Lorraine Dixon, Legacy Chocolates

Lorraine Dixon: Legacy Chocolates

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Mark Dixon, donning double-breasted chef whites, demonstrates aerating my pour-over cup of coffee like it’s performance art. He raises the hot water pitcher well above his head, starts pouring hot water into the proprietary blend of coffee grounds and lowers it to a finish.  He places the finished cup next to my non-aerated sample to show the difference the aeration makes. I can tell he’s genuinely passionate about his craft. Meanwhile, his wife and owner of Legacy Chocolates, Lorraine Dixon, similarly dressed, asks me what kind of chocolate I typically prefer (milk) and insists that I try an 85% Himalayan Caramel truffle, a best seller. And while the cocoa content is at the opposite end of the spectrum than what I prefer, it is instantly my favorite, too.

Legacy Chocolates Box
Legacy Chocolates Box

About a month before, I had reached out to Lorraine on a hunch. I had been in the Pioneer Endicott building in St. Paul and noticed the Legacy Chocolates café (and later to find out, the manufacturing kitchen as well.) Years prior, when researching Wisconsin food vendors for my startup venture, WeatherVane Creamery, I had secretly visited Legacy Chocolates in Menomonie, Wisconsin (about an hour east of St. Paul) to try their chocolate sauce with intentions of potentially selling it. I had also seen their chocolates sold at my local food co-op. Needless to say, I was surprised to see the shop in the St. Paul skyway that day. In one of my original conversations with Lorraine, I discovered that she was not the original owner of Legacy Chocolates, and was, in fact, a Canadian immigrant who bought the business in order to retain her E-2 (Investment) Visa to enable her husband to continue to pursue an employment opportunity in Wisconsin. I was a tad disappointed to learn this initially and assumed that such a strategic move would mean that Lorraine couldn’t possibly be very passionate about the business. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

It all started when Lorraine’s husband, Mark, accepted a job that took them from Thunder Bay, Ontario to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. At the time, Lorraine was working for the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, (the public health authority for Northwestern Ontario), creating ad campaigns and materials for both health promotion & health protection. Her background was in art and graphic design, but she was always an entrepreneur at heart, knowing that she would own her own business someday. She had even gone to night school at her local college to take courses related to entrepreneurialism. Her first business in Canada (over 20 years ago) was a medical & dental cleaning company, at which she worked and supervised (other employees) in the evening while working full-time days elsewhere.

Immediately upon arriving in Wisconsin, Lorraine opened Cadeaux, a wine and gift boutique in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Because she was in the country on an investment visa, it was mandatory that she use her own money for the startup rather than applying for loans within the United States. Cadeaux went on to win recognition awards by the City of Eau Claire, and the local Economic Development Corporation for her participation in the revitalization of the downtown area. She even received a grant from the city and RCU for her business plan. Unfortunately, Cadeaux opened during the downturn in the US economy, and even the free publicity from the local television stations, city, and more, was not enough to support a small retailer during a time when people were holding onto their money. Therefore, despite its successes, Cadeaux eventually shut its doors. “It was painful & heartbreaking” describes Dixon. “It was more than just the loss of our savings. It was everything else that went into that business – the passion, struggles, and triumphs. It was my baby that I started from scratch on my own. We also had made a lot of great relationships in that town, considering we were not even from that state (or country).”

Lorraine and Mark were unsure what their next move would be – go home broke & unemployed with their tail between their legs, or pick-up their heads and take one last chance in this country. This time Lorraine was on the lookout for a business that was already in existence and had a track record when she found that Legacy Chocolates was secretly for sale. Owner, Michael Roberts, had created and owned the company for 10 years, but was never interested in the business end of it, and lost his passion for the creative end as well. A former pastry chef, farmer, supertaster, and local food advocate, Roberts started Legacy Chocolates on Earth Day of 2002 in Menomonie. The premise of the business was based on fine European chocolates with less sugar and pure ingredients. In a news interview in 2005 Roberts is quoted to have said: “Chemically speaking, there’s no more perfect food than dark chocolate.” It turns out that nutritional researcher, Michael Levin, had said that first in his 2000 book, The Emperors of Chocolate. In any case, Roberts touted the nutritional benefits of eating fine chocolate such as the vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content as well as the energy that the chocolates provide. He also used only the finest ingredients and did not use corn syrup, fillers, or preservatives – a commitment that Lorraine carries on to this day.

When Lorraine purchased Legacy Chocolates in 2012 (ironically on Canada Day), it had both a café location downtown and a separate large manufacturing facility in the local industrial park that it was renting. The café offered fresh cup-at-a-time coffee & espresso drinks, from-scratch baking, homemade soups & sandwiches, alongside the handmade chocolate products. The manufacturing facility was producing all the food items for the café, as well as chocolate for wholesale accounts and internet orders. Its financials were weak from being stretched too thin in a small town.

Cocoa Dusting, Legacy Chocolates
Cocoa Dusting, Legacy Chocolates

In the first year, Lorraine had to make many tough business decisions. Emotionally, she didn’t want to upset the local community who supported, grew, and were proud of this business that created products in their hometown that they were always eager to share with others. Financially, it didn’t make sense to be paying rent for two facilities and have two separate sets of staff, never mind the annoyance of having to drive product back and forth between locations multiple times per day. On top of that, Lorraine regularly drove to the Twin Cities to pick-up supplies or to drop off wholesale orders. Some days she was on the road for four hours at a time and still had a business to run. “I felt like a hamster on a treadmill” stated Dixon. “I was continually running, and trying effortlessly to find new ways to generate revenue for the business and keep all my staff employed, but I felt that no matter how hard I worked I couldn’t get any further ahead.” Lorraine and her husband Mark talked it over and gave themselves a 2-year timeframe to learn the business, improve it the best they could, then make a decision of whether or not to make a move – and where.

In the end, Lorraine & Mark decided to take another risk and move the whole operation to St. Paul (since Legacy Chocolates previously had a second retail outlet there for a few years). This not only meant getting out of 2 leases, but selling their home, and Mark leaving the job he initially came down to the United States for.  Plus, for the six years that they had lived in the U.S., Mark had been the only one making an income. Even though there were no guarantees of success, the Dixons decided to take the chance. Therefore, as part of a strategic plan, Lorraine offered one of her Menomonie employees, Marion Shambeau, the exclusive wholesale account of Legacy Chocolates’ products in the Menomonie area in exchange for taking over the café lease. Lorraine felt that keeping the products in Menomonie was the best way to honor the people who supported the company while providing a potentially stable stream of revenue until the new location got on its feet. For Marion, taking over the sale of Legacy Chocolates’ products in the same location guaranteed a history of sales, as well as job retention for all the Wisconsin staff. Lorraine not only decreased her square footage but also scaled back on some of the wholesale business that was floundering so she could focus on getting the new store and new staff on track in a new state. The theme was:  streamline and simplify.

Fortunately for the Dixons, they were referred to property owner Rich Pakonen, and the newly renovated Pioneer Endicott building in downtown St. Paul. Speaking of streamlining, not only did Legacy Chocolates move into the Pioneer Endicott building, but the Dixons also became residents of the building in the apartments upstairs!

Pioneer Endicott Building, St. Paul
Pioneer Endicott Building, St. Paul

On the business side, licensing was tricky. There were new regulations around retail, wholesale, and manufacturing to conform to. Some of their kitchen equipment that was compliant in Wisconsin wasn’t in Minnesota. Lorraine took it all in stride and is grateful for how great the city was in working with her. And even though the new Legacy Chocolates space is quite a bit smaller than its Wisconsin location, Lorraine is still currently able to employ up to 9 individuals (which is also a mandatory requirement of her E-2 Visa status).

Taking that leap of faith from a town of 16,000 people to the new location with 16,000 people using the skyway every day has paid off. The store with modified hours is open five and a half days a week and maintains the same recipes. The manufacturing facility is deliberately glassed-off so that those using the skyway can see them at work and know that the products are all made on-site.  The staff is cross-trained between the manufacturing and retail for efficiency. In the first two years in St. Paul, all of the business debt was paid off, and the transactions have doubled since 2015. For the first time in 7.5 years, Lorraine was able to start taking a paycheck for her work. It was a classic example of hard work and determination finally paying off.

Legacy Chocolates has been reincarnated and turned around. It is an example of how less is more. The shop is a beverage and dessert destination. The business focus is fourfold: retail, wholesale, corporate, and e-commerce. And while there aren’t soups or sandwiches any longer, the core of it has been preserved- those amazing (and good for you!) chocolate truffles with the ganache filling.