Sebastopol’s Eye Candy Chocolatier turns passion into chocolate
A women-owned business in Sebastopol’s Old Gravenstein Station is converting passion into delicious chocolates every day.
The business, Eye Candy Chocolatier, cranks out hand-crafted European-style truffles and other sweet treats roughly nine months a year. The shop reopened earlier this month after its annual summer shutdown and will be selling goodies nonstop until the end of spring.
The name of this small company intentionally references eyesight — founder Dr. Sonja Schluter is an ophthalmologist by day and a chocolatier by night.
In 2018, two years after Schluter opened the shop, she joined forces with Jill McLewis. The two women operate the business together today.
“We both really love making chocolate and our little shop is totally our happy place,” said Schluter, who has her own private ophthalmology practice in Sebastopol.
“I spend most of the week taking care of people with challenging eye problems — truly a calling for me and important fulfilling work — but to get into the chocolate kitchen is a way to shift my mind to something light, get into joy, and get into the present moment.”
Eyeballs focus on chocolates
Eye Candy Chocolatier began in 2016, when Schluter founded it as a side gig to complement her busy life examining eyeballs.
At that point she had been making chocolate for years. She went pastry school before medical school and would make chocolate for her classmates and professors for the holidays as she pursued her graduate degree. Every year, Schluter made more and expanded her gift-giving Christmas list.
Finally, in 2016, she was ready to build her sweet passion project into a business.
“Chocolate production has a rhythm and I really enjoy getting into that quiet groove, both for the sense of peace and the creativity,” she said.
In the beginning, Schluter would work a week of full days in her ophthalmology practice, then go home and make chocolates at night and on weekends. In 2018 McLewis joined as a business partner.
The two women originally met through their sons. The boys are now teenagers, but have known each other since early childhood.
McLewis herself had experience in the healthcare field, too. She worked for years as a critical care respiratory therapist.
Today, everything they do is collaborative because making truffles is a multistep process, they often trade-off with responsibilities.
One day, McLewis might pour liquid chocolate from the 30-gallon tempering machine into molds to make the shells for a set of truffles. The next day, Schluter might come in to make the filling. Then McLewis might come in to cap the truffles and start something new.
“We’re really good at working together,” McLewis said.
The production kitchen is roughly 275 square feet, so Schluter and McLewis always work in a bit of a dance. Depending on the time of year, the two of them are in the kitchen simultaneously, but only once or twice a week.
A unique approach to sweet treats
The women behind Eye Candy Chocolatier make all their own chocolates in-house, sometimes producing hundreds of chocolates in a single weekend.
While they make milk and white chocolates, their specialty is dark.
At any given time, the duo might have roughly 24 different flavors in circulation. Overall they have more than 40 flavors from which they can choose. According to McLewis current fan favorites include salted caramel, a package-shaped truffle that comprises chocolate ganache with a dollop of caramel; and tiramisu, a heart-shaped truffle with tiramisu-flavored cream.
Eye Candy Chocolatier also makes a signature vegan chocolate that uses coconut puree instead of dairy. This truffle is in the shape of a scallop.
“We really like to have something for everyone,” McLewis said, noting that when Meyer lemons are in season in the fall, the business makes a white chocolate-based truffle, with lemons from a tree in her yard.
“When we have different flavors, that’s when we really get creative.”
Some of the truffles — raspberry, for instance — have a special design on the top of them, an edible decal that comes from something called a transfer sheet. Other pieces are painted with edible paints by hand.
In addition to traditional truffles, Eye Candy Chocolatier makes larger items such as hollow cats and bunnies like you might find in Europe. McLewis, a Francophile, has been to France numerous times to take classes in order to expand her chocolate-making knowledge and to purchase molds.
Every time she goes, she comes back with a new skill.
Fellow chocolatiers appreciate this commitment to excellence.
Jeff Mall, co-founder and co-owner of Volo Chocolate in Windsor, said he admires Schluter and McLewis for what they bring to the local tight-knit community of chocolate makers.