New chocolate shop draws a crowd, even after Halloween

The day after Halloween might be a quiet day at most candy shops, but that was not the case last week at Zanzibar Chocolates.

Customers streamed in on Thursday, ordering a piece or two, a box to ship to a loved one, an assortment to take to a gathering. In business just over a month in the former home of Wok In-Take Out, owner Jodie O’Kelly greeted many of them by name, giving the impression that the shop, which specializes in hand-made and hand-dipped chocolates, already has a host of regular customers.

As people debated their selections, O’Kelly offered each a free sample of his or her choice, something she does for every person who walks through the door.

From the long display case, customers can choose from more than 30 plates of different kinds of chocolates: walnut raisin crunch, peanut butter balls, cashew clusters, dipped Oreos, classic truffles and one of O’Kelly’s signature chocolates — white chocolate cheesecake filling dipped into milk, dark and white chocolates.

O’Kelly also sells sugar-free chocolates, better for people with health concerns such as diabetes, and “panned” chocolates — chocolate-covered cherries, raisins and nuts.

Islanders were apparently ready for the shop, and word about it seems to be traveling.

“I want to thank the community for welcoming me. It’s been an incredible reception,” O’Kelly said.

A decade ago it would have been hard to guess that O’Kelly would become a successful chocolatier. A world traveler — she has been to all seven continents — she spent the 1990s working in Antarctica at the three U.S. research stations there. In assignments that lasted from four months to a year, she worked in a variety of capacities, including as a firehouse dispatcher at McMurdo Station, an administrative assistant at Palmer Station, and with her husband at the time, at a field camp for re-fueling helicopters, where she worked as a meteorology technician and read the weather every three hours.

Between Antarctic assignments, she went to school at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she earned her degree in international studies with a concentration in the development of East Africa. As a requirement, she traveled to East Africa to work on a project with Habitat for Humanity. One of the women who worked on the same project owned a chocolate shop in Des Moines, Iowa, and a seed was planted.

A few years later, her former husband, knowing she liked to cook and wanted more from her professional life than the trips to Antarctica provided, suggested she learn the chocolate business from her friend in Des Moines.

She traveled to Iowa, where she studied the basics of candy making and selling, taught herself how to hand-dip chocolates from a video and attended candy conventions. The business, as it turns out, is a good fit.

“I love playing with food,” O’Kelly said. “And I discovered how forgiving a medium chocolate is.”

Chocolate is anti-bacterial because of its natural sugars, she said, and there is hardly any waste, since mistakes or irregulars can be melted and re-worked.

Zanzibar Chocolates is the third chocolate shop O’Kelly has owned. The first, Cocoa Safari Chocolates, was in Oak Ridge, Ore., and the second, a shop by the same name, she owned for two and half years in Madison, Ind. She sold it to return to the Northwest, “where I belong,” she said, noting that the Indiana shop is still going strong.

After a year in West Seattle, she found Vashon and moved here this past April Fool’s Day.

“Had I known what Vashon was about, I would have moved here long ago,” she said.

She had just ended a job that hadn’t been a good fit when the building that now houses her business opened up.

“I couldn’t not try this again,” she said.

Shortly after she opened, it was clear she would need help and hired Alexis Aichwalder, an Islander who just recently returned from France where she studied at Cordon Bleu and La Varron, another cooking school there. Chris Calori, who also works at The Monkey Tree, rounds out the staff.

“We’re never sitting around,” O’Kelly said. “We make things all day long.”

The shop has a stove, and they make everything — from caramel to marshmallow — right there.

When they dip the candies, they melt chocolate, which she buys in bulk from Guittard Chocolate Company in California, in what is known as a tempering machine. It spins around slowly and raises and lowers the temperature of the chocolate, O’Kelly said, so that when the chocolate dries, it is shiny and has a snap to it.

“Freshness makes a difference,” O’Kelly said, adding that they make small batches of everything and that nothing in the store is more than a week old, though it could last much longer.

O’Kelly says she and her staff are open to suggestions from customers and welcome ideas. They can make most any chocolate candy a person might want, and they are always evolving and adding new items.

As for the cacao beans that make this shop possible, they come mostly from West Africa — Ghana and the Ivory Coast, according to O’Kelly. They also come from the Caribbean and Central and South America. While none come from Zanzibar Island, which is off the coast of Tanzania in eastern Africa and is considered a Spice Island, it still seemed like a fitting name for the store, according to O’Kelly.

“It is one of my favorite places in the world,” she said.

Despite her passion for travel, O’Kelly is glad to be here now and says that after only seven months, Vashon feels like home.

“I get to be part of everybody’s celebration. I love that,” she said.

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