Alum and wife dip into the chocolate business

Cole VanderLeest is putting his UWM business degree to tasty use.

He is one half of the husband-wife team who run DC Chocolate Design in Door County and online. While Cole uses his talents to handle accounting, marketing, social media, purchasing and the other skills needed to run a small business, Kara VanderLeest is the “talent” of the operation, he said. She produces the delectable handmade chocolates that form the core of their business.  They also operate a coffee shop.

The couple started the business in 2018. Kara, who has a degree in food science, at first worked out of a commercial kitchen in their home while Cole continued to work his day job as a restaurant manager. It was a good way to start out, said Cole, with low overhead and a steady income. “The first three years we were pretty sure we could support ourselves.”

Owning and operating a family business sometimes means bringing the kids to work, as baby Khloe joins her parents Cole and Kara VanderLeest. (Photo courtesy of Cole and Kara VanderLeest)

Two years ago, they took the plunge and became full-time small business owners, moving into their own retail space in the Top of the Hill shops in Fish Creek. “After Cole joined the business, it was a little scary, but we knew our wholesale business could pay the rent on the new retail space,” Kara said.

High end chocolates definitely are a niche business, but after the first three years at home, they already had loyal customers and name recognition, Cole said. “Door County is a very supportive community. It’s a really great place to start a business because everybody wants to give you a try at least. And we have a good product.”

The business was a perfect fit for their combined skills, Kara said.

She had done an internship at ADM Cocoa in Milwaukee between her junior and senior year while a food science major. She joined ADM after graduation. “I’ve always loved chocolate and that kind of told me chocolate could be career.”

Cole, who was born and raised in Door County’s Sturgeon Bay, came to UWM after starting at UW-Stevens Point because he wanted the experience of a larger city. He switched from education to business during his sophomore year, focusing on supply chain and management.

One of DC Chocolate Design’s first products was a chocolate bar stamped with a map of Door County. (Photo courtesy of Cole and Kara VanderLeest)

The Lubar School of Business gave him a great base for running a small business, he said. “It helps to have a background and feel confident you can do a certain thing.”

The couple met through mutual friends seven years go and decided to move to Door County after he received a job offer there, running a restaurant where he’d worked part-time in high school and college.

Kara was looking for a job but decided to start a business instead. “There wasn’t a lot of chocolate making in Door County then,” she said. They bought a house and turned one room into a licensed commercial kitchen.

Cole’s father has had a small business doing soil testing for more than 30 years in Door County, and that inspired him, Cole said. “I always knew I wanted to run a small business.”

One of DC Chocolate Design’s first products was a chocolate bar stamped with a map of Door County, an excellent souvenir for visitors. The VanderLeests have since expanded into a wide variety of chocolates – bars, truffles, hot chocolate and other products. Ingredients include dark and milk chocolate, creams, caramels and, being in Door County, cherries. They sell their chocolates wholesale and retail as well as online and do custom orders for special events.

Chocolates and other treats are handmade. (Photo courtesy of Cole and Kara VanderLeest)

The VanderLeests created an Advent calendar featuring a different chocolate every day, which sold well during the past two holiday seasons. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article in November about their business brought an influx of buyers.

January was break time, Cole said: “Winter is definitely the slowest season in Door County.” That gives them the opportunity to “take a deep breath and plan for next year.” It also gives them more time to spend with their 8-month-old daughter, Khloe, who regularly joins them in the shop.

Now they’re open on weekends and gearing up for Valentine’s Day. Kara is developing new flavors for that holiday and the upcoming year. These include a chocolate rosewater cream with dark chocolate ganache, and another featuring strawberries and cream.

Being around all that chocolate doesn’t lead them to overindulgence.

“I love chocolate and it’s always been one of my favorite foods, but when you’re constantly around it, there’s no scarcity ever,” Kara said. “We eat chocolate every day, but a couple pieces, not a whole bar or bag, because there’s always more – there’s 500 pounds in the back.”

“Chocolate every day is good for you,” Cole added.

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