Grocers Daughter Chocolate’s long-awaited gelateria opens in Empire

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By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

If Jody and DC Hayden, owners of Grocers Daughter Chocolate, didn’t already win you over with their high-quality dark chocolate truffles, sumptuous cookies, or perfect-on-a-summer-day fudgsicles, you’ll almost certainly submit to their smooth and creamy gelato. In fact, don’t even try to resist.

The Haydens will officially open their long-awaited gelateria next to the chocolate shop on M-22 in downtown Empire on Saturday, July 23. Over the past year, the couple has renovated the building that previously housed Lighthouse Insurance, added a second level with two sleek rental apartments—the units are called “Dark Chocolate” and “Milk Chocolate”—and painted the building’s exterior in the company’s iconic bright green.

But enter the gelateria’s clean, roomy space with white walls and large windows facing the sidewalk, and you’ll be transported to a village in Italy, where the locals enjoy an afternoon Affogato—a scoop of vanilla gelato topped with a shot of hot espresso. The Haydens are giddy about their journey into gelato—which is like ice cream but with far less milk fat and served at a warmer temperature.

Photo by Max Buzzell

“For us, gelato is another vehicle for chocolate,” said Jody. “The bigger picture is that to deepen our impact we need to find more outlets to sell more chocolate and local ingredients. This is a natural expansion, a way to grow our business model.”

Nine years ago, the Haydens purchased Grocers Daughter Chocolate from founder Mimi Wheeler (my mom). Four years ago, they moved to their current location in the heart of Empire’s business thoroughfare. Around that time they also turned the company’s ice cube-shaped frozen fudge treats into popsicles, which became an instant hit. “People really liked frozen treats,” said DC. “You’re getting a big pow of chocolate with each bite of your fudgsicle.”

Fruit slushies and chocolate shakes followed. Ever since then the expansions have followed bit by bit, season by season. Beautiful raised bed gardens with picnic tables, benches, and butterfly chairs now wrap around the north and west sides of the building. They hope to one day serve drinks or crepes out of the garden shed.

The idea of a gelateria began to grow on Jody and DC after they stumbled across a gelato shop called Tutti Frutti run by an Italian couple in a beach town in Belize, where they were traveling and visiting cacao farms with their young sons, Arlo and Charlie.

“Their ingredients and presentation were simple, but it was so delicious,” said Jody. “We thought if we could provide something like that with really outstanding flavor, it wouldn’t need decorations or toppings.”

Because gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream and has a shorter shelf life, it is made each day with fresh ingredients. “You’re closer to the product being made when you’re enjoying gelato,” said DC, who took a virtual course from the Carpigiani Gelato University near Bologna, Italy, early in the COVID-19 pandemic. He had previously studied under a French chef at Valrhona Chocolate company and learned the French way to make gelato. (Spoiler alert: the French and Italians disagree on the process. Hayden said it comes down to whether you use inverted sugar or dextrose sugar.)

Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate sources milk and cream from The Farmer’s Creamery (formerly Shetler Family Dairy), which is owned by a Mennonite family in Mio, Michigan. Deliveries arrive in Empire each Friday, and the gelato is made fresh and in-house—an important distinction from many ice cream shops, which add flavors to a mix or buy their product outright. The Haydens plan to offer the following flavors: dark chocolate, milk chocolate, mocha, chocolate chip peanut butter, and chocolate chip mint. The peanut butter comes from their friends at Naturally Nutty, based in nearby Williamsburg; the fresh mint comes from the garden behind the shop. The line will also include pistachio, vanilla, raspberry cheesecake, and four fruit sorbets: strawberry, cherry, blueberry lavender, and lemon.

They’ll also sell “Wookies,” warm, house-made cookies, topped with a scoop of gelato, and “Frookies,” which are frozen ice cream sandwiches. The cookies are already sold at the chocolate shop, but Jody expects the expanded cookie flavors to take off. They’ll offer root beer floats with Northwoods soda, as well as cultured kombucha and cold brew coffee floats. Grocer’s Daughter will also carry a line of chocolate sauces and salted caramel sauces in jars. “We’ll work with companies we know that have similar values and quality standards to make products for us in volume,” said Jody.

Pleasing your taste buds aside, the Haydens are proud to continue breathing life into Empire—a town at a crossroads which recently lost its grocery store, and key corners of the village sit vacant, waiting for the right business venture.

“We love our little corner of Empire,” said Jody. “There’s life here on this great stretch of M-22. It’s nice to offer something that’s engaging.” Frank Lerchen’s Empire Village Inn sits across the street, and the thriving Shipwreck Café is kitty corner from the chocolate shop. It’s tempting to compare what the Haydens have built to a budding chocolate “campus”—analogous, albeit on a smaller scale, to Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor or Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. Each business has a singular focus on quality, and telling their unique story. Here in Empire, it’s about chocolate.

“We want to offer people the treats they want,” said Jody. “Not everyone wants a chocolate bon bon. Now we can serve them gelatos and shakes, too.”

The Haydens hope the gelateria’s attractive design will inspire other businesses to join them along Empire’s M-22 corridor. “The openness, the light, the bright green gelato display visible from the street. People can window shop from their cars while driving by the gelato shop,” said DC.

Grocer’s Daughter’s iconic bright green facade is a story unto itself. The Haydens shared that Empire architect Robin Johnson convinced Mimi Wheeler to paint the original store green after she studied the psychology of colors. The previous location was a grey garage on the hill south of Empire. “I remember hearing how it stopped traffic once it was painted green,” said Jody. “People who haven’t been here in a few years get sad when the drive by and think the green shop is gone. Then they come around the corner and see our new location.

“Our color is so much a part of who we are. Of course, we use high-quality ingredients but we really want people to come and make memories. Our goal is to be fun and accessible and welcoming.”

Speaking of fun, look for a mural soon on the walls of the gelateria. The Haydens will work with Traverse City artist and children’s book illustrator Brianne Farley, whose work you’ll recognize from The Little Fleet, the Dennos Museum, and the Glen Lake Library.

And fun is what attracts Grocer’s Daughter’s dynamic and devoted employees to continue returning to Empire each summer. The Haydens have a staff of 26, including two—Stella Young and Sonja Stairs—recent college graduates who have worked at the company since they were 14 years old. That’s a big deal in a tourism economy where most businesses struggle to find enough help during the busy season.

“They worked lots of jobs during college, but they appreciate the atmosphere, the culture here. They chose to come back to our chocolate shop,” said Jody. “That’s a team thing. These are women who are going to go make their mark on the world in a really positive way. It’s fun to have them here.”

Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate, located at 11590 S. Lacore St. (M-22) in Empire, is open daily from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. (the gelateria will stay open until 9). The Haydens will scale back hours this fall and winter to keep with customer demand.