Chocolate-covered berries, sourced from local fruit, are a top seller at the shop. Courtesy Chocolates by Grimaldi
Five-plus years in business have passed for Steve and Molli Laham, and the pair is finding creative ways to draw more customers to their Grand Haven chocolate shop.
The husband-and-wife team opened Chocolates by Grimaldi, 219 N. Seventh St. in the former Grand Haven Roller Rink, in July 2012. The business includes a retail shop and an on-site chocolate-making kitchen, as well as space for group gatherings in the back.
Since opening, the shop has attracted customers from all over the Midwest during summers and relies on strong local support in the shoulder season.
Recently, the Lahams and their seven employees — who make their chocolates on line equipment using special milk-, white- and dark-chocolate blends from Merckens — have expanded their offerings.
Now, in addition to chocolate sales, factory tours and corporate gifting, customers can sign up for creative chocolate classes, corporate team-building activities, and chocolate-making bridal shower or bachelorette parties.
“We started out doing the tours, and those got huge,” Molli Laham said. “Then we started doing the creative chocolate classes, kind of like a creative painting class where the canvas is the chocolate. Then you choose the flavor of the bar and paint with chocolate.”
Prior to owning Chocolates by Grimaldi, Molli Laham owned M&M Dental Lab in Grand Rapids and sold the business in 1999 after adopting two sons.
Steve Laham used to work in the corporate world — founding, then selling Butch’s Jet Ski Shop, then moving on to sales, management and development roles at Valcourt, Canada-based Bombardier Recreational Products.
He said over the years, he has participated in hundreds of team-building activities, which is what gave him the idea to offer them at Chocolates by Grimaldi.
“The challenge is around this creation of a chocolate-themed design,” he said. “We don’t tell them what the theme is; it has to be agreed upon by the team.
“We have a scale and judging criteria for those Type A people. … They come together as a team, and while that creation is cooling, they have to decide who is going to present the theme and creation to the team. You can see them bond and come together, and it’s something they don’t normally do.”
Molli Laham said the business shuts down regular production during the team-building events so the groups can make use of the kitchen, and she and her husband set up workstations for each team.
“One theme was famous cities; the winner did Las Vegas,” she said. “The guy was so good, I would have hired him on the spot, though it was the first time he’d ever worked a chocolate bag.”
The Lahams said corporations like Gerber-Nestlé and Chick-fil-A have brought in employees to do team building. Overall, about 15 to 20 different groups have participated in the past year.
“It can be a tool for a company to see who works well together. See who’s a leader. See who executes a plan,” Molli Laham said.
Chocolates by Grimaldi primarily produces milk chocolates using an enrober confectionery machine — think a smaller version of the “I Love Lucy” conveyer belt episode — but it also does caramels, toffees, brittle, and white and dark chocolate using smaller batch equipment.
The owners have stayed true to their founding commitment of using five ingredients or less in each product. They do not use artificial ingredients, preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup or wax, which is used by major candy companies to make the product shinier but also makes it cling to people’s teeth.
As a result, Molli Laham said their chocolates have been endorsed by several area dentists.
In order to get the smooth, creamy and shiny effect without wax, the lead chocolatier — who was trained at The Culinary Institute of Michigan in downtown Muskegon — and the other production workers employ a painstaking process of tempering the chocolate, bringing out the crystals at high temperatures, lowering them to cool and bringing them back up to a midline to form them into a final product.
Steve Laham said this process can be complicated.
“One analogy is butter and oil,” he said. “Oil is very forgiving for cooking. Butter is not. But you like that sweet butter flavor.
“Wax is easier to work with. Cocoa butter is temperamental and tricky.”
Although Chocolates by Grimaldi’s product offerings evolve, the shop sells a collection of core favorites, including milk chocolate-covered potato chips, chocolate-covered berries sourced from local fruit, truffles with seasonally changing flavors, caramels and turtles.
“Ninety to 95 percent of the ingredients are Michigan-made,” Molli Laham said.
In addition to the team-building events, the Lahams have garnered business by letting groups book their back room for events, including bridal shower or bachelorette party chocolate-making classes.
“I’m grateful weddings are really starting to take off, and chocolate is becoming the main dessert rather than just a favor,” Molli Laham said. “The classes for bridal showers, bachelorette parties, they now want to do it together instead of separate, and this works well for that.”
Steve Laham, who oversees the sales side of the business, said the creative chocolate class is the most popular class they offer, followed by team building and the wedding-related events.
Although the company does not disclose sales revenue, he said the events currently comprise “single-digit percentages” of the business. Overall sales grew between 12 and 14 percent year-over-year, he said.
The Lahams are gearing up for Valentine’s Day, an “all-hands-on-deck” season, wherein chocolate strawberry products are their most popular seller, and customers come to the shop “to make the Valentine gifts for their sweethearts,” Molli Laham said.
Even after five-and-a-half years in business, chocolate still puts a smile on her face.
“Because it’s happy,” Molli Laham said. “Everybody who comes into the store is happy. We always make sure they get something for themselves. It’s a happy, fun product, and it’s a challenge.
“One of the best parts is taking the great produce and ingredients we have here in Michigan and turning it into something yummy.”