074 – Tim Gearhart, Gearhart’s Fine Chocolates
Chocolate Work. With Peanut Butter and Community. Meet Tim Gearhart of Gearhart’s Fine Chocolates, otherwise known as the Willie Wonka of Charlottesville! The theme of this episode is Ahead of the Curve and how that can help your business tremendously. In Tim’s case, his Nostradamus ability to foresee trends paired with his passion have helped Gearhart’s to not only become a beloved Charlottesville institution but has expanded his reach to the national level. You can now find Gearhart’s on Amazon!
I first met Tim during the 2016 Tom Tom Festival where he was part of a local panel discussing the triumphs and challenges of running a food business. I was completely captivated by his story as well as his advice and knew I had to have him on the podcast.
Tim was born in Detroit and landed in Virginia as a teenager. The 1980’s was a volatile time, perfect for an oddball kid like Tim who was way into food before it was a trend, and who spent his spare time eating at the C&O and trying new foods whenever he could. His first job was as a dishwasher at Duner’s where he eventually worked his way up to busboy. After some time in the Marines, he attended the Culinary Institute of America and traveled, creating pastries in various kitchens around the world, including one in a 1,000-year old castle as well as right here at Keswick.
“Another cool thing about the Charlottesville food scene is that a lot of these folks are still here…They’re doing what they love…that’s what it’s about…finding that passion…whether you’re a super-creative architect or a chef at a famous restaurant, that’s what it’s about.”
The passion for pastry switched over to chocolate because of a “perfect storm” as he describes it, one that affected him nationally, professionally, and personally. At the time he’d just opened Hamilton’s with Bill Hamilton. When he mused one afternoon about how fun it would be to open a chocolate shop, Bill replied, “I’m in!” The rest is history. Gearhart’s Fine Chocolates just celebrated 16 years in business and their new, expanded location with coffee and PASTRY opened last year. There’s even a window where you can watch Charlottesville’s own Oompa Loompa’s hard at work creating culinary confections.
“Chocolate was the next thing up after wine in the 80’s and beer in the 90’s…coffee in the 90’s…kind of this time of people saying wow, there might be a local option…this doesn’t have to have wax in it…it can made to be eaten right now…it can have fresh herbs…it was the right place, right time…timing in the world of business is a huge thing.”
Gearhart’s uses eight different varieties of chocolate, never purchasing a disc from a company he doesn’t know or trust. The Fair Trade designation? A little foggy, similar to the organic label. Often questionable, not always reliable. A better way is to look locally for items like peaches or honey. Do a lot of homework. Ask a lot of questions. Tim’s palate and eye for creation is extraordinary. He’s got an uncanny skill of figuring out what flavors go with what. If you’ve had his Malted Caramels, meant to be eaten with beer, or his Earl Grey Tea chocolates, or his Miso Caramels, you know exactly what I mean.
And it’s not just about chocolate! Tim is a strong advocate for community initiatives and fundraising for folks who need it. When I announced The Big Love Bakesale fundraising initiative, Tim was one of the first ones to step forward and donate an 8-person chocolate tour. His Peanut Butter Pups raise money for veterans with PTSD. The story behind how these whimsical chocolates were created is so heartwarming and another great example of how local businesses in Charlottesville include social entrepreneurship as part of their mission. Tim is a Gulf War veteran himself. How does his military background as a Marine benefit and inform his chosen career? Attention to detail, consistency. You have to be a little OCD to be a chocolatier and being a Marine helped with that aspect of it.
“It absolutely set the foundation and was a humongous part of the puzzle for me…I was the only one in my group who signed up to be a cook…30 years ago it was making soups from scratch, gravies from scratch, it was real cooking.”
Why is brainstorming one of the most fun things you can do as an entrepreneur? Especially in the world of chocolate, where you have to perform within extremely strict parameters? We talk about how Tim does this. You have to be agile in business, examining every angle in order to stay in business and be successful. Maybe doing things you never thought you would like corporate work, wholesale and online selling, weddings. Another good example? Birthday parties! Gearhart’s has become a go-to space for these events, even though the decibel level goes through the roof when a group of 8-year-old girls comes in to celebrate. But it’s fun and Gearhart’s has wholeheartedly embraced this new role of community celebration space.
“I think we are absolutely making the best product we have ever made. Right now. It’s the most consistent, and that’s so much about the people.”
Gearhart’s employees 20 people, many of whom have been with him for years. A real testament to his abilities as a both a business owner and a teacher. As he says there are many different paths to success, and spending $60K on culinary school is just one of them. Sometimes just taking a job and working your way from the ground up can be a better, more meaningful method.
“I never ever would have imagined that I would be even where I’m at today…now I’m just like this is great but where’s the next level for myself and for my shop and for my employees?”
One thing? Honeycomb chocolates for every single pillow in the Jefferson Hotel. A project that takes creativity and focus to make sure each chocolate stays fresh and tastes great. Plus, launching this week just in time for Father’s Day – Virginia Craft Beer Chocolate! Tim partnered with Champion, Hardywood, Devil’s Backbone, and Port City breweries to create artisanal chocolate treats that include your favorite brews. If it’s anything like his wine chocolates these will sell out fast.
What chocolatiers does he admire? What others do are just poseurs? Why is slow growth best and what happens when you suddenly find yourself on The Today Show? What’s his busiest season? Hint, it’s NOT Valentine’s Day! We talk about that new generation of chefs coming up and how Food Network keeps perpetuating that myth of an easy ride. We even talk hockey. A terrific episode and a big reason why Gearhart’s is not just my favorite chocolate shop, but my new favorite coffee shop.
SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:
- Flora Restaurant – Oaxacan cuisine with a great tequila selection. In Richmond. Thank you so much to Michele Jones and Jason Alley who gave an incredibly generous amount to my recent Big Love Birthday campaign. Their donation helped bring us over the top! Big Love guys!
- Help Scotty Recover – My best friend has Stage 3B Colorectal cancer. Bills are piling up. He can’t work. Can you help? Share! Donate! No amount is too small. Thank you and BIG LOVE to everyone who donated and shared the Big Love Bake Sale and Big Love Birthday! Next up? Tee shirts! Look for them soon.
- Subscribe to This Podcast. Stay Edacious! – Come on, after this episode? You know you want to. Subscribers get new episodes instantly, while non-subscribers have to wait a few hours or days depending on the iTunes gods. Never miss a chance to be edacious!
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