WESTBROOK, Maine — From recent shoutouts in Bon Appetit to four-page spreads in Martha Stewart’s Living, Black Dinah Chocolatiers has had no shortage of good press. But in the eight years the company’s husband and wife team has been hand-dipping gourmet truffles, there has been a lack of space and access to new customers.
No more. This spring, Steve and Kate Shaffer are moving their production off Isle au Haut to Westbrook. Last week, they opened their new 4,255 square-foot facility, which doesn’t officially open till April, for a Valentine’s pop-up sale on Friday. Right as Steve was ready to open the doors at noon for the two-day chocolate sale, people barged in with glee.
“My goodness, isn’t this wonderful,” said Marcia McAfee, a Portland resident who was the first to check out the scene.
Though the facility was still relatively empty, bountiful boxes of bittersweet, dark and milk chocolate fruit-filled nuggets and slabs of lavender and coffee-infused chocolate bars on a folding table sent McAfee over the moon.
“I am so excited, I can’t wait to try them all,” she said.
Since announcing their plans to move to Greater Portland over a year ago, the Shaffers looked in Portland’s Thompson Point and Anderson Street in East Bayside, but they could not find the right space. Westbrook, the former, scrappy mill city on the move, stepped in.
“I read in the paper that they were looking to come south, so I reached out and said, ‘Why Portland when you can have Westbrook?’” said assistant city manager William Baker, who also is Westbrook’s director of business and community relations.
With cranes in the nearby parking lot and a bridge redesign in the works outside, Black Dinah’s new 869 Main Street space on the Presumpscot River is a sweet spot for Westbrook’s rebirth.
“We are very excited about having Steve and his great brand join the downtown as we transform the riverfront,” said Baker in an email. “Westbrook is poised for greatness, and all of these steps lead us down that path to greatness.”
Peter Green, a board member of Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corp., was buying chocolates with his wife and agreed.
“Westbrook is so close to the mall that its downtown suffered. Now it’s redefining itself as a place to go. This is another brick in the wall for unique businesses,” said Green.
The focal point of the store is an enrobing and moulding room. Customers will be able to see the stunning, brightly colored gems come to life. And they can purchase them at a kiosk.
Kate Shaffer, a self-taught chocolatier, recently won a Good Food Award for her talent. But the limitations of island exporting and importing were getting costly and time consuming. Now they are a “hop, skip and a jump” from Maine’s largest city, said McAfee.
The only thing holding Gary Laviolet of Westbrook back from becoming a Black Dinah devotee was distance.
“I saw an article on these chocolates a while ago. They are very good but difficult to find,” said Laviolet, clutching a box of chocolate during the special event.
With the move, Shaffer, who dreams up the artisan combinations, can further expand Black Dinah’s offerings.
“She wants to create different flavors and is working on a vegan truffle. But to do that we need to take Kate out of day to day production,” Steve Shaffer said.
The relocation will allow Black Dinah to “drastically increase production,” according to consulting general manager Sam Bishop.
The company’s Isle au Haut facility will become a test kitchen and “some form of cafe,” said Kate Shaffer in an email. The tasting room in Blue Hill will remain as is.
But the Shaffers said they are leery of too much too soon.
“We will see what happens. We don’t want to lose track of quality,” said Steve Shaffer.
After all, quality is what drove Kathi Adams, a Casco resident who works in Portland, to Westbrook on a numbingly cold afternoon for a taste. Like many customers snapping up the truffles in flavors such as blueberry, black pepper and Downeast sea breeze, a blend of Maine bog cranberries, house infused cranberry vodka and Venezuelan milk chocolate, she was impressed.
“I love good chocolate,” said Adams. “This is for a special occasion.”
The care the Shaffers put into their collections such as Farm Market, tasty truffles made with 20 percent farm ingredients and sourced 50 percent local, shows.
“We are making it with love, we want people to get that,” said Shaffer. When someone gives someone a box of locally sourced truffles from the Farm Market collection, the message is “I went out of my way to find this product.”
The crowds mobbing the stand during the Friday special sale understood.