Life’s So Sweet Chocolates is a business in Ithaca, NY owned by Darlynne Overbaugh that is a maker and purveyor of hand crafted chocolates and retro candies. They have been makers of fine chocolates featuring fair trade chocolate cocoa and unique ingredients since 2008. They went completely fair-trade in 2013. What they do not make themselves, they source from other family owned businesses. Jelly Belly is an 8th generation example of this. Their single location at 116 W. Green St. in Ithaca also sells classic candies and retro candies. Darlynne may be reached at Life’s So Sweet, (607) 882-9842 or by email at email@example.com. The website is www.LifesSoSweet.com and they may also be seen on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
What has been the evolution of your business?
It all started with my mom and me making candy when I was a kid for fun and for gifts. I grew up in Rochester and she would take me to the different candy stores. There was Andes Candies and Stevers (now colleagues of mine). We got to know the owners of Kaiser’s Candy across from my elementary school. We had a lot of half days and they would take me to their shop on those days. I would have my lunch and watch TV on a 3 channel Black & White. It was there that I saw Lucy and Ethel eating the chocolate off the conveyor belt in the candy factory. I was sitting right next to the self-made conveyor belt that they made their assortment boxes from. It was formative. They were sweet and generous and let me help. Even now Mrs. Kaiser is still around and influences me by sharing her tricks of the trade. I am all self-taught. I pass that mentoring on to the people who work with me.
I graduated from Wells College as a theater major in 2001 and came to Ithaca to work for the Kitchen Theater Company for 2 seasons. I went to Cornell’s Theater, Form and Dance department. I went from there to the Hanger Theater for 2 seasons. I eventually concluded that late nights and “all nighters” were not my thing. I took a break with some odd jobs until my husband suggested that I convert my love of making chocolate into a larger enterprise. I thought that wasn’t a bad idea. (yeah spouses!) He has been my greatest supporter through all of this. He is a general manager for a local family-owned business that has been going on for 60 plus years. We both have this entrepreneurial feel in our lives. We got married in the fall of 2007 and opened Life’s So Sweet in February of 2008, barely 6 months later. I quit my job and ‘went for it’.
My business began with the Trumansburg location in 2008. We lived in Trumansburg and there was a small spot that I kept for 7 years. It is my belief that every town should have a candy store. I don’t sell confections, I sell memories. When people come in to the store, they have a visceral experience. “I remember this candy”! They ask if I can find a candy from their childhood.
Closing the store in Trumansburg in 2015was very difficult. Many people thought that was an easy decision. It was not. It was never my intention to be a franchisable entity. I was never going to be the next Gertrude Hawk. My intention was to have well-crafted, quality offerings. It is difficult to divide myself between 2 places. The quality began to slip. The core of the product was being created in Trumansburg and brought to Green St.. Even though it is only 15 minutes apart, it was as if we were operating 2 separate businesses. People in each location wanted different things and it became increasingly difficult to tap into the pulse of that for each location. You can’t be everything to everyone. Life’s So Sweet focuses on creating the unusual things and sources out items that re a more common commodity. We take local ingredients and integrate them into our confections that are all made by hand. For example, our Honey Pot Truffle is made with local honey. At that time, I was training my assistants, operating 2 locations with different needs, creating the confections and being a mom and wife. It was too much.
I opened this store on Green St. in 2012. It is a great location. We want to make quality confections in a local environment and responsible, ethical and environmental way. The windows are a challenge. Sun ruins chocolate so we are constantly shifting the store to the frustration of some of our customers.
Can you tell us more about Chocolate and the process you use?
Cocoa for 200 years has been grown on small plantations outside of the country – typically third world. When it gets imported into the US, it has to go through a metal detector to extract any bullets and ‘other’ things. Cocoa has a very long history that dates back 2000 years to the Myans. Chocolate as we know it today – easily accessible, available everywhere – only became possible since the Industrial Revolution when the machinery was available.
Life’s So Sweet Chocolates does not make the chocolate ‘bean to bars’. The process is to import beans, roast them; grind them; process them. We partner with Guittard Chocolates in Califormia (another family owned business). They process the beans in a way that I, myself would do. I wanted something a little more unique to reflect the flavor of the Fingerlakes. They push the envelope in terms of responsibility. People come in the store and ask about soy free, dairy free, nut free. When we made the decision to be completely fair trade, the soy was removed and became sunflower lecithin – the emulsifier that helps coalesce everything in the chocolate.
I have NO degree in chemistry. My professional degree is in Theater and performing arts. Everything I learned in those 5 years of work in the theater was around administration, marketing, producing and I was a playwrite at one point, actor, understudy. All those experiences cultivate skills that translate into owning a business. I get to go to candy conventions. Those are Awesome!
I also noticed that young people were not being given the tools they need to be productive in their work environment. Life Skills. It takes about a year to fully understand the rhythms of the business. Every season has something different. Christmas is one of our biggest seasons, but so is Valentine’s Day and Easter. My employees receive training to produce the product as well as interact with customers.
In order for me to take a step back and be a better mom to my daughter, I had to make a decision NOT to be producing the chocolate all by myself. When I first opened my Trumansburg store, it was all me for the first 4 months – selling, producing, cleaning – everything. It was a lot of work. As the business has grown and I have grown, I now employ a head confectioner. They had to really convince me that they were the right person for the job. The person before them was with me for 4 years.
What have been your greatest achievements?
“We are still here”! That is a culmination of a lot of different things. I am particularly fond of the fact that people continue to come back to discover what we have every season. It’s not so much about achieving as it is the journey and making sure we are ‘still on it’. As a small business not wanting to be a franchise it’s a struggle AND an achievement.
What have been your greatest struggles, either personally or in business?
We seems to have a very good presence, but getting the word out is a challenge. Being taken for granted that we will always be here is a danger. When I first started out, I had some donation requests. Now I receive 4-67/day. The need in the community is great and when you are perceived as doing well, you get that.
One of the core tenets when I started this business was to be part of the community. A bit of my problem is that I am a ‘bleeding heart’ and say yes to everything. I have had to toughen up a bit. I have come to realize that if I say ‘yes’ to this, something else has to happen along with it. We have 3 full-time staff and we work as a team. We all have our specialties, but we are knowledgeable about everything.
Do people have any misconceptions about you or your business?
People want to know if we make everything we sell. The answer is “NO”. The other misconception is that other companies DO make everything that they sell. They do not. It’s not just about the chocolate. I have been asked about Gummy worms. I believe it is about the food trend across the board. “If you sell it, you make it”. I compare it to a farmer growing everything. They cannot feasibly do that. It takes a balance of the things we don’t produce alongside the things we do produce to be successful, well rounded business.
If you could have a Do-Over, what would you do differently?
More organizational structure internally. There are things that will affect my business on the Federal Level with new regulations being enforced. We have to trace our product from source to here. Fortunately, I can depend on my supplier of the cocoa for the early parts of that. It takes a lot of paper work and infrastructure. There is potential for automation. It’s just doing it, the cost of it, and how it will impact the cost of the product. We have to be compliant by 2018.
This is not my skillset. I wish I had permitted myself to admit that earlier on. If I had, some of the missteps may not have happened.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I have ideas about new products such as our Fingerlakes Bark collection that is waiting on packaging. In 5 years I would like to be recognized as THE chocolate of the Fingerlakes.
(This interview was delayed from February 14. We had to search a bit for the WENY TV interview before posting).