Located on 60 New Street is a warm and welcoming art studio, owned by a musician and a painter. It functions as a gallery and a children’s cooking school, sells its wares worldwide and serves hot cocoa to customers on comfortable stools. But the most intriguing and mouth-watering aspect of the shop is the presence of rows of hand-made chocolate squares that are brightly lit behind curved Plexiglas.
Owned by Chief Chocolate Officer John Down and President Joe Guiliano, this iconoclastic chocolate shop, called Christopher Norman Chocolates after Down’s two middle names, is as abnormal as it is delicious. Although Christopher Norman has offices in Japan and the United States, its New Street location maintains a small business vibe. The daily tasks of employees are fluid, with many jobs taken on by the same people. The retail manager occupies the cashier post and stacks boxes, and the co-owners often help with some of the menial tasks.
Christopher Norman has been trying to brighten up everyone’s days with its designer, hand-made truffles and candies since its opening 17 years ago. The store offers a variety of products, including hand-painted caramel ganaches, replete with the “gooey factor,” as their Web Site proclaims. Another signature piece is the Blue Cheese Box, which combines Blue cheese and dark chocolate into eight finely wrapped truffles. Around the store, one can also see the countless specialty Christopher Norman offers, such as chocolate paintings and bowls. Such masterpieces, however, are not prepared easily.
The store’s delicacies are finely crafted through an intricate, multi-step process. Unlike other big businesses, the entire assembly-line-type work is carried out by people. First a ganache—the filling used in truffles—is created, using absolutely no preservatives, and tempered to make it dark, milk or white chocolate. Next, a mold is filled, and the desired shape is hand cut. The truffle is then enrobed, drizzled or showered with ingredients, such as nuts, coconut shavings or more chocolate, to produce the desired appearance and texture. Finally, the chocolates may be hand rolled, to give them a rough hew. The ultimate product is then boxed and shipped out, or kept as in-store stock.
Even with innovative tastes like Rosemary Walnut and Coconut Curry, and a production model unlike any other major company, the store has seen a drop in sales over the last few years. A pickup around this year’s Valentine’s Day does not mask the fact that business is tough. Though the economic climate in the United States is less than forgiving, Down and Guiliano have tried to keep as much of their business here as possible.
Thankfully, they are not solely in the business to make a profit.
Christopher Norman Chocolates offers a fledgling, sporadic program for children aspiring to be chefs. “It’s a community effort,” Downs said. “We’ve had a class from P.S. 1 come over, you know, for a career day thing.”
Down and Guliano do not stop their societal help at teaching kids to cook—the two moved their business to rejuvenate the devastated area around the World Trade Center in early 2002. “Though there were many barriers up, there was construction everywhere, we considered it a social obligation to contribute our little effort,” Down said.
Down is not the iconic, nine-to-five businessman. Though he is dedicated to his work, he describes himself first as an artist—exhibiting paintings he makes in galleries in Italy—and then as a chocolate man.
“Chocolate is more of an opportunity to support my life as an artist,” said Down, while describing the transition from artist to choclatier. “[Chocolate making], like painting, is a craft, a skill.”
Guiliano, like his partner, was in a field unrelated to chocolate before founding Christopher Norman. He is a classically trained musician, who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera House. Down and Guiliano began their business in 1993, consolidating both of their artistic talents and love of food. Down designs and paints the truffles and squares, while Guiliano adds his own artistry to the chocolate boxes.
Beyond their personal history, there are many more reasons why Christopher Norman Chocolates “prides itself in its abnormality,” Sales Director Cate Kilmer said. The store is a trendsetter, innovating how chocolate is packaged and made. Christopher Norman pioneered the practice of stating the percent of cocoa on the front of its chocolate bars. It was also the first to use Sea salt, a revolutionary new ingredient in many chocolates, which found its first home in the hand-churned vats of the Christopher Norman kitchen.
But more than any chocolate product could do, the small-business feel of this shop, and the relaxed, hometown vibe it exudes, are what set it apart. Getting back to the basics, both in the manufacturing of products, and in the ideals of business practices, is not just an unreachable, unmarketable standard, but an attainable reality.