Larry Trop tried to give up chocolate once. Making chocolate, that is. But like many worthy resolutions, it didn’t last. Now he’s not only making chocolates, his whole Gig Harbor family is making them, too. And Puget Sound coffee shops, theater patrons and mocha lovers are rejoicing in the one-family-show that is Trop’s Chocolates. About the only thing you can’t do is buy their products retail – yet.
“I’ve been using their chocolate sauce since day one of my storefront coffee-shop,” says A.J. Anderson, owner of Tacoma’s Valhalla Coffee. “Just this morning a woman said it was the best mocha she’d ever had. The taste is awesome; it mixes so well and complements our coffee. I would be devastated if we had to use a different chocolate.”
It’s the same story around town. Patrons at local playhouses gobble down hand-dipped, hand-made brownies as fast as they get stocked and complain loudly when something else is substituted. Chef Erin McGuiness at the 208 Garfield cafe loves the sauces in drinks and desserts. Mocha-drinkers ask Anderson where they can buy a bottle of the sauce. Even Nordstrom has made an offer to stock it.
The reason? All-natural ingredients, no chemicals or preservatives, and everything made fresh to order, say the Trops: Larry, Heather, Emily, 12, and Spencer, 10, who with identical curly brown hair all look as if they’re about to star in their very own updated “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
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“We’re the only company around here that uses real Belgian white chocolate – others use artificial flavors,” begins Heather. “We have real butter in our caramel-chocolate sauce, real pumpkin in our pumpkin-chocolate. We make our own grahams and brownies from scratch for dipping. There’s no preservatives, nothing artificial.”
For their basic chocolate the Trops use Callebaut, a Belgian brand that’s known among chefs for its high quality. And keeping to super-fresh ingredients, they only make-to-order a week or so ahead.
It also helps to have some pretty cute packaging for the truffles: a box itself made out of chocolate, inscribed by hand with white chocolate sauce.
Freshness and originality are the secrets that have given the Trops success ever since Larry quit medical school to run a bakery. From breads he graduated to sweets, then to truffles, and never looked back. He and Heather ran a chocolate-making shop in a mall in Costa Mesa, Calif., from 1986 to 1998, competing successfully with giants such as Sees, Godiva and Ghirardelli.
“We made it on the premises and personalized it – that was our hook,” explains Heather.
But by the end of the lease they had a second baby on the way, the rent was high and they decided to move closer to family in Gig Harbor and try other things (Larry is also a musician, singing teacher and theater musical director).
“I never wanted to see chocolate again,” remembers Larry.
That was nine years ago. But as soon as they closed, they’d still get calls, thanks to attaching their family name to the business.
“People would call our home and ask, could they have some truffles?” says Heather. “I’d shout, ‘No!’”
Eventually, though, the Trops couldn’t resist the call of the cocoa bean. In 2004 they opened a stall in the back of Kelly’s Café in Gig Harbor. Larry directed the music at some local theaters, which began selling the Trops’ brownies. They got a call from Mud Bay Coffee in Olympia for an additive-free sauce, so Larry made one. And things snowballed from there.
They’ve even started adjusting their sauce flavor to match the roast at different coffee shops, using different grades of baking chocolate and two different vanillas to produce subtly different chocolate tastes, though both have the signature Trops aroma of pear, fig, cinnamon and spice.
Now the Trops are at their limit. Working out of three rented catering kitchens, they only have themselves as employees. In between school assignments Emily and Spencer are involved in “everything except the pouring,” Spencer says, from inventing recipes to tasting to stirring to delivery. But if they had a retail space and factory behind, they could expand into bigger gigs, such as the offer Nordstrom gave them to stock all the store’s cafes with chocolate sauce.
It’s a tempting future, one they’d take if they could find an investor. Having their own space would give them control over freshness and presentation, an issue they’ve had with previous attempts at retail through supermarkets. Plus, it would ease the load.
“Larry and I are the management, the marketing, the billing, the delivery,” says Heather, of the ongoing challenge of a family chocolate business. “Everything is on our shoulders. That’s a big responsibility, for ours and other people’s businesses.”
But do they ever get sick of chocolate?
“Not any more,” says Larry wryly. “We need our fix.”
“I’ve never known anything else,” says Spencer.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/arts