I finally had a store but now there was a ton of work to do. It had no walls, plumbing or electricity. It would need construction. This involved submitting plans to the Ventura County health department (HD). I was very familiar with the regulations of the Los Angeles County health department and both follow the same California rules. So I wasn’t too concerned. However, my plans were rejected because the HD has a longstanding policy that all kitchen equipment must come with a special safety certification. No chocolate equipment comes with this certification, except for a small tabletop machine used mostly by hobbyists. There was nothing of the size I would need that had the desired certification. Generally other health departments in California and the rest of the country also would like a certification but if there is no machine that has it, they make an exception based on their own evaluation of the machine. Chocolate machines are a no brainer because chocolate is one of the safest, low risk foods out there. It keeps for months at room temperature and no foodborne illnesses can survive on it due to its lack of water content. Chocolatiers in other jurisdictions generally were not having trouble getting machines approved. However, the HD was not familiar with commercial chocolate equipment and considered itself unqualified to evaluate it. Furthermore, the HD did not want a hired field specialist to look at the equipment because they did not believe this was the same as the official certification. There was seemingly no way forward. None of the nine or so various machines on the market would be approved even though many of them have been in use all over the world, the country and California for over 30 years. The HD's policy unintentionally made it impractical to run a retail chocolate store in Ventura. Wholesalers in Ventura are regulated by the state which does not require certified equipment. But I wasn't a wholesaler.
I thought that there must be a way to resolve this until the day I walked into the other chocolate shop in Ventura. I wanted to find out what equipment they were using. They had two of the tabletop machines that have the certification. I was shocked. I had never seen anything like it. What they were doing was like running a pizza place using only two toaster ovens. The owner, who was incredibly nice even though I told her I was planning to open a second chocolate store in her city, told me she constantly runs out of chocolate to the disappointment of her customers. She too wanted the HD to approve the bigger machines. I knew there was no way my business would be profitable without a bigger machine. That was the first moment that it occurred to me that I might have to pull the plug. That morning I had dropped off a banner to be put up in front of my shop. I went back to the harbor to look. It was soooo exhilarating to see my logo up on the storefront (see photo above). But I sat there in front of the shop and cried wondering if this project would get any further than this one temporary sign. Music from a live band playing at Margarita Villa nearby was spilling out onto the waterfront walk. The singer was belting out Gold Dust Woman by Fleetwood Mac. How appropriate I thought.
This was such a nonsensical issue and yet I couldn’t fix it. I spent the next several months contacting food safety experts, equipment manufacturers and consultants. I sent every piece of info I received regarding the safety of chocolate equipment to the HD. They maintained that their policy is not to use their own discretion on equipment. I wanted to tell them that I believed in them – that if they just did a little research, they were capable making such decisions – but it was a no. I went to an industry trade show in Hershey, Pennsylvania and spoke to everyone I could about it. No one had a solution. Chocolate equipment manufacturers cannot afford to get this certification they said. If your county rejects every possible machine, get out of that county they said. But I had been working on this business for SIX years and searching for a little shop just like this one for over four. Ventura was gorgeous and I didn’t want to once again lose a good location. I got depressed. The same artist that first introduced me to Ventura by playing a show there two years earlier put out a song called “Too Good to Be True.” I listened to it on repeat for weeks. I cancelled my move, lost the deposit I had put on an apartment and begged my Los Angeles landlord to let me stay in my current place (he did). Then I reached acceptance. I reconfirmed my commitment to Top This Chocolate no matter what happens. It’ll either work out or it won’t. If it doesn’t, I’ll pick myself up again and continue my search, this time all over the country. I’ll look for an existing chocolate store to buy and convert to my own. I’m not clinging to California anymore. This business is the most important thing in my life. I’ll go wherever it takes me. I'll go where the wind blows.
Then something amazing happened. Some influential chocolate lovers in Ventura stepped in on my behalf to see if a solution could be brokered with the HD. It was agreed that I could hire an independent food safety expert to examine one of the potential machines. This particular machine happened to be built in Southern California so I could send the inspector to the factory to look at a model before I purchased it. The inspector determined that the machine was safe and his findings were accepted by the HD. Just like that Ventura Harbor Village was back on!
It was now every chocolatiers' favorite time of year, Christmas season. I went in grateful that I would have the opportunity to take this business to next level and buoyed even more by the return of so many previous customers. Many kept me making chocolate throughout the periods when I had office jobs and inspired me to keep going. It was stellar holiday season and I hope everyone enjoyed their handmade chocolates as much as I enjoyed preparing them...
Today the store is in progress. I am cautiously optimistic as I work on getting the next set of permits from the department of Building and Safety, the fire department and the city electrician. I’m looking forward to moving to beautiful Ventura. I am excited. I am anxious. I am terrified. I am fearless. I am at peace. I’m determined. I have no doubts. My path is clear. This journey continues.