EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, we inaugurate a periodic Food + Dining column in which we ask Maine chefs to share recipes and give us firsthand accounts of their lives in the food business. This is the first of three columns by Black Dinah Chocolatiers co-founder Kate Shaffer.

It’s an ordinary Thursday afternoon in Westbrook. I am sitting at my desk at Black Dinah Chocolatiers’ new facility on Main Street, typing up production notes for the coming week, when a major earthquake startles me out of my chair (and my glass-walled office) and under the nearest door frame.

I’m alone, so am only slightly embarrassed when I realize that it’s not actually an earthquake, but rather the army of road equipment that is tearing up our parking lot, pounding the earth into submission. The corner of Main and Bridge streets – our corner – is undergoing a major facelift, which includes two new bridges over the river, new sidewalks, new roads and a new parking lot. The construction explains the daily flashbacks I’m having to my California childhood, and also why the usual steady stream of customers to our sweets shop, which is attached to our factory, has slowed to a trickle.

I know that it will be over in the next couple of weeks and ultimately that the construction will bring us more business. And in a funny way, the earth-shaking demolition and re-building is an apt metaphor for my own life: I feel blasted from my own foundations, blown away by how much things have changed in the last 10 months.

Our new facility is 4,200 square feet of brand-new, state-of-the-art, squeaky-clean materials, and it’s beautiful. But it’s a far cry from where Black Dinah got its start – my husband Steve’s and my tiny flagship location on remote Isle au Haut, 3 1/2 hours north of here and 45 minutes out to sea. This time of year, a staff member might arrive with heaps of fresh-caught halibut, and we’d share a lunch of it on our café’s sun-dappled deck, serenaded by migrating birds and wood frogs, amid budding maples, the stream burbling behind our café. No matter how shiny and new the stainless steel and copper are here in Westbrook, they can’t compete with that.

I might be romanticizing. Running a growing business from a beautiful but remote outpost like Isle au Haut is no small feat. We started making hand-crafted chocolate confections from our island kitchen in 2007. After receiving widespread press and a few national awards, we expanded our production, moved it to a dedicated facility on our island property and hired our neighbors to work with us. Before long, the business outgrew the new space. And the romance of our location, which sometimes attracted new customers, began to frustrate them, too.

 

“Why aren’t you in stores in southern Maine?” I can’t tell you how many times I heard this question from someone reluctantly paying shipping on a small order to a Portland address. Or, “Why are you so hard to find?!” from an over-heated summer tourist stumbling through our café door. Not to mention our own island-based frustrations – high overhead, shipping delays because of bad weather, the pure physical stress of lugging our ever-growing number of supplies on and off the mail boat. The move to the mainland last June was the right, the inevitable, decision. Still, my heart aches every day for Isle au Haut.

I am shaken from my thoughts by another round of pounding from the parking lot, and then surprised by a tentative “Hello?” from someone in our retail store. I walk in from my adjacent office, and face what feels a lot like a scene from the past: a somewhat bewildered-looking customer, his face tinged with frustration. He throws up his hands. “You were easier to find on Isle au Haut!”

Shaking off life’s little ironies is second-nature for the small business owner. I fight the momentary urge to sigh, defeated, and instead, smile, and offer my customer a sample. The chocolate placates him as he savors what he has presumably made the arduous journey to Westbrook to find. I apologize for the construction, and 15 minutes later, he leaves like so many of our island customers have in the past: laden with chocolate and proud that he successfully navigated his way to this secret spot in the wilds of Westbrook.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. We want to continue to grow our business, and the new location will let us do that. What took us one, sometimes two weeks on the island, can now be done in a single day. Specialized equipment and much more space account for some of the time savings, but most of it is sheer logistics. In Westbrook, we have easier access to materials, to shipping, to fresh ingredients and to labor. It’s a dramatic game-changer.

After almost a year here, though, I’ve realized that in many ways, we’re starting the business all over again. There’s the expected – dealing with bigger spaces, bigger numbers, new and different challenges. But there’s also this sense of newness, that ever-present parent-of-a-newborn-fear that if you leave your baby alone for even a single second, something is bound to go wrong. The need to constantly nurture, feed and build. And the knowledge that there is, again, a very long road ahead of us.

Kate Shaffer, in Black Dinah Chocolatiers's homier space on tiny, remote Isle au Haut. Courtesy photo

Kate Shaffer, in Black Dinah Chocolatiers’s homier space on tiny, remote Isle au Haut. Courtesy photo

Hopefully.

The bewildered customer today isn’t alone. I hear his story several times a month. And when the Fed-Ex or UPS guys chide us for being so hard to get to in the middle of all this construction, we smile and nod, and stop ourselves from whining, “Yeah, but you should have seen where we USED to be!” The truth is, I feel lucky to be here. I feel lucky that our crew takes such care with everything they make. I feel lucky that they, too, recognize the value of the space they work in. Every single one of us knows what it took to get here. But every once in a while, Steve and I come home from work and wonder if we’re up to the challenge. It’s then that I remember the island spruce needles and twigs we built a company out of in the first place, and say, “Hey, babe. We’ve already done the impossible.” Haven’t we?

Kate Shaffer and her husband, Steve Shaffer, co-own Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westbrook and Isle au Haut. Kate Shaffer is the author of “Desserted: Recipes and Tales from an Island Chocolatier.” Kate Shaffer can be contacted at: [email protected] Chocolatiers.com