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Chocolatier follows her heart

By on December 28, 2020 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
This time of year is finding Willow Merritt working 14-hour days, seven days a week, but she relishes the chance to work doing something she loves.

By Sebastian Moraga

Some leaps of faith are longer than others. Some leaps of faith are tastier than others. 

Willow Merritt is a living, breathing, baking example of both. 

A wildland firefighter, she started making chocolates a decade and a half ago. With time, her hobby became her passion, and then, three years ago, her passion became her livelihood when she launched Rock Island’s Yeti Chocolates in 2018.

For a while, she did both, firefighting in summer and making chocolates in the winter, but now, she has put gone all-in on the chocolates. She still suits up for the forest service, but in an as-needed capacity, serving as liaison between helicopter companies and the service. 

She no longer works the firelines, preferring the heat that comes from her own ovens, instead.

The challenge of being creative, the artistry of decorating the chocolates, and the desire to see her dreams come true all led her away from the firehoses to start her own chocolate business.

“It got to a point in my career at the forest service where it was like, ‘I don’t want to look back in 20 years and wonder if I could have made the chocolate business work. I want to give this a go,’” Merritt said. 

She liked firefighting, and the thought of losing that steady paycheck sounded scary. Scarier still, though, was the idea of going through life haunted by regrets.

“Leaving that (firefighting) job was sad but at the same time, I was going into something I really loved to do, so I didn’t feel bad about either aspect,” she said. 

Besides, her status as a federal employee gave her a bit of a safety net, in the form of three years of rehire rights. She figured that in three years she would know one way or the other if this chocolate thing panned out.

And so far, although being a business owner is harder than she thought, she said she has no regrets about her choice.

“The business is doing well, COVID obviously threw us all a big curveball, but I think I’m going to continue forth down this path,” she said.

Owning her own business has its downsides, like those days when she has to deal with things that stand far and away from the toasty oven: Compliance, regulations, taxes, labels, advertising, boxes, shipping, the list goes on. She has no employees, so it all falls on her, except the taxes. 

“I hire that out so I don’t mess that up,” she said with a chuckle.

Owning her own chocolate business has its upsides, too, like the look on people’s faces when they meet her in person and realize she can still fit through doorways.

“I don’t eat a ton of product and I often get a lot of people who see me and say, ‘If I were you, I would be 500 pounds.’”

Unlike so many professionals who reach the end of the workday wanting to get as far away as possible from anything related to their chosen field, Merritt still enjoys a good piece of chocolate. 

A classics major from the University of Idaho who graduated with a minor in food sciences and then graduated from culinary school in Portland, Merritt likes to make chocolate that is popular, but above all, she wants to make chocolate that intrigues and captivates people. To that end, she does not offer a plain milk chocolate or a plain dark chocolate year-round.

“I know that it’s popular, but that’s just not something that I really like to offer. I like to do things a little bit different. I like to push the envelope with flavor combinations,” she said. 

Nothing is more disappointing than biting into a piece of chocolate that just tastes like chocolate, when the label promised orange or raspberry flavors. When Merritt makes that chocolate, she wants that promise fulfilled, no matter what the flavor.

Take lavender for instance. Never a big fan of the lavender-chocolate combination, Merritt recently contacted a lavender farm in Tonasket that sent her some of its culinary lavender, making a convert out of her in the process.

“It may have been that I wasn’t using the right kind of lavender,” she said, because the new lavender is working out well when paired up with her chocolate. 

“Really smooth, not overpowering, it doesn’t taste like a bar of soap in your mouth,” she said, which helps a lot during selling time, because it’s hard to sell product you don’t believe in, Merritt said. 

One of the pieces of chocolate she believes the most in is a the one she has dubbed the Smith & Wesson, named after a coffee drink with creme de cacao and Kahlua flavoring that her sister’s coworkers enjoy. 

When Merritt heard of it, the innovative, creative part of her brain took over, and designed a curved shape for the chocolate, crowned with silvery-colored luster dust, so the candy looks kind of like a little bullet.

The Smith & Wesson was her best seller until she began making salted caramels, inserting the salt inside the piece and not on top like she has seen other chocolatiers do. The other popular item is her dairy-free peanut butter cup, for which she makes her own peanut butter, in order to rid her product of all the additives in off-the-shelf peanut butter.

“And I also go through a lot of peanut butter, so it’s actually cheaper for me to make my own,” she said. 

From left to right: Nutty Fluff (marshmallow fluff and peanut butter cup filling, both made from scratch), Figjammin’ (homemade fig jam with fig balsamic and milk chocolate), Hazelwings (hazelnut gianduja spread and milk chocolate ganache rolled in ground hazelnuts), PSC (pumpkin, spices and milk chocolate), and Lemon Cardamom (cardamom, lemon and white chocolate.) Just a few of the confections from Willow Merritt, owner and founder of Yeti Chocolates.

Now that her dream of making chocolates for a living came true, Merritt has been busy developing a plan to make her dream grow. She wants to expand her production equipment so she can make more and sell more chocolates, which in turn would allow her to hire someone to take care of retail and marketing of Yeti Chocolates, allowing her to focus in the passion that brought her here in the first place.

“At the end of the day,” she said. “I’m a chocolatier, an that’s what I want to continue to do.”

One of the things she is not, she said, is a chocolate snob. Every so often, she will bite on a Twix or a Reese’s peanut butter cup. 

When it comes to her own chocolate, though, she wants to go against the grain. Americans, she said, seem focused on quantity over quality, and she wants to get away from that. 

“I want people to know that you can pay a little extra for something that is really good. Something that can be beautiful and also taste really good,” she said. 

Someday, those beautiful creations will have a home away from home, she said, when she decides to open a retail store. 

In the meantime, she’s plenty busy at home. The arrival of the cold weather signals the arrival of the busy time at Yeti Chocolates, with Christmas and Valentine’s Day the biggest selling days of the year (in that order), and 14-hour days seven days a week becoming the rule rather than the exception.

From October to December in 2019, she made 8,000 pieces of chocolate. This year, she hopes to surpass that, which means even busier days.

Still, it’s her choice, her passion and her livelihood, and she relishes the chance to work doing something she loves.

“I would not give it up for anything,” she said. “Even during those days when it’s really hard and you wonder ‘is it really worth it, what I’m doing?’ seeing people and how much joy you bring them with something you created with your hands makes it very much worth it.”

Yeti Chocolates are available online at www.yetichocolates.com or at Ye Olde Bookshoppe in Wenatchee. 

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