From fashion merchandiser to artisanal chocolatier
Danielle Verzone, 52, used to live for warm, sunny weather, but on this June morning she’s praying that the day will stay cloudy. She’s at a farmers’ market in Scituate, Massachusetts, selling her handmade chocolates, and while most of the batch is stored in a cooler, the ones on display will be ruined if it turns hot or humid. Laid out in boxes trailing silky, lime-green ribbon, they have names like Basil Infusion and Sesame Truffle.
A bubbly woman stops to buy Verzone’s latest creation, Vernal Refresh: $8 for a box of four chocolates, $22 for 12. The ingredients for the various flavors—strawberry, mint, lavender, honey—all come from either a nearby farm or Verzone’s own backyard. “I’m the superstar of my family after sending them your chocolates for Christmas,” says the shopper. Word-of-mouth raves like this account for much of the success of Verzone’s business, Sirenetta Seaside Chocolatier (sirenettachocolatier.com). Launched out of her Scituate home in November 2009, the company turned a profit in its second year, and revenues have increased steadily since then.
Only three years ago, Verzone was spending four hours a day commuting to her job as a merchandise planner for a Boston fashion company. Away from home for 12 hours at a stretch, she felt like a stranger in her own town. “The only upside,” she says, “was that I knew so few people, I could go to the grocery store looking like hell!” She wanted a more balanced life, one more connected to her community, but couldn’t see how to make it happen. Then, in August 2009, as her 49th birthday loomed, she was laid off. On her last day in the office, she got a mass e-mail from her favorite confectioner, L.A. Burdick Chocolate. “They were hosting a chocolate-making class the following week in New Hampshire,” she says. Verzone loved to cook—and had always wanted to have her own business, though she’d never thought of an idea that was good enough—so she signed up.
She enjoyed the course so much that she went home determined to become a professional chocolatier. But first she had to master some complicated science. “There was more chemistry involved than I’d realized,” she says. “But I knew if I put my mind to it, I’d succeed.” It took her a week to master tempering, the precise melting and cooling technique that gives chocolate its glossy appeal and snap. “My husband told me it was wonderful to watch me become the person I was meant to be,” says Verzone. That was all the validation she needed. With $12,000 from her severance package, she secured the necessary permits and bought ingredients, boxes and ribbons. She enlisted her husband, a marketing executive, to design the logo and set up a website. In September she took an online course with Ecole Chocolat, a renowned chocolatier in Vancouver, to learn about the business side. When she discovered that professional confectioners pull in 80 percent of their income between Thanksgiving and Christmas, she knew she had to launch immediately.
“I worked from 7 am to midnight seven days a week during the four weeks before Christmas,” says Verzone. When she wasn’t making chocolates, she was selling them. A friend invited Verzone to set up a booth at a support-our-artisans party. “It was my first time bringing my chocolates to the public, and I was a wreck,” she says. “Then a woman came by and tasted a sample of the limoncello flavor. She closed her eyes, savored it carefully and said, ‘Oh my, this is incredible. May I sit down so I can hear all about your business?’ She gave me the confidence I needed.”
Verzone received about 25 orders that night. And she got hooked into the local circuit of holiday fairs. By May 2010 she was heading for her first farmers’ market, and in 2012 she logged 120 stints at markets along Massachusetts’ southern shore. She nets $20,000 to $30,000 a year, with about a third coming from corporate gift orders for the Christmas season.