H.R. Zeppelin: Great Barrington's slow chocolate-maker might grow - but only with heart and soul
GREAT BARRINGTON — For now, Doria Polinger is holding it back. Holding back the natural tendency to grow a business faster than she can keep the love in what she makes. But just try doing this with a chocolate shop at Christmastime.
"I don't know if it's because it's chocolate, or if it's just how I see things," she said, as she poured chocolate disks in to a tempering machine, the first piece of equipment she ever bought for this work she started so she could learn to use her arms and hands again after being hit by a car.
"The thing about chocolate is that it makes people happy," she said, noting that this makes her heart full. "Chocolate is about connecting with people."
In October, Polinger reopened a storefront for her shop H.R. Zeppelin at the top of Railroad Street in a space custom designed for her. This space still feels like a blank canvas for this former art teacher and oil painter originally from Manhattan, who moves around in the kitchen with steady purpose.
She also creates chocolates for weddings, dinners and events. And she does have wholesale accounts. But she is wary of a volume of work that would spin her away from making chocolate that has soul. In her creations she wants to keep capturing the essence of a feeling, an experience — like her butter almond crunch inspired by her 88-year-old mother's era.
Polinger's is the world of radically slow chocolate-making. She doesn't even need to say it's organic — she insists on choosing ingredients not only for taste and composition but for its origin, the integrity of the mission of the company that makes it, and the interactions with its staff. She is diehard about free-trade.
"It is important in my heart to know that farmers are being paid and respected, in order for me to do what I do," she said, noting that she switched distributors when she learned that a certain company was "not as fair-trade as they said."
This is not Berkshires food snobbery — this is just the personality and temperament of an artist who will not compromise. Her patrons swoon.
"I have a customer who comes in once a week for one truffle, and that to me is so happy-making, that somebody looks forward to that one sweet," she said. "If we're getting low on those, I put some aside for him. To me, that is success."
That truffle is double chocolate ganache rolled in milk chocolate then rolled in dark chocolate then rolled in chocolate shavings. "It's a more complex experience in taste than it sounds," she notes.
But she won't use the word "profile" to describe any of this. "I don't like that word."
She won't call herself a "chocolatier," either. And business? Well, she acknowledges that she's "in business," but she insists on her own pace. People want to shop online? Not yet — can't make product fast enough for that yet. She says that after the holidays she'll be reevaluating everything.
Like a true creative, she hasn't yet hung a sign on the door indicating store hours, even though she has them. She spends some time dissecting her psychology. She wants the sign to reflect and be beautiful, but she doesn't have the bandwidth right now to get it that way. And because she doesn't have the sign posted, she also feels she can't turn people away.
"I opened the door and said `I'm closed,' and they looked at me and said, `Well, I really wanted to buy my mother a birthday present.' And to me, that's like `Wow, what an honor, how can I say no?' But the people who work in the shop say, `Doria, you cannot open the door.'"
She also might be leaving things loose because working with chocolate is so tight — there's science involved. But she has support from her son, and her three employees. One, Stefanie D'Angelo, arrives and quietly goes to work in the kitchen. Polinger lowers her voice.
"She's brilliant, she's creative, she loves to experiment — she's brave," she said of D'Angelo. "She's seeing this whole beginning through with me and it's not easy — that's an understatement."
She said the final push onto this path came from a "persistent" Sam Nickerson, whose company redeveloped and owns the building, and who with his family have been regular customers over the years (she named her hot chocolate after Nickerson).
But what sparked this continuing evolution was the initial move Berkshires to send her son to school here.
"He took us on a journey," she said. "It's all connected."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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