Although things can move more slowly in the suburbs, VB Chocolate Bar operates in constant motion. Sitting 30 miles outside St. Louis, Missouri, in the St. Charles County town of Cottleville, the shop runs like a typical coffee shop with pastries during the day. There’s also a robust selection of house-made chocolate items. The coup de grâce of VB’s chocolate choices are the house-made truffles, sitting opposite the bar immediately to the right of everyone walking in the front door. It’s a small ode to cocoa.
“We wanted to showcase chocolate truffles like jewelry,” owner and head chocolatier Conor VanBuskirk says. “It creates an ambiance and curiosity.”
Early evening signals a wardrobe change. Bar manager Lisa Berdeaux fires up the draft beer lines and primes her cocktail shakers. There's a food menu including cheese boards and flatbreads to help offset the wine, beer, martini, and spirits behind the bar. A food menu, once offered all day, now comes out only at night to allow the baristas to focus solely on the coffee.
“To be honest, having a group of fifteen sixty-year-old women come in and order salads, wasn't really the scene of the coffee culture we were trying to spend our time with during the day and build in St. Charles,” VanBuskirk says. “That really didn't exist out here, so it was really an uphill battle, getting people in, understanding what we do, why we do it this way. Out here in the suburbs most people want a drive-thru and to get their coffee without getting out of their car.”
The first year included numerous instances of people ordering “Starbucks drinks in a Starbucks size,” lamented VanBuskirk. The patient baristas slowly provided education. The shop's menu includes local roasters Blueprint Coffee and Sump Coffee, as well as shop favorite Kuma Coffee from Seattle. Rotating roasters have included PT's Coffee from Topeka, Kansas, Ritual Coffee Roasters from San Francisco, and George Howell from Massachusetts. Similar to the setup at Sump Coffee, milk options are very limited at VB’s: whole milk from Ozark Mountain Creamery, or soy milk.
“Why do we do that?” VanBuskirk says. “Because of taste. The whole point of doing this latte is for taste. If I put skim milk in there, there's no taste. So we're not going to do that. If that's what you need, then we're not your shop and you have to be okay with that. You want to relay that message in a way that is friendly, doesn't turn people off, and doesn't make people feel like idiots.”
Before opening their own independent store, VanBuskirk and his wife Stacey owned and operated three Chocolate Chocolate franchise stores. After ten years, they were getting restless with business. One thing that sparked VanBuskirk’s interest was the chocolate truffles his shop sold. He slowly began teaching himself how to make chocolate truffles (the ones they sold came pre-packaged) on an induction burner in the back of the store. If he was going to sell them, VanBuskirk thought he should know how to make them too.
After a lot of practice and no outlet to sell their handcrafted chocolate treats due to the franchise agreement, the VanBuskirks then looked towards opening an independent shop where they could sell their creatively flavored truffles like pear and goat cheese.
VanBuskirk’s original vision “didn't include everything it has now,” and the additional menu options were a way to combat a seasonal business. Chocolate stores, he explained, are “busy Christmas through Mother's Day and then you have six months where not a lot is going on.” Now, with the focus on coffee in the day and food in the evening, alongside their house-made chocolates, the VanBuskirks are able to truly make their retail experience their own. But just this once?
“It's pretty complex with tea, drinks, coffee, chocolate, ice cream, baked goods,” he says. “You're pretty content with growing very slowly and getting much better at what we do on a day-to-day basis. If we have our model perfected to where there's not really anything else we would change in it, we feel like we've learned as much as we can learn with one location, at that point we'll look at what is the next location.”
Evan C. Jones is a Sprudge.com contributor based in St. Louis. Read more Evan C. Jones on Sprudge.