There’s a delicious little bit of magic happening on the corner of the Stevenson Village shopping center. Inside a small storefront, Ruthie Carliner, aka “The Velvet Chocolatier,” is churning out bite-sized pieces of sheer decadence.
A 55-year-old Owings Mills resident, Carliner has an unlikely background for a chocolatier. As a young wife and mother, Carliner, a CPA with a master’s degree in taxation, worked for her father, Stanley Penn, owner of Penn Pontiac GMC Truck. After his death in 1997, Carliner took over the business, growing it into the largest GMC commercial truck dealership on the East Coast.
A decade later, with the economy in shambles and Carliner “stressed out,” she sold the business, but had no idea what to do. Her longtime love of cooking and baking led her to attend culinary school in Baltimore. There, a lecture on chocolate turned her life around.
“I loved the science and math of it,” Carliner says. “There’s a precision to working with chocolate that appealed to me.”
Chocolate making also is well-suited to Carliner because it doesn’t call for lifting heavy weights. “I’m tiny,” she says. “I can’t lift pounds and pounds of sugar and flour.”
Carliner began honing her skills at home and learning about the different types of chocolate. American chocolate, for example, has sugar added, while European chocolates are more pure, relying on honey for sweetening, and only if needed.
Once Carliner developed a product of which she was proud, she began “peddling” the candy from store to store, soon landing her chocolates in Whole Foods, which brought them to the attention of that chain’s distributor. That, in turn, led to the chocolates being noticed by Oprah Winfrey and included in her 2011 “favorite things” list.
“That put us on the map,” says Carliner.
Carliner — who acquired the nickname “The Velvet Chocolatier” from a friend — prides herself on the fact that her handmade chocolates are kosher, gluten-free, contain no liqueurs or other additives, and are as sweetener-free as possible.
Carliner’s home away from home is the 1,400-square-foot shop bearing her moniker where aided by her helpers — enthusiastic young women attending local colleges — Carliner turns out such specialties as cashew chews, sea salt chocolate caramel cups, barks, truffles, chocolate-dipped potato chips and more.
Sarah Hewitt, 22, is Carliner’s longest-working staff member. The two often work side by side clad in gloves and aprons, busy toasting nuts, tempering the rich Guittard chocolate, hand-dipping truffles or hand-painting (with chocolate) the caramel cup paper holders.
And yes, they do eat chocolate themselves every day, and no, they don’t get sick of it, nor do they get fat.
“It’s such high-quality rich chocolate,” says Hewitt, “that one piece for breakfast can tide me over all morning.”
While Carliner and Hewitt are partial to the cashew chews, toffee bark and caramel are the best sellers. During the winter holidays, truffles are a must-have, and for Valentine’s Day, chocolate-covered strawberries step up to the plate.
In addition to local customers who know that the shop is both a kitchen and a retail location, Carliner has numerous corporate clients worldwide, an online store and her “artistic” chocolates can be found in Graul’s Markets and The Wine Source in Hampden.
The shop has unconventional hours in deference to Carliner’s familial responsibilities and Hewitt’s school schedule; it’s open Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Thursdays 4 to 7 p.m., Fridays 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Sundays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
A Beth Tfiloh congregant who keeps a kosher home, Carliner makes no apologies for the fact that the shop isn’t open on Saturdays or Jewish holidays. “This is who I am and what I do,” she says.
Making chocolate is a time-consuming vocation, says Carliner, “but I might love it even more than I did when I started. It truly is a labor of love.”
The Velvet Chocolatier is located at 10403 Stevenson Road in Stevenson Village. For information, call 410-365-9883 or visit thevelvetchocolatier.com.
Carol Sorgen is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Ruthie Carliner (right) works with staff member Sarah Hewitt on handmade chocolates. Photos by Zephan Blaxberg
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