Praliné Dream: Oregon couple keeps candy tradition alive
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Surrounded by kettles of melting chocolate and delectable aromas that could make even Willy Wonka swoon, Dan and Elizabeth Donoghue are building a dream. The new owners of The Chocolate Caper at 105 S. Main St. in Oregon have taken up the Swiss praliné-making trade in a well-established business they’ve owned for less than six months.
Elizabeth works mostly in the kitchen, while Dan mans the counter, oversees the business and website, and helps in the kitchen whenever necessary.
Six days a week, the couple is immersed in making Swiss pralinés (pronounced pray li NAYS). “Before chocolate was in Europe, candied nuts were popular,” Dan explains. “When chocolate came, they mixed nuts with chocolate and called them pralinés.” They make other treats in-house as well, including salted caramels and chocolate-dipped toffee, caramels, and apricots, but it’s the pralinés that keep people coming back. “I don’t know anyone anywhere else that makes them,” he says.
Since 1983, The Chocolate Caper has specialized in the handmade sweets that combine almonds, hazelnuts, or peanut butter with pure dark, white, or milk chocolate. These are not to be confused with the Southern praline (PRAY leen), an entirely different confection that’s often associated with New Orleans and is made with sugar, cream, and pecans. In contrast, no sugar is added to Swiss pralinés. The chocolate does the talking.
To start the process, Dan uses a mallet to break a 10-pound brick of milk chocolate into chunks that he places into a spinning tempering kettle. As the chocolate melts, the kettle warms it to 89 degrees for processing. Elizabeth scoops a large amount of the melted chocolate into a mixing bowl, where it is combined with coconut oil and then either almond butter, hazelnut butter, or peanut butter, depending on the flavor of the praliné being made. The mixture is divided evenly by weight into two wax-lined baking trays. One batch creates two trays, and each tray makes 80 pralinés.
She works quickly to ensure the chocolate does not cool. She and an assistant spread the chocolate batter into the trays and then smack the pans on the table several times to break up any air bubbles that might have formed. The pans are refrigerated for several minutes before another layer of pure melted chocolate (no butter or oil) is poured onto the cooler layer and smoothed with a special dowel.
Filling pastry bags with more pure chocolate, the women quickly and skillfully squeeze ribbons of chocolate piping onto the batch in patterns designed to distinguish one batch from another. Almond pralinés have angled piping, hazelnut pralinés have horizontal striping, almond-toffee has top-down stripes, and a crisscross pattern represents peanut butter. The pans are placed in a freezer for 90 seconds before the batch is scored with a rolling-pin-type device and then hand-cut into individual pieces with a specially designed knife.
The entire process for one batch (two trays) takes about 40 minutes. How does the staff keep from eating the profits? “We don’t,” laughs Elizabeth.
Dan, 34, and Elizabeth, 36, parents of four children, never intended to get into the candy-making business, but things “just fell into place.”
He worked at Epic for several years before striking out on his own as an IT consultant, and then life threw him a curve. He got sick for two years, which stopped him in his tracks and sent the couple’s personal finances into a tailspin.
At the same time, Elizabeth, a talented, self-taught food artist with a knack for baking and decorating cookies and cakes, was developing a fan base among family and friends. As more and more requests rolled in, she and Dan decided to start a bakery business and began calling food establishments hoping to find someone willing to share commercial kitchen space.
That’s when they met Claude Marendaz, a Swiss chocolatier, and his wife, Ellen, The Chocolate Caper’s founders. The Marendazes were actually thinking of selling their business to a former employee, but that arrangement fell through unexpectedly. Although the Donoghues had no previous experience with chocolates, the two couples hit it off instantly. The Donoghues agreed to buy the business, and the Marendazes agreed to teach them their craft.
Banks were hesitant to offer the Donoghues a loan, however. Then last summer, while at a local fundraiser, Dan and Elizabeth struck up a conversation with a local businessman and friend of the Marendazes who was impressed with their enthusiasm and dreams. After a brief conversation and a handshake, he agreed to loan them the $20,000 down payment needed to purchase The Chocolate Caper, telling them that a stranger once helped him when he had a dream but little money in his pocket. “He was paying it forward,” Dan said of the unnamed investor.
Now, whenever possible, they pay it forward as well — to the local community, which Dan says showed them so much support during his lengthy illness. Leftover chocolates from each batch are bagged and often donated to area food pantries or local churches that serve the homeless.
Dan and Elizabeth purchased the business in October and opened full time on Nov. 8. At the height of the holiday rush and with help from the Marendazes, the shop was producing 24 trays of pralinés a day, three to four days a week.
The Chocolate Caper's Elizabeth Donoghue works on a batch of hazelnut pralinés.
“We made about $60,000 in December and our costs were $20,000,” Dan said. “We sold out of all of our pralinés — 50,000 to 60,000 pieces — on Dec. 22, and people were just so happy that we were going to keep the shop open.”
Now they’re preparing for the next big holiday, Valentine’s Day. “Our goal is to fill up every tray two-deep so we can make all the boxes.” With word getting around that the business has new life, Dan expects 10% to 20% growth in their first year.
It’s not uncommon, he explained, to sell 60,000 pieces of chocolate one month and nearly nothing the next. Business clients help provide stability — particularly Epic, which has a standing order for 1,200 small boxes of chocolates every month and 2,500 small boxes each Valentine’s Day.
Meanwhile, he is busy enhancing the store’s website by adding an online store. He’s also written the company’s bare-hand-contact plan, establishing protocol for safely handling foods with bare hands to prevent contamination.
“We don’t want to be responsible for anyone getting sick, so we’re very particular,” he explains. “You can’t handle chocolate with gloves. We have to touch a tray to know the tempering status, and you can’t do that with a glove on.” Also, gloves stick to chocolates, or can create unwanted indentations, so cleanliness is imperative.
The business is blessed with loyal customers who come from miles around and appreciate the unique product. For a very understandable reason, they won’t be changing the family recipe. “We’re not going to change something that’s not broken,” he promises.
Plans still include adding a bakery so Elizabeth can resume baking the cakes and cookies that made her famous among friends and led to her being named the official baker for The Last Unicorn, a 1982 animated movie that was recently re-released in select markets. She met the story’s author, Peter S. Beagle, and his manager through her sister, and they were so impressed with her decorated unicorn cookies that they ordered 60 dozen and also auctioned some off at a Chicago event. The Donoghues donated the proceeds to charity.
With a sweet future ahead, Dan and Elizabeth are excited to continue The Chocolate Caper’s legacy. “This is an institution in Oregon,” Dan remarked. “Downtown would be completely different to me if this business wasn’t here.”
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