On this day the day after Valentine's Day -- the lights shine bright on 141 Broadway, home of Choco-Logo, downtown Buffalo's only chocolate factory.
"I'm entitled to chocolate," said owner Dan Johnson, as he reaches for a cognac cherry cordial, dangles it by the stem and makes a sweet introduction.
"These are chocolate nibs," he said, pointing to the sprinkles on the dark chocolate orb. "They're crushed raw [cocoa] beans that when dried go sour and have sort of a vinegary taste. The cherry has been soaked in cognac for about a week. I actually reduce the cognac to get the alcohol out."
The confection reduces Johnson to silence as he pops it in his mouth, and savors the burst of cognac flavor, the crunch of balsamic nibs and the taste of sweet cherry.
Johnson, a trained chef, has operated his chocolate business in Buffalo for more than two decades, specializing in direct sales to corporations and tony retail chain stores -- Saks, Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, Tiffany & Co. His retail candy shop adjoining the factory opened in 2005. Both store and factory are located in an 1898 brick Italianate that he and his wife renovated.
Johnson, 59, and his wife Stephanie, who is 60, have been married for 40 years. Their main residence is in Angola, but during Choco-Logo's busy season they rent an apartment in the city. They have no children and for the most part the chocolate business is their lives. Stephanie manages the business end, processing invoices, packing lists, shipping documents.
Choco-Logo's success stems from Johnson's uncanny ability to pair odd flavors -- absinthe and lavender, wasabi and caramel, habanero and chocolate -- for products that appeal to discriminating customers. Equally important is his practice of mining the streets for employees. He hires homeless veterans, underemployed refugees and middle-aged people whom other employers have given up on.
"These are rehabbed people who are 50, but they were 40 when they got their first job here," Johnson said. "In the last 10 to 15 years, I have let people run their own show and make their own mistakes. I don't yell and scream and freak out anymore -- unless it's a lot of money."
>Into the kitchen
Born in the Bronx, Johnson and his family moved to Schenectady and then to Philadelphia, where he attended Swarthmore High School and graduated in 1971. It was the Vietnam War era, and while Johnson has planned to study philosophy, the war prompted him to move overseas to avoid the draft.
"I was picked 364," Johnson recalled. "It was the first time I won anything, but I had already left the country for Wales, which is where I met my wife."
The couple met at the University of Wales in Cardiff where Stephanie was a music major. "We didn't go to many classes," she recalled. "We were naughty."
Eventually they moved to the States, and Johnson began a three-year culinary apprenticeship at Sheraton Hotel in Cleveland working under a Swiss chef and earning $1.65 an hour. A few years of itinerant restaurant work followed.
"After 15 years I realized it was really terrible work," Johnson said of his time in the restaurant industry. "The creativity was great and that's the part I enjoyed... What it gave me was a sense of the ingredients that are available throughout the world."
>More than chocolate
Johnson is relentless in his pursuit of a home-run confection that will make the candy world take notice. But, despite an admitted chocolate addiction, this determined man lost 45 pounds in the past two years for health reasons.
"My health seemed to be manipulated by me being overweight," he said. "I wasn't obese, I was just bloated, and I decided rather than having back surgery, I would try losing weight."
Local chocolate maker Jim Watson and Johnson were business partners for five years. At age 64, Watson has eight chocolate stores in the Buffalo area and two casino locations. His family launched its business here in 1946.
"Dan was a candy maker at the time," Watson said. "He was pretty much the operating partner, zany and creative with a good flavor palette. He likes to try different things. He's more big city. I'm a Western New Yorker by birth. I took a traditional path, and he is more edgy."
The Waves of Change Inaugural Bark that Choco-Logo created for the 2008 inauguration of President Obama was "one of the most amazing things I've ever done," Johnson recalled. The confection contained layers of chocolate in milk, white and dark flavors separated by sheets of caramel. Ten feet long by 4 feet wide, it was topped with sea salt, cut into squares and packaged.
Johnson's commitment to creating high-end chocolates led him to hire art director Bronwen Battaglia, who designs logos, marketing materials and the company's trademark packaging.
"I will look high and low for the right packaging," Johnson said, pointing to an array of chocolate boxes and bags in his spacious office. His white-chocolate truffles for Tiffany & Co. are packaged in a tiny box colored Tiffany blue. They were distributed as gifts by the jewelry retailer to valued customers.
Two years ago, when Manhattan chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten flew to Buffalo for 12 hours of research and development at Choco-Logo's Broadway factory, his subject was flavored popcorn.
"He wanted sesame popcorn, sour cherry popcorn," Johnson recalled. "He wanted my caramel popcorn with wasabi. He ran out of the building in tears -- the fumes were strong."
Today, Johnson said he has trouble keeping his latest home run -- a 15-piece box of wasabi caramels -- on the shelf. It requires two baseball-size hunks of wasabi to be mixed with 10 pounds of caramel heated to 240 degrees.
"You could run a Japanese restaurant for a week with the amount of wasabi we put in a 12-pound batch," Johnson said. "It makes 300 pieces of wasabi caramels, one of the most complex pieces in the chocolate world."
"It takes a lot of heat to tame the sweet."
About 100 nights a year, the Johnsons open their chocolate shop and factory for fundraisers. The Perfect Pair -- a series of events that offer several pairings of wine and chocolate -- helps to raise money for local nonprofit organizations.
Choco-Logo's fundraisers offer a hint of what is really motivating this man.
"I have so much energy," he said. "My personality is generated by a history of working with people who came off the street. I'm constantly trying to help people."
One example is George, a veteran Johnson hired through HELP USA's Hickory Street Apartments, which provides housing, job training and social services to the homeless and victims of domestic violence.
"George came back from the first Gulf War and fell off the face of the earth," Johnson said. "He worked here for five years. His family disowned him. George had rented a storage unit in Williamsville, and on nice days he would take the bus to visit his unit, sit there with the door open and rummage through his belongings -- his albums, stereo, motorcycle."
Choco-Logo employs eight full-time workers with additional employees called in as seasonal help hired through HELP USA or the International Institute of Buffalo. Currently, Johnson's seasonal workers are of Burmese descent, but in past years he has hired Bosnians and Iranians.
"They are so dependable," he said. "That's one of the beauties of owning a small business, the ability to hire employees who have the desire to work, but no skills or a bad track record."
"I want my success to be transferred to others," Johnson said, "and not necessarily employees here. It could be a charity for the abused, or people without jobs who have no glimpse of what middle-class America looks like. That's what looks like the right thing to do to me right now -- training them to make chocolate or to cook."