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Accolades

 
Lake Magazine Logo Article Published July 2007

The Sweet Life

Start with a dream. Add guts. Stir in a
secret recipe. And voila: one tasty career.

BY DAWN WILLIAMS

PHOTOS BY DANIEL BEDELL

Chocolatier Tina Buck
Chocolatier Tina Buck has turned her passion for truffles into a rich livelihood.

“This may look like a lot of wine, but the alcohol will cook down,” says Tina Buck with a grin. She uncorks two bottles of Contessa Lago Rosso wine, from vineyards just down the road, and pours it into a pot on her kitchen cook top.

When the wine simmers, she adds the good stuff: heaping scoops of rich, dark-chocolate chunks (the exact brand is a well-guarded secret). As Buck mixes – everything is stirred by hand – she glances at handwritten notes, fastened to an antique recipe stand. Mix, mix, mix…a few ingredients later, the 10-pound batch of ganache is silky smooth, a delicious shade of deep lavender. The aroma is sinful, but Buck’s decadent truffles are pure heaven.

Many people know Tina Buck, owner of The Chocolate Garden in Coloma, Mich., as the “chocolate lady,” the woman who concocts bliss-inducing truffles. They have visited her charming shop, surrounded by peach orchards and rolling hills. They’ve watched her on the Food Network and Fox News and read rave reviews of her truffles in Elle magazine.

But what many people don’t know is that Buck, at the age of 36, walked away from a successful career as an advertising account executive – managing $25 million worth of accounts in Chicago and Minneapolis – to devote herself to making truffles.

So what happened?

Chocolatier Tina Buck stirs the ganache
"I'm up at 4:30 a.m.," says Buck (in her Coloma, Mich., kitchen). "But it's by choice."

“I got an advertising degree [from Michigan State University] because it appeared that was the only career where you could be creative and strategic,” says Buck, a native of North Adams, Mich. After college, she landed a plum job at Foote, Cone & Belding – at the time, the fifth-largest agency in the world – and was assigned to the Sara Lee account.

“It was great because we did advertising and marketing for their sweet goods, and I’ve always loved sweets,” she says. “We also worked on new product development and spent a lot of time talking about chocolate and researching chocolate.”

One day, Buck stumbled on an article explaining why truffles are the royalty of the chocolate world. Intrigued, she whipped up a batch of truffles for clients and colleagues as Christmas gifts.

“I experimented and altered ingredients and finally came up with a recipe that I liked in terms of texture and flavor,” she explains.

Each year after that, friends began asking about her sublime holiday gifts by early November. A vice president at the company took her aside and said, “I don’t usually encourage good people to leave, but these are unlike anything I’ve ever had. You should make a business out of this.”

In the end, she stuck with advertising for 15 years. “I didn’t like it,” she says. “I was good at what I did, I was making great money, but I was still very unhappy.”

Until a date with the treadmill turned her world upside down.

“I was working out and a voice in my head just said, ‘What are you waiting for?’” Buck got off the treadmill and immediately started writing. “Everything just poured out of me: the name of the company, the look of the packaging. I even knew that I wanted to be in southwest Michigan to be close to my two nieces.”

Even after that epiphany, Buck proceeded with caution. “I was giving up a lot and wanted to make sure it wasn’t the dumbest idea ever,” she says. “So I leased a kiosk at a mall on Michigan Avenue in Chicago from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. I sat there for 10 hours a day for 30-some days and sold truffles and watched how people responded to the product and the packaging.”

By the time her lease on the kiosk expired, Buck was convinced that she had finally found her passion in life. In 1998, Buck officially became a professional chocolatier, opening the doors of The Chocolate Garden.

A record-breaking 898,000 new U.S. businesses also opened their doors in 1998. But the “chocolate lady” is surviving just fine. “I definitely underestimated how well our little shop would do,” states Buck, who employs six full-time employees and doubles the staff during the holiday season. “Sales were up 40 percent last year, and up over 100 percent for the first quarter of this year.” She’s also partnered with two Michigan restaurants – Timothy’s in Union Pier and Wood Fire Trattoria in Dowagiac – and the Chicago-based wine, chocolate and cheese bar ENO.

On a recent morning, The Chocolate Garden’s 750-square-foot kitchen is humming with activity. The truffle offerings have expanded to 14 sumptuous flavors. Buck, the “chief chocolate officer,” still makes every batch of ganache and is almost finished with her newest flavor, the dreamy Lago Rosso.

“This is a definite perk,” Buck announces, holding up the chocolate-covered spoon like a trophy and taking a long, gratifying lick.

It’s a sweet life, indeed. “Every day is creative and different,” she says. And her days begin in her most favorite way – without an alarm clock. “It’s one of the best things about this, but it’s not like I’m sleeping ‘til noon. I’m up by 4:30 in the morning, but it’s by choice and I love it.”

 
Health Currents magazine cover featuring Tina Buck, owner of The Chocolate Garden

In the spring of 2007, Tina was featured on the cover of the local hospital's magazine for her fundraising efforts of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. She was recognized for raising over $100,000 for cystic fibrosis research.

 

More “Accolades” for The Chocolate Garden
More Accolades


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