A behind-the-scenes look at the local candy shop during its busiest season
I arrived about 20 minutes early for my Dec. 1 interview with Roger Igielski, the co-owner of Allô! Chocolat, at his and his wife’s downtown Waukesha storefront.
It was my fault. I was ahead of schedule, and Igielski was busy — an occupational inevitability in the candy store business around the holiday season.
But I didn’t mind the wait. It gave me the opportunity to peruse the wide variety of sweets offered by Allô! Chocolat, which actually occupies two storefront spaces on the ground floor of Main Street Plaza at 234 W. Main St.
I wandered between glass and metal fixtures piled with taffy, truffles, candy, suckers, pretzels, cookies and, of course, chocolate, and paused in front of a wall in the northwest corner of the store stocked floor-to-ceiling with colorful old-timey candy that, at 25, I’m too young to remember ever existed.
What Igielski showed me, when he arrived, was something probably few customers have seen: how the store's chocolate is produced. But what he ended up revealing to me, perhaps unintentionally, during our chat is something I imagine Allô! Chocolot regulars are already familiar with: what a happy and successful small business owner looks like.
Behind the scenes
Behind the storefront, through a nondescript side door, sits the Allô! Chocolat production facility. The room smells delicious, like the first whiff of hot cocoa after a grueling round of snow shoveling.
Igielski, who’s clean shaven with close-cropped iron-gray hair, speaks in a deep, clear voice. He asked me to don a hairnet.
There wasn’t a convenient place to stand and talk, so we shuffled around while Igielski explained how things work.
The couple buys blocks of a special blend of chocolate that includes cocoa butter, tempers (melts and cools) it, and then puts it to use.
The 6-foot long machine coats various treats with melted chocolate and ferries them along a conveyor belt, from which an employee carefully plucks them and sets them on a tray to cool. It is affectionately called “Lucy.”
The name is a reference to an iconic scene from the popular 1950s television show “I Love Lucy,” Igielski said. In one episode, the titular character spends a day working at a chocolate factory but can’t keep pace with the speed of production and begins hiding all the chocolate she’s unable to package wherever she can – by cramming it in her mouth and stuffing it down her shirt – to conceal her ineptitude.
The machine, actually called an enrober, dominates one corner of Allô! Chocolat’s production area, which used to be the candy shop’s storefront when the business first opened in September 2006.
Tall racks full of trays full of freshly made chocolate lines one wall. An employee dices blocks of caramel into cubes behind an L-shaped waist-high counter in the center of the room, and a tall shelf packed with boxes holding plastic chocolate molds — of hot air balloons, handcuffs — fill another corner.
And there may soon be even less room to move around the space, Igielski said, because he and his wife are thinking about buying a second enrobing machine to double their output.
“My dad, who's retired, asked me, ‘How big do you want to get?' Aren't you big enough?'" Igielski said. “That doesn't even register in my vocabulary.
"When do you stop growing?" he continued. "You don't."
Growth is, in fact, something the business has consistently experienced throughout the last 10 years, even during the Great Recession in 2008.
When the Igielskis opened Allô! Chocolat, they were the only two staff members working out of a single storefront, and Roger Igielski was helping out at the store essentially in his off hours. (He had a day job as a school counselor.)
Now the shop has almost two dozen employees and occupies four units in Main Street Plaza — two for the store, a studio for classes and another space for the packaging area. They produce thousands of chocolates a day and regularly design chocolate bar logos for between 40 and 50 businesses.
The Milwaukee Bucks recently became a client.
The business has been a labor of love for the Igielskis’ and the couple's work ethic is apparent, especially around the holiday season – the busiest time of the year for chocolatiers.
Igielski recalled one year during which he and his wife, whom he described as “the face of the business,” clocked in 90-hour work weeks.
Igielski said he never wanted to do that again, but that fire has not been entirely snuffed out.
The couple, who have lived in the city for 36 years, announced in May that they were looking to sell the business and retire, but promised to stay on board however long it took to acclimate and educate the new owners.
“We’re not in any hurry to leave,” Igielski said. "Waukesha is our home, it's our community."