Sisters share a love for chocolate

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M Chocolat Fine Chocolates now open in Alpharetta

STORY & PHOTOS BY

KATIE VANBRACKLE

katie@northsidewoman.com

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

—Charles M. Schulz

Chocoholics rejoice! Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a new chocolate shop has opened on Old Milton Parkway in Alpharetta, Ga. M Chocolat Fine Chocolates is a colorful little eatery run by sisters Maritza Pichon and Marlena Snyder.

Pichon and Snyder have both lived in the Atlanta area for more than 15 years, working in corporate finance and graphic design, respectively.

Pichon in particular was inspired to “downshift” her busy business career in order to work closer to home and spend more time with her blended family of six children and two grandchildren, most of whom live nearby. Snyder, who has four children, two in high school and two in college, felt the same calling.

Both sisters are avid “foodies” and particularly enjoy making amazing homemade pies and sweets for friends and neighbors. So no one was terribly surprised when the M Chocolat idea was announced.

“Our family is well aware of our love for chocolate,” said Pichon. “Marlena and I have dreamed about this for years and just decided the time was right.”

Even so, the two were very diligent with their research, wanting to consider carefully every detail of the chocolate experience.

“We attended the Philadelphia National Candy Gift and Gourmet Show, ordered chocolate samples from all over the world, took courses on how to make chocolate and visited suppliers,” Pichon said. “We conducted market research and invited friends and neighbors to test our creations. That really helped us see which items were popular.”

M Chocolat opened its doors on Dec. 17, 2011, in the midst of the holiday season. Even with all of their careful planning, the sisters were blown away by the immediate rush of customers. Running the shop became a family affair with older children helping customers while Pichon and Snyder worked nonstop in the kitchen. A third sister dropped by after work to help wash dishes.

“Just when we were getting into our stride and managing production, a heavy storm blew out our air conditioning unit,” recalled Snyder. “You can’t produce chocolate in a room that’s over 70 degrees. These are the sorts of things you can’t plan for, but just have to handle as they come.”

Pichon and Snyder call such situations their Lucy and Ethel moments, recalling the classic episode of “I Love Lucy” when the lead female characters bumble their way through a candy factory.

“There are times when we get totally absorbed in the fun of experimenting with the chocolate. We’ll be back at the work table laughing and playing, then look up and see a customer and have to switch into serious sales lady mode,” said Pichon.

The sisters attribute their early success to the fact that true chocolate lovers appreciate a locally owned store where the confections are made in-house.

“We make everything from scratch with the freshest ingredients possible,” said Snyder. “Real cream, real basil and mint, real lime. When the ingredients are fresh, the flavor is more intense. Our philosophy is do it right or why bother?”

Good quality chocolate is very important to Pichon who was born in South America, where large amounts of cocoa are produced.

“In Colombia, hot chocolate is a staple in almost every home,” she said. “I grew up drinking it every afternoon.”

She experimented with several dark chocolate blends before finding just the right hot chocolate to serve at M Chocolat along with coffee and pastries.

M Chocolat offers a wide selection of traditional favorites such as chocolate-covered toffee and nut clusters as well as many new and fun flavor combinations in specialty items like amaretto pistachio truffles and passion fruit ganache.

A few items give a playful nod to the sisters’ Colombian heritage such as the Caramel Pecan Tortuga (Spanish for “turtle”) and the Caliente! Habanero Creamy Center Truffle.

“We can’t get too fancy,” admitted Pichon. “Or I’d spend all of my time translating for the customers!”

Snyder’s eye for graphic design shows in the colorful patterns which grace the chocolate ganaches, created with cocoa butter transfer sheets.

The same attention to detail is given to each ingredient used in the M Chocolat kitchen, from French orange rind and Italian ginger peach to Turkish apricots.

Even the search for the best Georgia pecans was a challenge.

“There are so many different types and flavors!” said Pichon who drove across South Georgia with Snyder to investigate pecan suppliers. “We needed the right sort of pecan to give our chocolate turtles the perfect snap.”

Romeos, take note: for Valentine's Day, M Chocolat will offer chocolate-dipped strawberries and specially themed packaging such as heart-shaped boxes and mini purse-shaped bags.

Traditional chocolates are sold by the pound while specialty truffles and ganaches are sold by the box, from a four-piece sampler for $5.20 to a popular 15-piece collection for $19.50.  A silver tray holding a colorful array of 30 chocolates sells for $34.50.

As Pichon and Snyder continue to build their business, they intend to be creative. Plans are already in the works for special fondue nights for ladies’ groups.

So how do the two sisters stay in shape while surrounded by chocolate all day? M Chocolat employee Chris Johnson says she had to make a hard rule: no eating chocolate during working hours. Period. But then Snyder walked by and asked her to sample a new Earl Grey flavored chocolate. “Well, there are always exceptions, right?” said Johnson with a sheepish grin.

Pichon has no such qualms. “I see it as my duty to taste our products. You know, quality control,” she said with a laugh. “But I do try to limit myself to five or six pieces a day.”

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This month's issue

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