Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/12/2016 (1062 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 18/12/2016 (1062 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
To begin: a tale from Christmas past.
In December 2009, Helen Staines attempted to make chocolate truffles, intended for her friends and co-workers as Christmas presents. Staines had never worked with chocolate before, but with an extensive background in food service, she was fairly confident in her abilities.
"I spent an entire weekend in the kitchen, but none of the truffles set properly," she says, explaining although her creations tasted OK, she didn’t think they were attractive enough to serve as gifts. "I was a bit disappointed, but at the same time, I discovered (making chocolate) was something I really enjoyed doing. So after all was said and done, I thought, ‘Maybe I can keep working at it and turn this into a thing, down the line.’"
Fast-forward to March 1, 2016. A few minutes after putting out the "open" sign, Staines welcomed the first customer to Decadence Chocolates, the specialty chocolate shop she established at 70 Sherbrook St. in a building that once housed a camera repair depot.
"Our first customer’s name is Debbie, and I’m happy to report she still comes in regularly," Staines says, seated at a table for two in her modish-looking locale, steps away from an open kitchen where her clientele is granted an up-close view of what life as a chocolatier is all about.
Maybe I can keep working at it and turn this into a thing, down the line.
-Helen Staines, owner of Decadence Chocolates
"At nine months old, we’re still a relatively new business. There’s rent to pay and loans to pay. It’s lots of hours and can definitely be hard at times. But if you’re asking me if I made the right decision, for sure I did."
How it all began...
The story of Decadence Chocolates actually begins some 350 kilometres north of London, in the picturesque county of Yorkshire, England. When Staines is asked if she had a sweet tooth as a child, she flashes a grin and recalls one present in particular she and her brother received whenever Santa Claus paid a visit to their home village of East Keswick.
"They were called Christmas stockings, which were clear stockings with about eight different (chocolate) bars stuffed inside each one. That was definitely a treat," she says, adding there was also a "sweet shop" not far from her house where she would often go to spend her "pocket money."
Staines, 46, got her first restaurant job at age 14, at a "little Italian joint" in a neighbouring township. After high school, she attended Thomas Danby College in Leeds, where she completed a three-year hotel and catering-management course. Following a fourth year of studies at Oxford Brooks University in Oxford, she landed a supervisory position in a "café and bar kind of thing," at a London Holiday Inn.
"I did that for 18 months or so then decided to go and work on cruise ships as a bartender," she says, noting she spent the next chapter of her life "working hard and playing hard."
"It’s a great, young life and a fantastic way to see the world, but after four years I was done. So I went back to London and got a job as the assistant manager of a famous steak house called the Guinea Grill, where I stayed for another four years before moving to Canada."
Staines’ original plan was to relocate to Vancouver, along with her partner at the time. Her girlfriend had an uncle living in Winnipeg, however, so the couple figured they’d make a pit stop here to visit him before continuing on to B.C. A week turned into a month, a month turned into six months and by September 2001, they had moved into an apartment of their own in East Kildonan. (Staines’ ex eventually moved to Vancouver on her own. Staines and her wife, whom she met while working at the Fort Garry Hotel, live in a home in the Maples, along with their three cats.)
‘If you don’t at least try it, you’re not going to be happy'
A few months after Staines’ failed attempt at making truffles, she signed up for a three-month, online chocolate-making course, taught through Ecole Chocolat. She passed with flying colours, she says, then spent a week in Quebec fine-tuning her skills at the Barry Callebaut chocolate plant in St-Hyacinthe. In September 2010, she rented a table at a Christmas craft show being run out of a community club on Pembina Highway. Within 12 months, she and her assortment of made-from-scratch chocolates had become a fixture at similar craft shows throughout the city, as well as at larger pop-up markets such as Third + Bird. By 2014, it was all she could do to keep up with demand while still managing to get through the week at her regular place of work.
In February 2015, Staines’ job as an event planner "fizzled out." Instead of being upset, she viewed the situation as an opportunity to see if she could take her sideline biz to the next level, by dedicating her full attention to chocolate.
"I was like, do I go back to the corporate world or do I try to make this work? Luckily, my wife backed my decision 100 per cent. She said, ‘If you don’t at least try it, you’re not going to be happy.’"
After completing a business plan course run by the Women’s Enterprise Centre of Manitoba, Staines began hunting for a spot to call her own. At close to 1,700 square feet, the space she’s currently in is somewhat larger than what she was originally looking for, but given its prime location — in the heart of West Broadway, steps away from an abundance of hip restaurants and cafés such as Thom Bargen and the Sherbrook Street Delicatessen — it was too good an opportunity to pass up, she says.
"I got the keys on Dec. 1 (2015) with the hopes of opening on Feb. 1. But the renovations took longer than we anticipated — we basically took the place back to nothing, moving and ripping out walls before repainting everything — so it wasn’t until March 1 that we were ready to say, ‘OK, let’s go for it.’"
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A number of products Staines sells are tied to her British roots. Her crystallized ginger truffle, for example, is a nod to her mother, who "absolutely" loves ginger. Another flavour — banoffee pie — is patterned after an English dessert that combines bananas, cream and toffee.
"I’m always playing around with flavours (and) I think that’s where I’m a little bit different," says Staines, whose primary form of relaxation these days is binge-watching the TV series Scandal and competing in a Thursday night dart league with her team the Vagabonds. "Chocolate and chili (pepper) go really well together, so I have a harissa spice that’s proven to be quite popular. There’s also honey and thyme, mango, coriander and mint, strawberry and balsamic... as well as some more traditional ones, like caramel. I don’t like coffee, but most people do, so a while ago I bowed and did a coffee chocolate."
To mark her shop’s first foray with St. Nick, Staines has also come up with a few creations tailored specifically to the holiday season. She describes "Ziggy" as a "hot chocolate snowman" whose filling is a mishmash of made-in-store marshmallows and hot chocolate mix. Boil five cups of milk, she instructs, immerse Ziggy in the pot and presto, within a few minutes you’ll have enough hot chocolate for the entire family.
"We also have chocolate Santas, chocolate Christmas trees and, for Hanukkah, chocolate dreidels," she goes on, figuring she’ll stay open until at least 6 p.m. Dec. 24 to accommodate any last-minute shoppers. "My mom’s coming in from England this year, so we’ll spend Christmas Day and Boxing Day with her before we start getting ready for the new year and whatever that brings."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
You know that tired, old excuse about how the dog ate your homework? Helen Staines, owner of Decadence Chocolates, has a feline version of that yarn.
In 2010, Staines took an online chocolate-making course. One of her early assignments involved tempering chocolate, which involves melting chocolate, then allowing it to cool before continuing to work with it.
“I melted about a kilo of chocolate, and because I have cats, I brought it down to the basement to get it out of the way,” Staines says. “Little did I realize that one of my cats, Oscar, was already down there and when I went back later to fetch the chocolate, not only was Oscar covered in chocolate, there was chocolate all over the walls, the rug, the furniture...He had basically walked through the entire basement leaving his footprints everywhere.
“I eventually got him into the tub, but even after his bath, he must not have smelled quite right because my other cat spent the whole night hissing at him.”