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How sweet it is: Think Chocolate and Davidson Chocolate Co. 

Charlotte is awash in chocolate

Ever since chocolate became more than just a Hershey's candy bar, the popularity of artisanal chocolate has grown exponentially in the U.S. Ambitious young pastry chefs are teaming up with business-savvy entrepreneurs to open small chocolate shops. These are not the conveyor belt Kramer's Kandy Kitchen variety where Lucy and Ethel worked. These delicacies are handcrafted in small batches with flavors as wonderful in appearance as in taste.

One store that opened recently is owner Ruth Faure's Think Chocolate in Ballantyne. The shop is filled with greeting cards from independent card distributors, small gifts, some wines and chocolates, of course.

Pastry chef Todd Howell, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, is in the kitchen. Within the glass display case are rows of artisanal chocolates, flavored truffles, caramels and homemade marshmallows. In a side case is a parade of Cake Bites: homemade cakes covered in chocolate — some white, some dark, some milk. The eight varieties of Cake Bites change seasonally, while some, like Wedding Cake and Carrot Cake, have a permanent gig. On the lower shelves are delicious brownies and cookies, including chocolate chip, and black and white.

Faure is an experienced restaurateur: she owned a restaurant on Florida's coast for five years. Recently she installed a Trifecta, a high-tech single-coffee machine from Bunn that has been making some noise among coffee lovers. The three stages (the Trifecta) of brewing are pre-infusion, turbulence and press-out: Each stage is programmable by intensity and duration. "It extracts the flavor from the beans perfectly," she says. This machine is the first of its kind in Charlotte. Coffee is $1.95 for 12 ounces. In addition to coffee, Faure makes her own blend of hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows and a candy cane. On weekends they have house-made sticky buns, cinnamon buns and crumb cake.

Think Chocolate

11318 N. Community House Road, 704-542-1114. Hours: Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. www.thinkchocolate.net.

In 2008, owners John and Sue Elliott and their son John Jr. opened Davidson Chocolate Co. in Davidson. Two years later, they opened their second store in Dilworth. John Elliott Sr. is the main chocolatier. After buying a chocolate shop in Franklin, N.C., 10 years ago, he taught himself the difficult process to perfect chocolate. He also studied at the Barry Callebaut Chocolate Academy in Chicago. Today, he uses century-old recipes from Holland.

Although the artisanal chocolates are European in nature, the shop is casual. "We strive to be classic, yet fun and personable in everything we do," John Jr. says. "We tend toward traditional flavors but like to mix it up with a few seasonal varieties. We have a lot of fun doing what we do and want our customers to have fun in the shop and with the chocolate."

The truffles are exquisitely flavored and are more popular than other confections. The shop stocks 18 truffles with four to six of these being seasonal. Other cases contain confections, fudge, brownies and Hersey's ice cream. Hot chocolate is available, too.

During December, the Elliotts estimate they will sell between 30 to 40 thousand pieces of chocolate. They recommend ordering gift boxes early and shipping by Dec. 16. Chocolate stays fresh for two or three weeks if kept at room temperature and away from sunlight and direct heat.

Davidson Chocolate Co.

Davidson Commons, 610 Jetton St., Suite 150, Davidson, 704-896-7245; 1235-A East Blvd., 704-817-9314. Hours: Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. www.davidsonchocolate.com.

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