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    Photo: Rawnaissance chocolate bars.
     

    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar

    “When I’m in a kitchen, I feel like an alchemist,” Barbora Shneydman says. For the past two years, Shneydman has operated Rawnaissance Desserts out of a building on Plantside Drive in Jeffersontown. Though the manufacturing-heavy area might suggest an industrial-grade kitchen with lines of workers pumping out confections I Love Lucy-style, Shneydman is the only one on staff and her kitchen is more like a doctor’s office, free of mess and clutter. She doesn’t even have a stovetop or oven. That’s because everything she makes — from detailed holly leaf chocolates to Star Wars-themed Darth Vader and Stormtrooper bites, so intricate they could pass as Legos — is raw, vegan, organic, non-GMO and sugar-free. But you wouldn’t know her creations lack sugar and dairy by tasting them. The chocolate bars, which she sells online and through stores such as Rainbow Blossom and Lucky’s Market, are melt-in-your-mouth treats that are hard to put down after one bite. One Rainbow Blossom employee mentions to me how hard it is to keep the chocolate bars stocked.

    Shneydman, a petite young blonde with bright blue eyes, immigrated here from Slovakia several years ago and had gotten accustomed to an American diet before seeking better health and transitioning to raw veganism. Unable to find something to satisfy her sweet tooth — “All the really healthy stuff kind of tastes healthy. And the healthy stuff didn’t look appealing,” she says — she began making her own. She now gets her cacao beans whole, grinds them using a couple of two-liter granite grinders and, with a Vitamix blender, a dehydrator and her own hands, makes everything from Cupid and heart chocolates to blueberry cheesecakes. Even the fruit dyes she uses are organic. She boxes and ships each order in what looks like a craft room, with racks of ribbons and stacks of different themed chocolate boxes — with menorahs, with hearts, with different patterns and colors. An air mattress leans against one wall. “I sleep here sometimes,” she says in an endearing European accent. “I nap really quick, and then I go back to the production.” Only a small portion of her sales are local, as she mostly sells online to people throughout the country. She recently signed a lease for a spot on Bardstown Road in the Highlands, where Coco’s Chocolate Café was for several years before closing in 2012 and focusing on wholesale orders. Schneydman plans to move her production there, bring someone on to help with orders and start selling retail. She tells me she can’t say how much product she has been selling because she hasn’t had time to look at numbers since Halloween. “My biggest problem right now,” she says, “is just to keep up with the demand and fill orders.”


    Photo: Organic, vegan, common-allergen-free chocolate assortment from Amore di Mona.

    Shneydman is the newest of several chocolate makers and chocolatiers in the city. (The difference: chocolate makers make the chocolate itself, while chocolatiers make confections out of chocolate.) Muth’s on East Market Street, now close to a century old, is a classic family-owned confectionary shop. Schimpff’s, in Jeffersonville, has been making candy for close to 150 years. Others have come and gone.

    Photo: Amore di Mona owner Mona Changaris.
     

    Louisville’s chocolate scene undoubtedly changed when Erika Chavez-Graziano started Cellar Door in 2007, showing us the true meaning of sea salt caramel chocolate, Cellar Door’s best seller. Cellar Door’s production site is at Butchertown Market, and, despite recently closing the Oxmoor Center retail location, Chavez-Graziano says sales, including online, are “gangbusters.” Her newest store, which she opened a couple years ago on South Fourth Street on the first level of the Hilton Garden Inn, is a cheery, light-filled chocolate oasis with boxes upon clear boxes of goodies. These will be gone within a week or two. Chavez-Graziano’s staff makes 30,000 pieces in a day, not including the chocolate bars and suckers. The store also features works from local artists such as Douglas Miller and Jeaneen Barnhart, who designs the boxes for Churchill Downs (Cellar Door is the official Derby and Derby Festival chocolate). A few doors down, Kelly Ramsey runs her Art Eatables shop, which she opened in 2012 with the mission to educate people about bourbon through truffles. “Bourbon’s really what I love,” she says, though she has dozens of variations of spirit-flavored truffles. “Chocolate is just the gateway to bourbon.” Though she contracts out chocolate based on a specific recipe she’s looking for, she specializes in pairing different chocolates with different bourbons to bring out particular flavors in each of her truffles.

    Already several of the business owners know each other; some met through Maria Moore, who owns Dundee Candy Shop in Douglass Loop and carries their products. (Moore is retiring this spring after owning Dundee since 2005 and is selling the 72-year-old shop). Mona Changaris, a wholesale vegan-chocolate maker whose brand is called Amore di Mona, sells at Dundee Candy Shop as well as Rainbow Blossom, Whole Foods and now at Art Eatables, which recently opened a second location across from the Slugger Museum downtown on Main Street. Changaris also sells internationally through sites like Amazon and Nordstrom. Her production facility is about 10,000 square feet of space in the Portland neighborhood, and she also has another 9,000 square feet in New Hampshire, where she moves operations during hot summer months.


    Photo: Art Eatables owner Kelly Ramsey

    In 2006, after learning she had a soy allergy, Changaris began making soy-free desserts and has since focused on making chocolate and confections. With her background in geology and her husband’s background in neuroscience and lipid chemistry, together they were able to perfect a recipe for chocolate, which often contains soy lecithin as an emulsifier. She explains that chocolate is partly a crystallization process, like making quartz crystals or diamonds, and part emulsification, like making hollandaise or mayonnaise. Chavez-Graziano says that chocolate is not a very forgiving ingredient. “You have to be very patient, but yet you have to have a sense of urgency because you have a small window in the temperature of tempered chocolate that you can work in,” she says.

    Photo: Edible chocolate rose with a mint julep cocktail center from Art Eatables.
     

    “I had my DNA thing done,” Changaris says, “and it said I have a propensity for iron deficiency and I should eat more spinach and chocolate. I think I’m genetically modified to be in this world.”

    While it may seem like the chocolate scene is getting more competitive, there’s room for collaboration, as each brand has its own niche. Ramsey started Art Eatables as a hobby, making nut-free chocolates for her son’s birthday parties when she noticed the prevalence of food allergies among his peers. She says she’d like to expand her products to people with other allergies, so she’s working with Changaris to create spirit-flavored truffles using Amore di Mona’s common-allergen-free chocolate. In her first year, Chavez-Graziano rented a kitchen from the Sweet Shoppe in Jeffersontown, in the same building where Shneydman is now. Chavez-Graziano now rents her Butchertown kitchen to a budding vegan chocolate maker. She says she likes to serve as an incubator to other chocolatiers.

    “I believe the more chocolatiers you have in the city, the more reason to have chocolate tours, the more reason to come downtown and visit everybody or just to try everybody’s chocolate,” Chavez-Graziano says. “It’s kind of like you want lots of bars in one area, you want lots of restaurants in one area. That’s how you create a destination.”

    This originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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