Verzone’s days still begin at 5 am, when she takes her dog, Isabella, for a walk on the beach. Back in her kitchen by 6:30, she lays out slabs of ganache that have been allowed to set for 48 hours and cuts them into smooth cubes that will become the rich, creamy centers of her chocolates. Each batch of ganache is infused with a puree of flavors—for example, blueberries and hyssop, an aromatic herb that grows in Verzone’s garden. Later in the morning, she dips each cube into molten chocolate.
She has no employees, although her husband manages her website (“He gets paid in chocolates,” she says). She works six days a week—three days at the stove, three at markets. “But the work doesn’t feel as time pressured as it used to,” she says. “I can take a break to walk the dog or pick blueberries.” On market days, she has time to chat and get to know her customers. And she’s nestled into her community. She’s helped Girl Scouts earn their candy-making badges, and when she develops a new recipe, neighbors taste-test the results for her. There’s just one downside to her success. “I have to put on mascara when I go to the grocery store,” she says. “Now I actually know people!”
From radiologist to Calamondin-cake queen
Very Florida, a little whimsical and all handmade: That’s the vibe Laurie Gutstein, 52, was going for when she exhibited at her first Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C., in June. The biannual trade show for specialty food products is a big deal for food producers like Gutstein and attracts more than 17,000 people from all over the world. Gutstein was dressed for the three-day event in a head-to-toe orange outfit. Like her company’s aprons, tablecloths and banner, her clothes were chosen to match the color of the product she was promoting: calamondin, the tiny, prized citrus at the center of her three-and-a-half-year-old business, now called Calamondin Café (calamondincafe.com). The flavor is like a blend of kumquat, tangerine and yuzu, she told visitors, offering them samples of a pound cake laced with calamondin puree.
Gutstein first encountered the rare fruit more than 20 years ago, in Florida, where her father and his friend Jack Spencer had planted calamondin trees in their gardens. Spencer made jam from the fruit and gave the recipe to Gutstein’s dad, who started making it for friends and relatives. Four years ago, Gutstein took over the family jam-making tradition, and for an Independence Day party in 2008, she baked the fruit into a cake, following a recipe that Spencer’s wife had created. “My friend Mary Lou took a few bites and gave me a where-has-this-been-all-my-life look. She liked it so much, she said I should start a business,” says Gutstein. “I decided she was right. You couldn’t buy calamondin cake or jam anywhere.”
Gutstein began researching the fruit between her shifts as a diagnostic teleradiologist (she works from home, analyzing medical X-rays transmitted over the Internet). She envisioned selling her cakes and the fresh fruit around the country. “But all citrus that leaves Florida must be dipped in a fungicide,” she says. “Since the peel is used in cooking, I wasn’t comfortable doing that.” It didn’t help that the fruit is so delicate, ithas to be hand-harvested with a pair of scissors. Gutstein decided to focus on growing calamondin to use in her cakes. In May 2009 she hired workers and planted 22 saplings on land she owned near her home, in Fort Myers. In the ensuing months, she tweaked the cake recipe more than 30 times. “I gave out samples to friends, my accountant, my bank manager,” she says. “They all gave me ‘the look.’ ” Encouraged by their responses, Gutstein, who is single, plowed “several years of pension contributions” into gearing up for business.