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Oh! Chocolate

Laughter and chocolate keeps a family together

Truffles, caramels and French crèmes, oh! my. Imagine these delicious items and the last thing your mind will come up with is high spirits and laughter. Oh! Chocolate is a family business and this family manages to thrive while teasing each other unmercifully. We all know chocolate can be fun, but they take it to a whole new level.

Photo: Mother and son, Margo and Nick Masaoka

As a young girl in Hawaii, Gertie Han was sent to a wealthy European family to be a domestic where she was taught to cook. She loved it, but the burning question was "how do they make candy bars?" and she set out to teach herself over the years. After she met and married Carl Krautheim, she discovered he was a chocoholic. A match made in heaven.

Living in Honolulu, Gertie was making chocolates in their garage for family and friends. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Gertie shared her chocolates during the black out to help people calm down. Carl, a military man and a non-smoker, traded his cigarettes for chocolate bars.

Oh! Chocolate

2703 76th Ave SE
Mercer Island, WA 98040

10500 NE 8th St, Ste 108
Bellevue, WA 98004

3131 E Madison St
Seattle, WA 98112

Madison Park store

Eventually, Carl and Gertie moved to the mainland, opening a chocolate shop on Mercer Island. That shop has been open for 23 years. Daughters Nola and Margo grew up and moved to California. During summers, Margo's son Nick would come up to Washington with his aunt Nola and work in the shop. "I learned to be creative because if I thought up new flavors, I didn't have to do the grunt jobs. Be creative or sweep," remembers Nick. "I had a great time with my grandfather. We'd do the errands and go to Costco and have hot dogs."

While Gertie was creating chocolates, Carl managed the store. A second location was opened in Bellevue. "My father was so likeable," recalls Margo. "People would meet him just once and remember him. He loved giving out samples." Over 20 years ago, as part of a charity publicity stunt, a local Mercer Island woman, Eileen Mintz, was dubbed "Ms. World of Chocolate." She still remembers meeting Carl. "He got such a kick out of my having that title and would feed me chocolate samples every time I went into the store. He was such a dear, sweet man," she says. Gertie passed away ten years ago and Carl died in 2006. "We always say we should get a mechanical grandpa to hand out chocolates, because people miss him so much," laughs Nick. "But there's no replacing the real thing."

"My grandmother was known for her chocolates," says Nick. "But it was just part of what she did. She made taffy and jellies and chews and was a wonderful baker. When our friends came over for dinner, she'd ask what kind of pie they'd like and we'd say ‘apple is fine.' And she would say, ‘no, what would each of them like?' and they'd all get their own pies."

Gertie and Carl hired Rolanda Emerson to help run the stores. "She would say that you have to love making candy. If you hate it or are in a bad mood, it shows. It sounds corny, but it's true," says Nick. When she retired, Margo's and Nola's families moved to Washington to take over in the fall of 2003. Since then, they've opened a third location in Madison Park and a family friend opened a shop in Peachtree City, a suburb of Atlanta. "My grandfather kept it small to keep up the quality. He knew what his limitations were at that point in his life. Since we have the whole family in the business now, we can do more with it although we still do everything in five pound batches," says Nick.

Photo above: Nick, Christian Masaoka and cousin Conner Wise, grandsons of Carl and Gertie

They've found that working in a chocolate shop is almost like being bartenders. "People talk about the most interesting things," says Nick. "When we opened in Madison Park, my brother Chris came up with the idea of adding a marble bar where people can come in, hang out and talk." Each shop is meant to feel like a home. "Madison Park looks like my mom's house," says Margo. "We want the shops to be a tiny oasis where people can relax."

A lot of research went into the drinking chocolate. "I remember going to Angelina's in Paris as a child," recalls Margo. "It was a wonderful experience to sit and drink that thick, rich chocolate served with whipped cream." They came up with numerous variations and had their Bellevue customers blind taste test before settling on what they now serve. "Our family doesn't pull any punches when it comes to critiquing food," laughs Nick. "I can remember making cookies and my mom saying it was a good effort." Margo shakes her head. "I wasn't that bad."

Nick is the creative force behind the flavors. "It's good to get feedback," he says. "If no one tells you the truth, you don't end up with the best product." Oh! Chocolate offers so many different flavors that you could taste one every day for three months without repeating. "Sometimes we have to pull a flavor because we don't have enough case space," says Nick. They also do seasonal items like a pink champagne truffle for Valentine's and a Guinness truffle for St. Patrick's. "We make candy like you'd make at home. We make it in small batches using the freshest ingredients and try new flavors all the time. The family joke is to taste and say, wow, we really do make good candy!" says Margo.

They enjoy helping people with their entertaining and dinner parties. "Ask any staff member behind the counter and they'll be glad to help you," says Nick. "I love pairing things. Chocolate enhances wine, but I find that when you pair beer and chocolate, both are enhanced."

"You can satisfy your sweet tooth with a spoonful of honey," says Nick. "But isn't it better with a pinot noir truffle with pink peppercorns?" That and a little laughter are a mighty potent combination.

Connie Adams/March 2008

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