Sweet Spot

Gail Elvidge survived a frightening moment by making chocolate

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Gail and Mark Elvidge stand at the candy counter in the retail shop adjacent to their production facility in Grand Isle. They founded Vermont Nut Free Chocolates to provide holiday treats for people who, like their son, have nut allergies.

The mammoth ice storm of January 1998 may have kept Mark and Gail Elvidge from incorporating Vermont Nut Free Chocolates for a few weeks, but little has interrupted business since.

The Elvidges certainly didn’t expect to become entrepreneurs — not when they met as teenagers in Alburgh, or when they attended college in Plattsburgh (he at Clinton Community College, she at Plattsburgh State) or when they married in 1987. It was the spark of a potential crisis that turned their lives around, leading them to solve a problem and find a niche.

Their story together began much like countless others in North America. Mark grew up in Quebec and summered each year on Lake Champlain in Alburgh, where Gail lived with her family. “It was kind of a common area,” says Gail, “and he would frequently walk their dog and I would see him. We eventually got to know each other when a bunch of us got together and played volleyball and other kinds of things.”

Their friendship grew. Mark graduated from high school in Quebec, worked a year for United Customs Brokers in Canada, then decided to attend Clinton Community College to be near Gail, who had entered Plattsburgh State. They both left after a year.

“I kind of found I wasn’t really learning much,” says Mark. “I went back to work at the customs brokerage for another year and a half or so. Then we moved to Burlington and I took a job selling cars at Nordic Ford for about a year.”

Gail worked as a cashier and clerk at Grand Union, but soon found a better job working in accounts payable for Green Mountain Power, where she stayed for 10 years. Mark was hired by the U.S. Postal Service, where he worked for four years, first as a carrier, then safety officer, and finally as the coordinator for moving mail processing out of Burlington to Essex. “I was assistant to the guy in charge of making that move — getting the building, decorating it, getting it fit up and ready to go,” he says. They were married while he was with the post office.

“After that,” says Mark, “I took a job back in Canada at a duty-free shop on the border across from Champlain, N.Y. I’m general manager up there, and I’m still doing that four days a week. I’ve been there for 18 years.”

Their son, Tanner, was born in 1994. Gail quit work to be home with him, and things seemed in line for a traditional, comfortable future, until the day when Tanner was 8 months old and Gail decided to share her peanut butter–covered English muffin with him.

photoExcept for the absence of nuts, Vermont Nut Free Chocolates are like any other gourmet chocolate. Linda Paradee produces the company’s dark chocolate in the candy kitchen.

“He put it to his lips and broke out in hives,” she says, the memory obviously still vivid. “His eyes became red and puffy and swollen. I could clearly see he was making a funny motion with his tongue, and that it was making his tongue feel funny, but luckily, it didn’t affect his breathing.”

Lucky, indeed. It was a Sunday, and she had to wait for her doctor to be found and call her back. By then, she continues, Tanner’s symptoms had subsided. Within four months, the Elvidges had confirmation from an allergist that Tanner had a peanut allergy.

Peanut allergy, as with tree-nut allergy, can be life threatening, says Mark. “Gail was very frustrated. She grew up having treats around the holidays and was frustrated that Tanner couldn’t have things like that.”

Gail became a woman on a mission, determined to find a way to make treats that Tanner could eat. It was more complicated than it might sound.

“I’m still not sure there are a lot of people out there that understand the seriousness of the nut allergy issue,” she says, adding that extreme caution must be taken to avoid cross-contamination from other products or from machinery that has been used for products containing nuts, and that people could even have a reaction from airborne contamination.

Gail began calling around to find out what nut-free products were out there, and the news wasn’t good. She decided to try making treats for Tanner at home so she could be sure of what they contained.

“It took a lot of research, a lot of experimenting. I couldn’t find resources, so I took a lot of time calling manufacturers, asking a lot of questions, and checking on their procedures.”

Initially, she was just trying to make some fun, solid chocolate shapes for Tanner, “because Easter or Christmas would roll around, and I couldn’t guarantee that where it was made or packaged wouldn’t be cross-contaminated.”

photoJennifer Saxon and Cassie Waters dip pretzels in the candy kitchen at Vermont Nut Free Chocolates. Extreme care must be taken that no ingredient, piece of equipment or personal attire has come in contact with or been in the presence of nuts.

Gail started modifying recipes she had collected over the years so she could use the ingredients she had found to be safe. “She began playing with ingredients, developing fancier things such as truffles, fruit creams, caramels and a lot of different chocolates,” says Mark.

They began taking Gail’s chocolates to family gatherings and holiday parties, to rave reviews, says Mark. “Gail said one day, ‘You know, I should start a nut-free chocolate company; there’s got to be a lot of people in the same boat.’ And that’s what we did.”

More challenges arose. “I had never worked with chocolate before,” Gail says. “I didn’t really know at the time that chocolate is quite finicky. Heat and humidity and everything else affects the way it turns out.” When they found a tempering machine — brand new, of course, so it was not contaminated — things became simpler.

Once the kinks were worked out, growth was lively for the home-based business. It wasn’t long, though, before the business took over the home. “It overtook my entire kitchen; my dining room; the room used for the office,” says Gail. Sleep was interrupted when phone calls for orders came in from the West Coast late in the evenings. Even with help from her mother, her two sisters and one employee, things were getting tight. “I had to get my home life back!” Gail exclaims.

She started looking for someplace nearby. “I had traveled to South Burlington for 10 years, and I didn’t want to travel too far,” she says. They bought the former Merchants Bank building in South Hero.

After a complete renovation, they created a little factory and retail store, which served them for the next four years — “about two years longer than we should have been there,” says Mark. “We had Island Industrial Park build us a new building to our specification, but two years late,” he adds with a laugh. “We’re much more efficient now.” They moved in a couple of weeks before Valentine’s Day in 2005.

Efficient and busy. The company has 12 year-round employees, and the number swells to 22 during peak season, which runs from November through Easter. In the last couple of years, says Mark, “we’ve experienced growth in sales of 40 to 45 percent a year, and we’re pretty much on track year-to-date with that.” He hopes to be over 50 percent increase by year end, and mentions that the possibility of a second or third shift is always in the back of their minds.

Even so, since moving into the new space, things have become easier, says Gail. “It enabled us to bring in a few more people and set up more efficiently — to have a bit more normal hours.”

Although Mark continues to work in Canada four days a week, he confesses to spending “nights, weekends and vacations doing our business. I do the wholesale program, accounting, payroll, website, e-mail marketing — the business end of it. Gail does all of the creative stuff, including packaging and product development, four fliers a year and a general catalog, and she does a wonderful job with day-to-day operations, too, managing the questions, staff issues and problems.”

Tanner has just entered middle school, says Gail, and is doing wonderfully. “The elementary school was very cooperative, and the middle school had a policy in place even before he went that no food could come into the classroom except fruits and vegetables, to be health-conscious.”

The Internet still brings in 95 percent of the business, which comes from all over the world, Mark says. “The main base is in the U.S., but there are thousands in Canada, quite a bit of business in the United Kingdom, Australia, and customers everywhere.” He sends out an e-mail marketing piece to the company’s house list once a month.

For packaging and printed matter, Gail works with a graphic designer. “I throw some ideas at her, we toss things back and forth and arrive at agreement,” she says.

“It’s one thing to package for selling from home, but when you want to sell wholesale, to put on a shelf, you want the presentation to look nice.”

Significant inroads have been made into wholesale marketing, with product in about 400 stores in the United States and Canada.

Steve Lidle, the owner of Cheese Traders in South Burlington, says Vermont Nut Free Chocolates were a welcome addition to his inventory. One or two people a day had been asking him about products made without exposure to nuts.

“It’s a great product,” he says. “It really does fit that tough category where people are so allergic to nuts. You know, I always thought that when you started a business, you had to fill a niche. Sometimes, life puts you in those niches, and I think that’s what happened to the Elvidges. I think it’s incredible.” •