With a New Space, Daily Chocolate Keeps Making Vergennes a Little Sweeter | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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With a New Space, Daily Chocolate Keeps Making Vergennes a Little Sweeter


Published February 7, 2023 at 2:15 p.m.
Updated July 21, 2023 at 2:19 p.m.

Sweets from Daily Chocolate - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Sweets from Daily Chocolate

Every town has a spot — it could be a village green or a scenic river bend — to which locals and visitors alike gravitate for a moment of sweet relief. In Vergennes, it's the half-block stretch of Green Street that hosts two purveyors of literal sweets: lu•lu and Daily Chocolate.

Lu•lu's giant ice cream cone sign and front door on Main Street are an obvious draw, even in winter. If you head out through the shop's yellow-and-blue side door and cross the street, Daily Chocolate is just one building down. The small-batch chocolate shop has been tucked in the basement of 7 Green Street for nearly 17 years. Many people still don't know it exists.

But that's about to change. After the Valentine's Day rush, owner Dawn Wagner will bring Daily Chocolate into a new era — and up to street level.

"We're only moving eight feet up, but we'll have more visibility," Wagner, 45, said. "You'll be able to see what we're doing."

Namely, visitors will have a view of Wagner and her small team creating handcrafted treats such as pistachio-green chile bark, lemon-lavender white chocolate, black rum caramels, peanut butter fingers and honey sponge toffee. Right now, Daily Chocolate's shelves are stocked with heart-shaped boxes, pops and pieces for Valentine's Day shopping. Or anti-Valentine's Day shopping, if you opt for the black Love You to Death box, emblazoned with hugging skeletons and anatomical hearts.

Daily Chocolate owner Dawn Wagner - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Daily Chocolate owner Dawn Wagner

Everything is made on-site, currently in the back section of the open-plan basement. The cozy space has original timbers and exposed stone walls in its front retail area, but those features aren't food-safe, so they limit where Wagner and her team can produce chocolate.

Chocolatiers have worked around the basement's quirks since Florey Mahoney and Chris White founded Daily Chocolate in 2006. They were the first tenants of the circa-1800 building's dirt-floor basement, which was renovated in 2005, Wagner said. Jen Roberts and Judd Markowski purchased the business in 2009.

After more than four years of working for the second set of owners, Wagner bought Daily Chocolate in December 2020. She immediately launched an e-commerce website, where customers can order customized boxes.

Wagner has shipped chocolate to Oregon, South Carolina and Alaska, though she can't explain how those customers found her. She also increased the business' wholesale accounts, which are mostly in Vermont and across the lake in New York.

With Daily Chocolate growing, Wagner jumped on the building's street-level unit as soon as One Credit Union announced it would move down the street.

"My initial thought was: I have to do both," Wagner said, referring to the basement and the upstairs space. "Financially, that was too big a leap to take."

But then she learned that the main-floor unit also includes a third of the second story, so she gave up her current space. That second-floor bonus area will become storage, an office and a break room for Daily Chocolate's employees — who range in number from three to 10, depending on the season.

Roberts and Markowski are now Wagner's contractors; they're transforming the former bank into a slightly bigger, definitely brighter shop. Instead of brick and stone, the walls are bright white and a deep turquoise that matches Daily Chocolate's new logo. The new shop is more modern but still warm and welcoming — and it does have a few exposed timbers.

Because the walls of the space are fully finished, the chocolate-making equipment can go right up against them. The production team will gain 24 feet of countertop space, and customers will be able to stand directly in front of a glass partition for a close-up view of the action.

"We call it our sushi bar," Wagner said. "It's like a chef's table."

Dawn Wagner handcrafting chocolates - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Dawn Wagner handcrafting chocolates

Wagner is naturally drawn to the notion of chocolate prep as performance. In the mid-1990s, while studying theater and sculpture at the University of Vermont, she got a job at Lake Champlain Chocolates' retail shop on Church Street.

The Burlington chocolate biz was in the midst of an expansion, moving to its longtime factory and current flagship store at 750 Pine Street. Wagner often worked there, too, between classes, rehearsals and performances. She started pitching in on production — dipping strawberries, making handmade truffles and, in a nod to her dual degree, molding chocolate into sculptural displays.

She leaned into the performance aspect of leading factory tours and demonstrations, with encouragement from Lake Champlain Chocolates' director of retail operations, Gary Coffey.

"Gary always told me, 'It's theater, theater, theater!'" Wagner said. "That stuck with me."

Wagner eventually moved to New York City to pursue a career as a stage manager on and off Broadway. For decades, chocolate intertwined with her theatrical pursuits — often as a side hustle, whether she was making favors for friends' weddings or working for a chocolatier between shows.

In 2016, she and her husband, actor Jeremy Holm, moved back to Vermont. They settled in Vergennes, where Wagner had lived for her last two years of high school. Their oldest daughter was about to start school, and "we were ready to shape-shift a little bit," Wagner said.

She knew that might mean taking a step away from her theater career. As a union member, she can take only certain jobs in Vermont, most of them during the summer — not ideal for a young family.

Wagner had always dreamed of having a chocolate shop of her own. But Vergennes already had Daily Chocolate, and Markowski's brother was one of her best friends growing up. Opening a competing shop would have been "aggressive and mean," Wagner said with a laugh. Instead, she worked at Daily Chocolate seasonally, then full time.

Chocolate "ticks the box" that theater used to occupy in her life, Wagner said: "They're both mysterious and magical, and they leave you asking questions, wanting to know answers and looking differently at things."

She's maintained her connections to the New York theater community, which can come in handy. After Wagner recently sent treats to the cast of The Music Man revival on Broadway, its star, Sutton Foster, showcased a Daily Chocolate box on her Instagram story.

"She opened it, and there were none left," Wagner said. "She ordered again the next week."

Daily Chocolate in Vergennes - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Daily Chocolate in Vergennes

Daily Chocolate's style has always been a bit rustic, with a focus on fruit- and nut-studded barks and hand-cut pieces. The base comes from California's Guittard Chocolate, which sources Fair Trade- and Rainforest Alliance-certified beans from small farms, grower co-ops and farmer organizations. It's soy-free, and Daily Chocolate doesn't use white sugar, corn syrup, or artificial flavors or colors. Local ingredients include Monument Farms Dairy products, Cabot Creamery butter, whiskey and rum.

As Daily Chocolate grows, Wagner is drawing on her experience with the specialized equipment at Lake Champlain Chocolates to increase the efficiency of her operation, albeit on a much smaller scale. She recently purchased a tabletop enrobing line, which encases caramels and other fillings in chocolate. She'd love to get an additional tempering machine so that the primarily dark chocolate shop could expand its milk chocolate offerings.

"We're always going to be small-batch," Wagner said, even as the team works toward consistency and uniformity.

Wagner hasn't broken hearts by swapping out any longtime favorite products; she's only eighty-sixed two, which she'd rather not name. One of her additions is already making a buzz: honey sponge toffee enrobed in 72 percent dark chocolate.

Wanting to make a version of the crunchy, aerated toffee popular in Australia and the UK, Wagner found a recipe in Daily Chocolate's "ratty old folder of secrets," she said. It's the first product in the shop to use honey from Wagner's own hives, which she keeps at a friend's home near Button Bay.

Lu•lu owner Laura Mack described herself as a "big sucker" for Daily Chocolate's toffee — both the honey sponge and the more traditional English version, which she uses in her ice cream.

"I will always request the largest piece that they have," Mack said. "For my birthday, Dawn made me a toffee 'cake' the size of my face."

Daily Chocolate will have extended open hours through Valentine's Day, then close from Thursday, February 16, through Monday, February 20, to make its move upstairs. Wagner had initially hoped to move by the end of January, but she opted instead to wait until after Valentine's Day, one of the busiest chocolate holidays of the year. Nothing is lined up to take over the basement location yet, she said, so she has some flexibility.

When Vergennes fixture 3 Squares Café moved a block north in 2016, "they had a chair-carrying party, and a line of townspeople walked up the street with furniture," Wagner recalled. She'd like to do the same thing, but finding people to ferry the shop's 400-pound granite chocolate-making tables would be a little more of an ask.

"It's like a six-person piece of stone," she said.

As Daily Chocolate gains a street-level presence, some might regard it as competing with lu•lu, its close neighbor in the little city of Vergennes. But neither Mack nor Wagner sees it that way.

"It makes the whole city feel really vibrant," Mack said. "A balanced diet is a cone in one hand and a chocolate in the other. We complement each other, and complements never compete."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Vergennes Valentine | With a move into a new space, Daily Chocolate keeps making the Little City a little sweeter"

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