Entering Madison Chocolate Company's colorful shop is like diving into Megan Hile's dreamy world. She describes it as both vibrant and alive, and it most certainly is.
"This place was a vision I had when I was recently traveling in the Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest," Hile says. Her explorations on the Heart of the Forest Trail near Crescent Lake allowed her to see the greenery and colors near the Elwa River as inspiration for her shop's interior. For the chocolate maker who has been creating handmade chocolates in Madison since 2010, it was only a matter of time until her idea became a reality. The brick-and-mortar Madison Chocolate shop officially opened its doors May 20, 2017 on Monroe Street.
But the opening of this shop is certainly not the beginning of Hile’s story. Her chocolate making trajectory is both a sweet and successful one. Her love for chocolate began, as many of ours did, with the store-bought variety put out during family holidays. She recalls childhood gatherings complete with the usual suspects of Russell Stover, Fannie May and Brach's. But it was an out-of-the-box chocolate experience that changed Hile’s perception.
"I had my first encounter with real chocolate about 20 years ago,” she recalls. “It was the first time I actually ate an entire bar in one sitting. And it was delicious. It was a Green and Black brand bar called Maya Gold."
If you're unfamiliar with this bar, conjure up a spiced chocolate drink from Belize. Spiked with zesty organic orange, vanilla, subtly spicy nutmeg and bold, heady cinnamon. In short, quite the difference from a buttercream or Mint Meltaway.
Upon being introduced to a whole new world of chocolate, Megan enrolled in Ecole Chocolat's professional chocolatier program, whose offices are located in Vancouver, B.C., and San Francisco. Founder Pam Williams conducts this program known as one of the few bean-to-bar options in the U.S. Ecole is touted as “an intensive part-time program in chocolate making, delivered 100 percent online over a three-month period, so [students] can learn without ‘re-engineering’ their work and personal life.” This method allowed Megan the distanced learning program she needed to keep her life in balance. The online portion was followed by a 7-week graduate internship in Mindo, Ecuador. Previously a Spanish instructor, Hile’s bilingual abilities aided her in integrating into the Ecuadorian community she was in. The intensive internship gave Hile the chance to take her love of chocolate global, and then return it to Madison's local economy.
Since 2010, Hile has offered handmade chocolates to Madisonians through her chocolate CSA, as she calls it. The CSA, in which members would pick up chocolates at certain locations throughout a given time period, was operated out of FEED Kitchens and was seasonal. Seven years later, Hile's operation would find a forever home on Monroe Street.
At the shop, you’ll notice a child-height bookshelf with multiple chocolate-inspired books begging to be picked up and read in the shop. She employs both of her own college-age children part time in an effort to make this small business feel family-friendly. The cozy atmosphere was created by master woodworker (and Hile’s significant other) Jamie Stanek along with other local craftspersons. In the process, Hile has learned to become her own general contractor. "We should have four outdoor cafe tables by the end of June. Of course Jamie's building them, so they'll be beautiful." The tables will ideally be located off Monroe's occasional bustle on the building's Glenway Street side.
What makes her chocolate stand out? An exuberant Hile replies, "Me! I'm making them different through combined taste palates. We dip the chocolates today and then serve them today. We don't rush our chocolates and are a small wholesaler that uses preserves and caramels," she says.
Inspiration comes in many forms, and she often draws upon cookbooks, nature and what's currently at the Dane County Farmers’ Market for flavor combinations. More recently, she was sipping on a fresh juice combo and decided to add those notes into her chocolates. During our interview, she lovingly dipped blueberry basil truffles into a velvety, molten chocolate rotator. She delicately topped each with a matching candied indigo fruit.
Other flavors she experiments with include ghost pepper, rose, bergamot, blood orange, passion fruit and golden milk (turmeric). She has also concocted liqueur flavors including a rum-based take on a dark and stormy cocktail and a medicinal box assortment with various herbal ingredients. Chocolate and truffle ingredients are kept local and often organic. The Willy Street Co-op and Organic Valley supply her with batches of milk, butter and various fruits and nuts. A happy side note for non-gluten folks—she keeps her facility gluten-free by preference.
Collaborations are peppered throughout Madison Chocolate's energetic space, too. Jeni's Splendid Creams (Columbus, Ohio-based) can be found in a small freezer. Lewiston Farms (Portage) has bouquets and bud vase-sized blooms brightening the countertop and cafe tables. Johnson Public House's brand of coffee, Kin Kin, is both served up in drinks and sold in bean format. "They are an essential component for Madison Chocolate, but not always a traditional element found in most chocolate shops," Hile says.
Her chocolates can be found at both Johnson Public House and Ancora Coffee. Megan mentions that the marriage of coffee and chocolate would be an excellent excuse to take a grower’s trip to areas with both crops—she hopes to do so with Kin Kin down the road. Occasionally, Hile does contract work for various chocolatiers including the company mesocacao, a single origin Central American chocolate supplier for pastry chefs and artisan chocolatiers. If that isn't a full resume already, Hile has also helped to run the Northwest Chocolate Fest in the Seattle area.
A recent Friday night proved popular at the Madison Chocolate Co. shop with an all-ages Women's Chocolate tasting night. A spotlight was on various unique women-made chocolate bars. One example was the complex Hungarian bar Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé, which is made with milk chocolate, candied lavender flowers and star anise powder. You can find many of them in the shop currently in a dedicated display called the "Chocolate Library.” When discussing how she curates this wall, Hile replies, "We try to see the ethics of being a small company and do the same for fellow similar companies." She hopes to make bar tastings a regular weekly event and to further open up the space for private parties and classes.
"The end of Monroe Street location is perfect for us—it's quieter and nice to see the Arboretum's greenery outside of our front window as the view," says Megan, who lives close enough to walk to work. "We are an old world chocolate shop where you can come in, sit down, and have a beautiful experience."