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A Chocolatier at Heart

Cherri Emery, left, and daughter, Ashley Rafferty-Billman, in front of the unique round cases displaying their chocolate treats in their downtown Kalamazoo shop. © 2021 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Former gallery owner finds the art in making chocolate

Chocolatier Cherri Emery believes chocolate is healing. There are the health benefits, and there is also the simple pleasure of savoring something delicious with delightful textures. But there is even more to it than that for Emery.

“For me, getting through some major losses in my life, the act of creating something so beautiful and delicious was healing,” she says.

Those major losses could have been crippling. Her twin, Terri, died at 40 from an aneurysm in the wake of five major back surgeries. Emery’s son, Sean, had a rare blood disease and died just before he turned 30.

“These are the things, I guess, that make us stronger,” she says. “What are you going to do? You can’t just give up. You miss them. You remember all the good stuff. You do things in their memory.”

It is clear that Emery loves and appreciates her life. She can’t wait to get to work every morning. She enters her shop, Cherri’s Chocol’art, at 101 S. Kalamazoo Mall, turns on the lights and starts brewing coffee. She wears all the hats in the company, handling the banking, figuring out payroll and doing other computer tasks before and after business hours. When all that is under control, she says, she can “do the fun stuff”: make chocolate.

Every day she mixes large batches of chocolate to mold and sculpt into individual creations that she strives to make “as beautiful as they are delicious.” All production takes place in her shop, which also boasts an ice cream bar and a café that serves various coffee drinks and gourmet hot chocolate. Her management role here is familiar to her from many years as an owner of art galleries in Saugatuck, Douglas and Kalamazoo. She loved those businesses too, but this chocolate shop in downtown Kalamazoo is her own work of art, from the décor to the chocolates.

A workplace of art

Emery believes her intense love of chocolate and her desire for the chocolate shop to exist brought together the beautiful pieces that now adorn her chocolate shop. The coffee counter is from the basement of the former Piranha Alley, a skateboarding store on the Kalamazoo Mall from 1997 to 2003. She repaired it and added creative tile work by an artist friend. Wooden art-print file cabinets from her art galleries were repurposed as counters and storage. The antique pillars were something she’d envisioned for the shop and happened to find one day when she stopped at an antique store that was almost never open.

“The round chocolate case was just waiting for us when I looked through a window in Otsego,” Emery says. “I did have to hunt down the owner of the building on that one. And the large headboard that we use on the wall as a focal point near the entrance was from Florida and ended up in Grand Rapids. We painted our tagline there: “The Art of Chocolate.”

“With my galleries, it was a matter of finding the best artists and letting them shine,” Emery says. “I still do that here with my employees, but I have really created this thing from scratch and I am self-taught.”

Her confectionary experience started with caramels in 1970. They aren’t easy to make. One batch she shared with her father destroyed his dentistry bridge. Her caramels improved over the years, and then her brother asked her to make turtles (a treat made with caramel, pecans and chocolate), but he was never impressed with the final product. Until one day he was.

“You have to have a good base for turtles, a homemade caramel,” Emery says. “I started with my mother-in-law’s recipe, and now we make about 10 varieties of salted caramels. Then you have to have really, really good chocolate and candied pecans for the top and bottom.”

Emery learned how to work with her primary ingredient, couverture chocolate, through three years of hands-on crafting while reading everything she could about the subject. Couverture has a higher percentage of cocoa butter (32 to 39 percent) than baking or eating chocolate, tastes creamier and adds a snap and sheen to the finished confection. From start to finish through the tempering process — a tricky, sensitive process that requires a steady temperature to create just the right kind of crystals — Emery stirred the couverture with a spoon and carefully watched it respond to the heat. Eventually she got a tempering machine that could process 10 pounds without her minute-by-minute attention. Her next machine handled 250 pounds per day. The current “robot” (as she thinks of it) does even more, monitoring temperature with precision and stirring perfectly.

From galleries to goodies

Emery’s daughter, Ashley Rafferty-Billman, loves this chocolate business as well. Rafferty-Billman was one of the first students to enroll in Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Culinary Arts and Sustainable Food Systems program, graduating with honors. She is a partner in Emery’s work, and some well-timed suggestions to her mother have encouraged important career decisions by her mother. One of those came when Emery gave up her art gallery with the idea of retiring but discovered she wasn’t ready. Her galleries — the last one was Gallery 344, near the Kalamazoo train station — had weathered economic downturns over several decades because her financially comfortable clients continued to be able to buy artwork. But in 2009, the effects of the Great Recession were so severe that all sales activity dried up.

“It was horrible,” Emery says. “My husband had just retired. It seemed like a sign, so I had a big sale and closed the store. Two days later I was wondering what to do. My daughter says, ‘Mom, sell your caramels at the farmers market!’ One thing led to another, and then she suggested opening a retail outlet.”

Cherri’s Chocol’art first hung out its shingle at a small storefront on the Kalamazoo Mall, where it operated for three and a half years. Then, when the retail space on the first level of the Peregrine 100 building, on the corner of the Kalamazoo Mall and Michigan Avenue, came up for rent, Emery’s imagination was snagged.

“If you can’t stop thinking about it, you better investigate it,” she remembers thinking. In late 2019 Emery opened the doors to an expanded shop at that location, a few months before Covid-19 restrictions began. She and her crew found themselves having to adapt quickly to the restrictions by adding outdoor seating, curbside pickup and free delivery — anything they could think of to get through the hard time. And the business has expanded its selection of chocolate and caramel creations as sales have continued to grow.

“It’s amazing when you do something that you truly love how successful you will be at it,” Emery says. “You have to have an amazing product and be passionate about your trade, and everything will fall into place.”

It was an unexpected post-retirement career. But now Emery’s spirit has brought life to a place where people can come for chocolate and coffee, to be delighted and uplifted. One never knows what seasonal shapes and hand-painted colors, what new flavors and textures or what combinations of ingredients might be found in the shop’s glass cases.

“We just want people to enjoy it and feel comfortable here. It’s not about the money,” Emery says. “What it really is about is the customer on the other side of the counter saying, ‘Wow, that is gorgeous. Thank you so much.’”

Encore Magazine

Encore Magazine is Southwest Michigan’s Magazine, bringing readers intriguing images and stories of the good things, good works and great people of our corner of the mitten. Published 12 times a year, Encore in its fifth decade of serving Southwest Michigan, carrying on a historic tradition of being the premier lifestyle publication of the greater Kalamazoo area.

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