In 1974, Paul Hoffman borrowed $1,400 from a friend to buy a small chocolate shop in the South Florida town of Lake Worth. He wasn't looking to make a lot of money or to become an entrepreneur; his goals were much more modest. He was just looking to buy a business in which he could make a living, and in which he and his family could all work together.
He had no idea that this 1,400-square-foot shop would grow into the largest chocolate company in Florida. He had no idea that he'd one day move his operation into an open-to-the-public, 15,000- square-foot, Bavarian-castle fantasy in nearby Greenacres, with a factory, a restaurant, an enormous chocolate shop and 120 employees. He had no idea he'd eventually open up five more shops in South Florida. And he had no idea that his creations would become so popular that he'd begin franchising new locations.
"Paul was an accomplished cook," says Fred Meltzer, president and chief executive officer of Hoffman's Chocolates – and Paul Hoffman's son-in-law. "He wanted his little shop to be the best. He wasn't happy with the quality of most chocolates he found, so he took courses from noted chocolatiers. Then, he traveled around the world, looking for the best ingredients and the most reliable suppliers. He put all these ingredients and all this knowledge together and came up with his own unique creations. And word spread like wildfire."
It didn't take long before visitors from neighboring communities were stopping in at the little shop in downtown Lake Worth, lured by tales of these handmade chocolates with a singular texture and distinct tastes.
Before long, Paul Hoffman – and family – developed a growing following of devotees. Customer by customer, the small store became a local legend. And, after a while, thanks to coverage in national news media such as the Wall Street Journal and Bon Appetit, the legend was no longer just "local."
Today, there are five Hoffman's stores in Palm Beach County and the first franchised shop in Stuart in neighboring Martin County. But growth hasn't changed the philosophy of Hoffman's Chocolates. Each piece is still designed and created in-house. And the recipes are still closely-guarded family secrets.
"Paul's still involved in a big way, especially with new product development and strategic planning," Meltzer says. "In fact, our unofficial title for him is ‘Chief Chocolatier.'"
In addition to buying chocolates, visitors also can watch them being made, gazing hungrily through a window that looks out onto the factory floor. The company doesn't keep statistics on total visitors, but executives know that more than 50,000 people come just during the winter holiday season, many of them by tour bus. When they walk in, they're greeted with chocolates of every size and shape – miniature pianos to bird nests, numbers to roses, antique cars to bunnies to banks, from dime-sized to basketball-sized – and filled with every conceivable type of nut, cream, jelly and candy.
Hoffman's produces nearly 4 million pieces of chocolate a year. It produces more than 1,200 products, including more than 150 types of truffles. During South Florida's winter travel "season," production mounts into the thousands of pounds – daily. Every year, the plant uses more than 100,000 pounds of almonds and 100,000 pounds of pecans. And it can bring in 10,000 pounds of block-chocolate in a week.
Bon Appetit called this "one of America's finest chocolate shops." And the Wall Street Journal, a few years back, said Hoffman's had the best Easter basket in the nation.
"Right now, we're on the verge of something very special," Meltzer says. "This summer, we're opening a new store in downtown Lake Worth, the place where we started so many years ago. For us, it's like going home again."
Meltzer is a living encyclopedia of chocolate, from its beginnings 2,000 years ago, when some called it "the food of the gods," to the Mayans who made a drink from ground cocoa beans, to the Aztecs who offered it to the Spanish conquerors who would soon decimate them, to the best rainforests in which to find cocoa today, to the fermentation process that turns pods into beans.
"For us," he says, "it's a never-ending process. We're always trying to find better ingredients and to create unique new products. And we're always trying to package them in creative new ways."
Trust us: You won't leave without a couple of boxes in your hands. And it's a good bet those boxes will be half-empty by the time you make it back to your hotel.
"We're now seeing the second and third generations of the same families coming in to buy chocolate," Meltzer says. "When you see the looks on peoples' faces when they bite into a piece of chocolate, well, that's why we do it. We make something that brings joy to people."
5190 Lake Worth Road, Greenacres
Steve Winston has written/contributed to 17 books. His articles have appeared in major media all over the world.