- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

VIENNA, W.Va. (AP) - There’s that universal look from a parent to a child, when a child asks a question and the answer returned is a very clear, “No.”

No words have to be exchanged. There’s no shaking of the head. It’s just a firm, self-explanatory expression.

Dominique Holl remembers his father’s “look” well.

He got it many times in his early 20s, when he was fresh out of college and trading in his textbook days for a spatula and apron to learn the family business, Holl’s Chocolates, from his father, Fritz.

When Dominique started, in the early 1990s, Holl’s Chocolates was taking off. After Fritz retired from Broughton Dairy in Marrietta, Ohio, in the ‘80s, he returned to the trade that he had studied more than 30 years prior - the art of Swiss chocolate making - which was just one of the skills he learned to become a master conditor in Switzerland.

After starting in their family’s kitchen, the business moved to a small storefront on Parkersburg’s north end. It moved again to its current location in Vienna, around the time Dominique joined the business.

It was a collision of sorts. A collision of lessons learned - Dominique’s 24 years lived versus his father’s 70. Fritz’s structured, rigid Swiss training versus Dominique’s more improvisational American values.

Naturally, German-born Fritz’s belief that “there’s a right way to do things,” versus Dominique’s “What if we tried it like this” approach created some tension in the kitchen during the father-son apprenticeship.

And many times Dominique’s questions and experimentations were met with the “look.” Fritz’s mouth never opened, the look said enough.

It said, “There is a right way to do these things, and it’s important to do them this way. There’s a reason these flavor combinations and techniques have lasted over hundreds of years.”

Dominique learned a lot from those looks.

Almost 15 years later, Holl’s Chocolates is still going strong. Dominique and his wife, Michelle, run the business now. Fritz isn’t around anymore to coach him on truffle recipes or dipping chocolate. He’s been dead for five years.

But those lessons and Swiss techniques that Fritz taught to a more stubborn, youthful Dominique have stuck.

“I just learned what he knew,” Dominque said.

And he’s doing things his father’s way, the Swiss way - using high-quality, fresh ingredients to produce authentic, traditional Swiss chocolates.

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The Holl’s kitchen was bustling with activity on a recent December morning.

As an industry reliant on celebrations and holidays, Holl’s does half of its yearly business between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s an all-hands-on-deck type of month for Dominique and his staff. Much of the table space commonly used for chocolate making has been turned into gift-packing and wrapping centers to send holiday chocolate sets, chocolate covered gingerbread and peppermint bark in time for the holidays.

The company’s 32 varities of truffles - ranging from a classic milk chocolate truffle to a sea salt caramel using J.Q. Dickinson salt - had to be made in advance to give the company enough time to sell, package and ship the chocolates to individuals and companies wanting to gift the West Virginia chocolate.

Only two weeks away from Christmas, Holl’s Production Manager Brian Gray had the honor of making tray after tray of peppermint bark to meet final requests.

During the company’s first Christmas - when Fritz was hand-dipping every piece in his kitchen in ‘86 - 400 pounds of chocolate was produced. Today, the company produces 40-50,000 pounds, Dominque said.

Rather than hand dipping the chocolate, Holl’s has sped up their production process to meet a growing demand.

A one-shot depositor machine coats round ganache filling with a thin, chocolate shell in one step, making it air-proof and extending the chocolate’s shelf life. An enrober dips the ganache into chocolate, to create a uniform product.

Surrounding Holl’s employees as they pack corporate gifts are tall stacks of boxes, so high they nearly reach the ceiling, filled with raw chocolate from Switzerland.

“I over-ordered,” Dominique said.

Because Holl’s imports all of its chocolate from Switzerland, he has to order 60 days in advance to get the product. And if they run out of their raw milk or dark chocolate during the holiday season, there’s really no way to make up for it.

That requires a lot of extra planning on Dominique’s part, but the effort is worth it.

“The basic classic truffle has two or three ingredients. It’s not very difficult, but you have to make sure that those two ingredients are very, very good. That’s why we import our chocolate from Switzerland.”

Holl’s gets fresh cream from Broughton Dairy - the same company Fritz worked at for 30 years, and the first job he took when he immigrated to the U.S in 1958.

Sure, there’s technique involved in making high-quality chocolates, but “it’s not a matter of any great magic,” Dominique said. “It’s just starting with the best ingredients that you can find.”

And it’s that quality and gourmet appeal that’s made Holl’s stand out in this state.

Dominique credited West Virginians’ loyalty to their state for helping to boost and support their sales. He said many messages sent with gift boxes around the holidays say something along the lines of “These are the chocolates made in my hometown,” or “These chocolates are made in West Virginia,” or “My hometown chocolates are better than your hometown chocolates.”

“West Virginians are extremely loyal. And I feel like because we sometimes get a bad rap or are viewed negatively by people who aren’t from here, people are excited when they find something they really like, that they think is great and is made in West Virginia. And they want to tell people about it.”

Thanks to that web of gift-giving, Dominique said it happens often that people who receive their chocolate as a present one year, will return the following year to buy chocolates for other people.

West Virginia’s smaller market has also proven to be more forgiving. Dominique said Holl’s Chocolates has dabbled in a number of different products - they tried making cakes for a short period of time - and it hasn’t caused the business any major harm.

“I’m not sure that in a market where you have tons of competition, you might not have that lattitude to kind of figure out what it is exactly that you want to do.

“And now with the Internet, you can do business anywhere,” Dominique said.

Holl’s Chocolates is based in Vienna, West Virginia and has a second location at Capitol Market in downtown Charleston. For more information, visit www.holls.com.

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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