Heather Johnston always imagined she’d find a career that involved helping people. It’s just that she originally thought she’d be doing it in a hospital instead of a chocolate shop.
A survivor of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, she was inspired to practice medicine by her amazing team of physicians and specialists. And, she became a pediatrician hoping to reciprocate the compassion and care that she received.
But, years later, during a break from pediatrics, Johnston discovered an entirely different way to provide comfort — chocolates. While taking a chocolatier course at Chicago’s French Pastry School, she fell in love with the confection.
“I was in [the medical] practice for 10 years. And during that time I had an interest in cultivating a hobby. It happened to be chocolate,” she recalls. “So I took a couple of courses while I was still in practice, without any intention of changing careers at all. Then in 2011, I left medicine for a variety of reasons without the intention of this being the next step.”
Life and chocolate has a way of sneaking of people though, and thus Johnston found herself spending more and more time working with confections. And, eventually she ended up starting what she calls, “a small catering system.”
“It wasn’t a business because I wasn’t a business,” she explains. “I was doing stuff for family and friends and it just went so well and eventually, at some point, my husband and I were lugging up, like 1,000 chocolates to some relative’s third-floor walk-up. And he sat down and said, ‘This is not a hobby anymore. You need to make a decision about your life.’”
And, her decision was to create Veruca Chocolates. Officially, the candy company was incorporated in the winter of 2011, and Johnston opened the doors at 2409 N. Western Ave., Chicago in Oct. 2012.
The shop is named after the Willy Wonka character, “Veruca Salt.” In the 1971 movie, she’s the girl in the red dress, “who wants every single thing she demands: the second person to find a Golden Ticket, and the third to leave the tour,” as Wikipedia describes.
She’s also the one constantly screaming, “I want it now!”
Johnston says Veruca Chocolates is what she imagines Veruca Salt would create as an entrepreneur.
“We built the company around the idea of a grown-up Veruca Salt,” she explains. “The idea of the company is the idea of Veruca Salt has gotten her act together and has grown up into a woman and knows what she wants. So our byline of the company is, ‘I want it now.’”
It’s that attitude, which ties in with the idea of being impulsive about chocolate, that influences Veruca’s approach to its creations.
“We think a lot about the interplay here between flavor, texture and decoration,” Johnston explains. “We start with the inside, we work on it until we feel like it’s something that we would eat everyday and then figure out to make it look to get the right effect. So we do a lot of decoration here, a lot of use of color and texture.”
Veruca offers nearly every type of chocolate there is, from solid pieces to bon bons to caramels. They even make various s’mores made with unusual flavors like passion fruit, and they’ve recently introduce a new Veruca Chocolate Bar. They also sell hot chocolate in the store.
But, their big break came from an unlikely creation — an old Jewish candy coin, the Hanukkah Gelt.
“[Traditional] Hanukkah Gelts are like the crappiest chocolate on Earth and everybody hates it,” Johnston explains. “My husband’s Jewish, and at some point, his friends and he said, ‘You have to help our people.’ So we re-made Gelts. We literally re-invented the whole concept of Hanukkah Gelts.”
The new Gelt for Grown-Ups, as they’re called, are made with high-end ingredients, and a 22-piece box sells for $15.
“There’s no foil wrapper, it’s just air-brushed gold,” Johnston says. “And it’s really high quality chocolate. We use adult ingredients like sea salt and cocoa nibs, and we made it in the mold of an actual ancient coin. It just goes back to the history of the Jewish people.”
The item turned out to be so delicious and unique that it piqued the interest of a major newspaper.
“It was picked up by the New York Times in our first season and then by literally everyone else,” she says. “The beauty of it is that it’s a really niche product. It’s federally trademarked now, which is great. But, it has been such a huge part of our business and focus that we’re really just now coming out of being Gelt-centric as a company and being able to have time to do all these other things.”
Among those “other things” are the Pucker Up Bonbons, which are $13.50 for a 6-piece box. The Valentine’s Day chocolates are shaped like lips, and feature a 64 percent dark chocolate shell filled with oozing coffee caramel.
“I wanted something shiny, girly, but like strong woman-ish,” she says. “So I went with the idea of lipstick colors. We made the lips and we paint them in all different shades of pinks and reds — whatever mood we’re in that day. There’s no rule about it. It depends on who’s doing it and what mood they’re in.”
As for the centers, they were created with some collaboration with another Chicago-area business, The Metropolis Coffee Co.
“We had been looking to partner with some local companies, to use local ingredients. I love Metropolis Coffee. So, I wanted to use one of their products in it,” Johnston explains. “We decided the lips should have something gooey, and luxurious when you bite into it. We ended up going with a caramel that’s infused with coffee. And the way that we make it is we actually crush the beans and leave it in the cream overnight, so we use the whole bean.”
The end result is a kissable chocolate that’s sweet enough for any sweetheart.
“The shape itself is a really good medium for color,” Johnston says. “The shine comes through really well, but it also leaves a lot open to spur of the moment. I really do like to give my team the ability to be creative in ways like that, where it’s a little bit different day-to-day.”
In fact, Johnston seems to put a lot of faith in her staff, which includes both experienced pastry professionals and amateurs. Specifically, Johnston has four employees besides herself working in the kitchen, and then two other employees who work in packaging.
“It’s a mixture of pastry chefs and completely zero training in the kitchen,” Johnston explains. “I’m largely self-taught, so I believe in that concept that people can learn to do anything, if their heart is in it.”
On one end of the spectrum is Veruca’s General Manager and Resident Pastry Chef Nicole Shirley, who used to own her own bakery in Jamaica, and thus has a business background, management experience, and also, obviously, is a trained pastry chef.
“In the management level I wanted someone with experience,” Johnston says. “But the people who don’t have any kitchen experience are in many ways, the most open-minded thinkers. I don’t follow the rules. I don’t actually know what they are, so that’s a relatively good thing. It means we do a lot of experimenting here and it means we fail sometimes. I have zero fear of failure in the kitchen — it’s just chocolate.”
The store itself is sort of hidden away, in a shop on a street most people would never expect to find an award-winning artisan chocolatier.
“This is not really a walk-by retail area. That’s not why we’re really here. This is our production kitchen,” Johnston explains. “We started mainly as a wholesale business, but now we’re like 60-40 wholesale. Our retail is largely online.”
But there the shop stands stands, like a beacon of gourmet, with its vibrant pink logo. And as soon as visitors walk in, they’re greeted with the smell of chocolate and a bright pink counter. It’s a counter they had to install back in May 2014 because, despite their location, they actually did start to get walk-ins.
“We love [walk-in] customers,” Johnston says. “We love talking to people and seeing their reactions. That’s the best part: watching people eating chocolate.”
As for the future, Johnston says she’s focused on creating more new items, spreading the word in Chicago about her shop and eventually getting more space to, “make new stuff.”
“At this point, it’s been about two-and-a-half years, I’m pleasantly surprised at where we’re at,” she says. “I really am.”
So as it turns out, even Veruca Salt can be satisfied.