The Chocolatier

CL-3436-16By Sara Vigneri~

The milk chocolate warms up in the machine, creating silky ripples as it swirls around. The smell is overpowering, and my mouth instinctively starts to water. “I don’t even smell it anymore,” says Arlene Brockel, candy maker and owner of Chocolate Lab, a specialty chocolate shop in Bethlehem. The three of us–Arlene, fellow-chocolate maker, Kelly and I–are crowded into a tiny room in the back of the shop where two temperers warm up the chocolate to 86 degrees. The women get here early in the morning, before the store opens, and continue to make candy until well after closing. Right now, they are patiently waiting for the chocolate to warm up while I try hard to control my chocolate craving.

Every Chocolate Lab creation begins its life as a giant slab of chocolate–real chocolate without any of the hydrogenated oils or fillers that you find in most store-bought varieties. Arlene breaks the slab into pieces with an ice pick. It requires strength and persistence because the work is labor intensive and repetitive–but Arlene is cut out for it. “I spent nearly two decades working on assembly lines,” she says with a laugh. After breaking up pounds of chocolate (she went through roughly 900 pounds for the Christmas holiday) Arlene tosses the pieces, along with other ingredients, into the temperer. Once the chocolate heats up, Arlene and Kelly begin the process of turning it into the dozens of various chocolate creations they sell in the store.

CL-3485-62Today, they are making nonpareils and raspberry chocolate cups. And while the two claim to no longer smell the chocolate wafting through the store, they do taste it. “All the chocolate is made in small batches, and we taste everything,” says Kelly. The lucky pair makes sure each batch meets their expectations, which results in a lot of requisite chocolate consumption. I hear the phone ring and Arlene leaves her post by the temperer and heads to the front of the store.

Looking across the display cabinets in the storefront, you can tell you aren’t in an ordinary candy shop. Each piece of chocolate has an organic shape, little imperfections that bear the sign of a handmade confection. You can see the piping marks where Arlene’s hand poured the filling, and the crooked edges on the chocolate covered Rice Krispies™ treats. One of the most impressive sights is Arlene’s signature Turtles–salad-plate-size nut clusters covered in chocolate. Each Turtle is a unique shape, and are so tantalizing that I recommend you buy them only if you have someone to share them with or you might risk eating the entire confection on your own.

Arlene hangs up the phone and heads back to the temperer, which has reached the proper temperature and is ready for candy making. With swift skill, Arlene scoops up the creamy chocolate and pours it into a piping bag. She then squeezes dime-size drops of chocolate over a tray lined with nonpareils. Her efficient movement with the piping bag is indicative of Arlene’s experience working in a factory. “After 19 years, I lost my job at the factory when the company outsourced the work,” she explains, continuing to pipe chocolate onto the tray. “I cashed out my severance and 401k and started my chocolate business.” With nothing more than a few community college classes on chocolate making and zero business experience, Arlene relied heavily on the encouragement of friends and some serious muscle power. Making hundreds of pieces of chocolate each day requires repetitive work and major forearm and shoulder strength. Every order they receive–whether for party favors, dessert trays, or to fill lovely velvet boxes for Valentine’s Day–requires hours of labor.

Watching Arlene work, you can tell she really loves her job. She seems to relish the challenge of creating new confections, such as chocolate bark with Pop Rocks, chocolate covered Oreos or giant chocolate covered s’mores. And despite the long hours of work, the pace is very relaxed in the tiny kitchen. You won’t see any “Lucy and Ethel” scenarios; even when the temperer begins to overflow with chocolate, Arlene calmly scoops out the excess and continues with her work. She finishes her nonpareils and places the tray into the fridge to set, while Kelly steadily pipes raspberry filling into a tray of chocolate cups in bright red paper. The Valentine rush is creeping up on them and they are working to both replenish the stock after the Christmas holiday and prepare special orders.

CL-3509-80While they finish their work, I head home with some samples and can barely wait to get my coat off before stealing a bite of an inside-out peanut butter cup. The chocolate center melts on my tongue—it’s so light and creamy that I feel like I can indulge in another one. “Chocolate is such a simple pleasure that everyone enjoys,” Arlene had told me. So, I decide to share the rest of the samples with my daughters, and their excitement in receiving a handmade piece of chocolate made me realize that Arlene was right.

Chocolate Lab is located across from the Hotel Bethlehem at 446 Main St.,, 610-865-5781.

Sara Vigneri, an experienced health journalist and self-proclaimed “chocoholic,” enjoyed her visit to Chocolate Lab so much that she may hit the gym a few extra times this month, just in case…

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