters work for the company. What was once a recipe passed down through the years is now a family-owned enterprise. A graduate of Florida State University, Lisa says she is pleasantly surprised that toffee has become her family’s passion.

“We have a lot of fun,” she says. “We really love what we do, and we love our toffee.”

A candy by any other name

Candy Qachbal’s maiden name is Case, which turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Along with two of her daughters, Candy has owned and operated Qachbal’s in Channelside Plaza in downtown Tampa since 2005. The self-taught confectioner’s candy cases are stocked with goodies from chocolate to baked goods, of which 80 percent are made on-site.

This time of year, you’ll find the Qachbal team dipping Plant City strawberries in flavored creams before plunging them in chocolate and a variety of toppings. The limited edition double-whammy berries are only produced once a year, for Valentine’s Day. 

Besides the berries, Candy recommends Qachbal’s specialty, the Toodle. A disk of rich Swiss chocolate topped with a soft caramel that’s impressed with five whole pecans and topped with more chocolate, the Toodle comes in three varieties. The dark chocolate sea salt caramels are another top choice.

“Overall, when buying chocolate, always search for a nice shine, the sign of good quality,” she says. “Let the pieces melt in your mouth.”

A French connection

The new owners of Schakolad Chocolate Factory on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg are amping up the production of raspberry ganache. Franck and Kathy Gautheron hail from France, the classic land of amore. They expect this Valentine’s Day to be different than their Parisian experiences.

“In France, Valentine’s Day is for lovers,” Kathy says. “Here in America, friends also use it as a way to express their affection.”

Enter the extra ganache. The Gautherons expect both parties to queue up at their chocolate store the second week of February. Schakolad Chocolate Factory offers a multitude of chocolates with soft centers, including a raspberry ganache truffle emblazoned with tiny hearts. Franck also recommends the chocolate-dipped pretzels that come in three varieties and are honest indicators of any relationship: salty and sweet.

“We make the candy on premise with a three-generation European style recipe,” Franck says. “What better way to say ‘I love you’ than with quality chocolate?”

Chocolate works d’arte

If an art gallery and a chocolate store had a baby, it would be William Dean Chocolates. The tiny airbrushed candies made at its 2790 West Bay Drive store in Belleair Bluffs in Pinellas County peek from their case like tiny masterpieces. Bite through the elegant designs, owner William Brown promises, and you’ll find them to be more than just pretty faces. Just ask Pope Benedict XVI.

“One of our most fun orders was custom chocolates for the Pope when he visited the United States,” Brown says.

A passion for art and creative flavor combinations led Brown to the business eight years ago; he left a job in upper management to pursue chocolate making full-time when Dean & Deluca asked to carry his product. He experiments with flavor and color, stocking the shelves of his Belleair Bluffs store and his International Mall location with custom hybrids like Caribbean Caramel made from muscavado sugar and Dulce de Leche, white chocolate with a roasted and caramelized filling.

Each February, devotees form a line for about two days to score a limited edition pairing of painted hearts in heart-shaped keepsake boxes. Aficionados who see the shop listed as one of the top 11 chocolates in the world in the book Chocolate – The Reference Standard by Georg Bernardini make pilgrimages. Cinema buffs clamor for the chocolates the store featured in The Hunger Games. For Brown, the secret to his sugary success is part tradition, part innovation. He recommends his customers use the same mantra.

“Try something different and something familiar,” Brown says. “Some of our best pieces are unusual, award-winning concepts.”

Everything chocolate

If you dream it, Michelle Palisi can turn it into chocolate. By the time she opened Chocolates by Michelle, her New Port Richey store 31 years ago, the self-taught chocolatier had collected 800 molds that ranged from the classic (heart, “LOVE,” angels) to the obscure (toilet bowl, “DIVORCE,” farm animals). Today, the chocolatier and owner of an additional Tampa’s Chocolate Delight store uses forms and freehand to craft custom candies. And she now owns more than 10,000 molds.

“My slogan is ‘think chocolate,’ she says. “We do everything from unusual requests to chocolate dipped fruit trays for the health-conscious.”

Perhaps the most vocal chocolatier in Tampa Bay, Palisi has been featured on more than 100 radio and television shows. On-air, she often speaks about her journey into the world of confections, which began when she quit smoking and used her cigarette money as seed capital for a first store. She cites her store’s Valentine’s Day box made of chocolate as a customer favorite and special-ordered caramel apples as her own.

“Everything tastes good because I use quality chocolate,” she says. “And it can be personalized for any occasion.”
Museum quality, personal touch

Leena Caliguire’s husband Anthony can’t decide which moment of his wife’s chocolate-making career he finds most impressive: the time the Museum of Natural History in New York City displayed her work or the year she stocked dessert tables at The Kentucky Derby. Then again, it could be the regulation-sized footballs she made for the 2009 SuperBowl.

“Those footballs were so realistic that a marketing manager tried to put one in a locker when I dropped them off,” Anthony says.

Handmade creations featured by The Original Leena’s Chocolates include hand-dipped strawberries from local Brandon Farms. Their bark infused with raspberry essence and studded with berries is another local bestseller. To oenophiles’ delight, Leena and her staff dip wine bottles in molten chocolate. When dry, the decorative covering is chipped off and enjoyed as a pairing.

Anthony attributes business success partly to the assistance and expertise of interns from The Art Institute of Tampa’s Culinary Arts program. The chocolates are available through select Tampa businesses and online; though the company currently does not have a storefront, Leena and Anthony hope to re-open their retail location by the end of 2016.

Read more articles by Amy Hammond.

Amy Hammond is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida
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