B.T. and the chocolate factory


The story of how a local man with a passion for chocolate became a nationally recognized chocolatier has its beginnings in Brian McElrath and Christine Walthour’s former South Minneapolis home. In the mid-’90s, after deciding he was ready for a career change, McElrath purchased a small assortment of basic _chocolate-making tools and embarked on a side project with his wife, Walthour. They began making and testing custom chocolate recipes while he continued to work as a part-time chef.

Before they knew it, much of the couple’s small bungalow had been transformed into a chocolate test-kitchen. McElrath even went so far as to turn a coat closet into a cooling room, installing a home-made device comprised of an air-conditioning unit and dryer vent blower, to perfect his art.

As the business began to consume more of his time, McElrath left his part-time cooking job at Interlachen Country Club to pursue chocolate-making full-time. In June 1997, McElrath signed a lease on a 420-square-foot space on East Hennepin Avenue in Como that had served as research labs for General Mills in the 1930s. Two years later, in 1999, Walthour left her job as an interior designer and joined her husband. Today, that tiny workshop has expanded to 4,000 square feet, and what was once a two-person, part-time gig has grown to an award-winning operation, with six employees making almost 30,000 pounds of chocolate each year. A third partner, CEO Rick Shaeffer, joined the business four years ago.

Of his accolades, McElrath cites two awards as the most meaningful: an “outstanding new product” award in 2001 and “outstanding confection” in 2002, both from the National Association of Specialty Food Trade for his nine-piece Epicurean Truffle Sampler. Receiving such prominent recognitions early on was a complete surprise, McElrath said. “That’s like an independent film getting an Oscar,” he said.

Easily identified by their vibrantly colored cocoa butter detailing, creative shapes like turtles, flowers, fish and hearts, and beige-brown colored packaging, B.T. McElrath chocolates are sold at fine food retailers and gift shops across the Twin Cities and in 17 states. Beginning in March, B.T. McElrath’s “warm weather” line of gourmet chocolates will hit stores across the country.

The award-winning sampler is apparently a hit in Bridgeland, too. Although Jen Wilson said the Bibelot Shop she manages in the East Bank neighborhood has carried McElrath’s chocolates since at least 2002, the popular samplers were sold out.

“One gentleman bought them all this morning,” Wilson said on Feb. 13 — the day before Valentine’s Day. (Other McElrath offerings remained for last-minute Romeos.)

Across the street at Surdyk’s Liquor and Cheese Shop, Supervisor Claire Thomas stood in the chocolate aisle recommending the toasted almond toffee. Thomas praised the freshness and quality of McElrath’s chocolate. “I think we carry just about everything they sell,” she said. “It’s a nice local company.”

Thomas said the only thing that might deter someone from buying McElrath’s products is the price. A box of five truffles will set you back about $9 or $10, depending on the location.

McElrath said he attributes the “premium price” of his chocolates to the uniqueness of the product, quality of ingredients and level of craftsmanship. “A lot of hand labor goes into them,” he said. While machinery is capable of certain embellishments, decorations on the molds are all done by hand.

Another feature that sets B.T. McElrath confections apart is his bold approach to flavor.

“He puts together tastes that you would never expect to put together,” Wilson said, citing lavender-black peppercorn and Zinfandel-balsamic as strange pairings that make tremendous delicacies.

The former chef said he saw a commonality between his “sauce-work” at restaurants and chocolate-making that inspired him to be innovative. Still, McElrath said his best sellers tend to be passion fruit truffles and toasted almond toffee, probably because they’re “not as much a leap of faith” for the consumer.

More than a decade into the business, McElrath said the thing he enjoys most about his career change is being able to work with his wife.

“I’m very proud of what Christine and I have done,” McElrath said. But at the same time, the humble business owner is not ready to admit he’s at the top of his game. “I don’t ever really feel that ‘I’ve made it’,” he said. “I’m still working on that.”