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VOL. 42 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 6, 2018

Reluctant candy maker finds career, success in chocolate

But please, don’t call Knoxville Chocolate Company owner Brad Hamlett a chocolatier

By Nancy Henderson

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After working at a Florida chocolate company off and on for six years, new college graduate Brad Hamlett was offered a tasty opportunity in 1993 to help expand the business and his simmering candy-making career.

His response, which he still thinks of often, makes him chuckle. “I looked [the owner] square in the eye,” he recalls, “and said, ‘Thank you very much, but I do not want to make chocolate my life.’”

Talk about eating one’s words.

More than 20 years later, Hamlett, 46, owns two chocolate gift shops – Bradley’s on the west side of town and Knoxville Chocolate Co., which opened in Market Square in January – plus a chocolate factory near Bradley’s. Longtime fixtures in the business community, he and his wife Joy are known for treating their customers like friends.

“The moment I stepped into Brad’s shop on [North] Peters Road, I was hooked,” says Jo Simeone, an artist and furniture refinisher who visited the store soon after she moved to Knoxville from Chicago a few years ago. “There is something about their space that feels comforting and calming – the opposite of what I usually feel in stores.

Hamlett

“Once I met Joy and Brad, I knew why. They are truly good, good people.”

When he was a baby, Hamlett’s parents moved from Knoxville to Florida to teach at a school for students with hearing impairments. As a teenager, he set his sights on a history degree from Florida State University and, after that, law school.

One day, 17-year-old Hamlett was riding his bike in Jacksonville Beach when he noticed a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of a chocolate store not far from the ocean. Needing a job, he pedaled the 10 miles home, showered, pulled back his long hair and biked back to the shop. “They were so desperate for somebody that they hired me right on the spot,” he recalls.

After college, Hamlett took the LSAT exam, only to realize he wasn’t cut out for a legal career. “I was sitting in the room with like 500 other people,” he remembers. “I looked around and thought, ‘I don’t know if this is for me and, boy, is there a lot of competition.’ So, I kind of dropped out.”

Building on his son’s prior experience, Hamlett’s father Jim suggested they open a chocolate store together.

Shopkeepers Kelly Hotaling, left, and Natalie Baine sell customers their chocolate goodies at Knoxville Chocolate Company’s location in Market Square.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

Bradley’s Chocolate, which debuted in a 1,000-square-foot space in West Knoxville in 1995, was “a bomb,” admits Hamlett, who was just 23 at the time. “It was a pretty big failure, and it was a terrible location. I didn’t really know anything about business.”

On the verge of closing in 1999, his stepmother found a more promising location at the last minute on North Peters Road, across the street from the current site of Bradley’s. Hamlett and his dad moved the store there, doubling its size. Their financial struggles continued, but Hamlett adds, “we survived.”

He also met Joy, who worked at a gift shop next door.

“She came in and paid for something just one time,” he says. “And I just kept plying her with chocolates. We ended up getting married, which was great for me, not only on a personal level, but on a business level. She added gifts to the chocolate, and it kind of took off for us.”

In 2012, the Hamletts bought South’s Finest Chocolate Factory, a century-old candy manufacturer at World’s Fair Park, started a wholesale operation, and rebranded the business as Knoxville Chocolate Co. to “have more of a local feel.” They also moved Bradley’s again, doubling the space a second time, and his father became a silent partner and investor.

But the wholesale venture wasn’t a good fit, Hamlett says. “We quickly realized that wasn’t for us, so instead of sending chocolate all over the South, we wanted to really focus on Knoxville.”

The Hamletts closed the World’s Fair site in January and opened a new, vintage-feel storefront in bustling Market Square. Cases brim with specialty chocolates sold by the pound, while freestanding displays show off the company’s Tennessee Chocolate bars, whose whimsical packaging depicts illustrations of downtown Knoxville, its landmarks and the nearby Great Smoky Mountains. Other signature items include Tennessee walking sticks, a straight pretzel coated with caramel, pecans and chocolate, and Rocky Top movie-style popcorn covered in milk chocolate. (The caramel version of Rocky Top is Hamlett’s personal favorite.)

“Especially in downtown Knoxville, we get a lot of tourists now, so we’re trying to offer them not only something that tastes really good, but something that they would love to take home,” Hamlett says.

The fledgling Market Square store has already surpassed revenue projections in its first six months. Across town, the chocolate factory now sits next door to Bradley’s, upping the total West Knoxville retail and manufacturing square footage to 7,000. The company makes about 80 percent of the products sold in the two stores, up from 50 percent in the early days, and has seen a 25 percent increase in sales each year for the past five years.

Hamlett credits the Knoxville regional office of Pathway Lending, an arm of the Tennessee Department of Revenue, with providing business advice, loans and classes. “They’re a huge part of our story over the past five years,” he points out. “They’ve walked with us and when we had some very difficult times, which we have, they supported us. They never abandoned us.”

Despite the growth of his business and the fact that he employs up to 15 people during the Christmas holidays, Hamlett remains very hands-on. “I’m baking stuff every day,” he says.

Even so, he doesn’t call himself a chocolatier.

“I have a great respect for chocolatiers, and I don’t really consider myself at that level yet,” he adds with characteristic humility. “I’m a candy maker, and I think I’m pretty good at it. But I’m also half business person as well, so I kind of do it all right now – janitor, mechanic and jack of all trades.

“Honestly, I just fell into it,” he says of his accidental venture. “It wasn’t a big dream of mine to have a chocolate business. I am entrepreneurial, though. … Once we got into it and started to have some success, it was kind of like my path was formed for me, and there was no way to really diverge off of it.”

Despite his introverted nature, a preference for quiet hobbies like reading and writing fiction and poetry, and the satisfaction he derives from working behind the scenes, Hamlett also thinks of himself as a risk taker who learns from his mistakes.

“Now let me clarify,” he quickly adds. “There’s a big difference between a gambler and a risk taker. A gambler will just throw caution to the wind. A risk taker makes good, informed decisions. It’s kind of one of those things that benefits me the most, because we’ve missed on a few of my risks and we’ve hit on a few.”

Customer Simeone, whose art is now featured at both stores, describes Hamlett’s personality as “so fun. Thank goodness he’s so ridiculously humble, because if he wasn’t, his dry humor and natural charisma might be just too darn much to handle.”

Joy’s extroverted spirit offers the perfect counterbalance in business and at home, Hamlett says.

“I call my wife the mayor of West Knoxville because she knows everybody, mostly because of the store but also from our church and some other avenues. She just loves interacting with people. She has a great memory for people’s names and families, what they like, what they’ve shopped for before. She’s just such a genuinely beautiful person who really cares about people, and I think people really are attracted to that.”

The couple’s three children – Gracie, 8; Benjamin, 6; and Ella, 2 – are old enough now to “help” in the store by sweeping floors and, more importantly, making guests smile. “We’re so busy, so our kids have to be with us at the store, and we don’t want them to be anywhere else,” Hamlett says. “Especially in the holidays, they’re with us a lot because we just don’t want to be apart.”

Impressed by the photo of a beautiful, smiling child on the box in a toy store, he bought a plastic pen to keep Gracie safe and occupied when she was a toddler.

“Whenever I made chocolate, I could see her,” he recalls. “And then a couple weeks later, I went to PetSmart for something and I promise you, I saw the same set, the same house, the same living room, and instead of the happy child, it was a happy dog. And I cried my eyes out. I was like, ‘I put my daughter in a dog pen.’

“But when we moved across the street five years ago,” he continues, “we had a special room for them with the plushest carpet. It’s not huge, but it has a TV and couch and it’s kind of making up for the dog pen thing.”

The West Knoxville store has also become a respite for customers who are going through tough times. Often, they pour their hearts out while sitting on the well-worn sofa. “We want to be more than just a place where people come to buy things,” Hamlett says. “We want to be a light in the community. We want to be a place where people are happy and we bring a little joy to their lives.

“That couch has seen so many tears and laughter. We’ve had people who, when they’ve gotten some of the most difficult or tragic news in their life, have said that the only place they could think of to go was our store.”

Self-employment is full of extreme highs and lows, Hamlett points out, and there’s no such thing as leaving your troubles at work. But running a business with Joy and watching his pint-size customers grow up and have children of their own brings him great satisfaction.

“We’ve been a part of people’s weddings, Christmas traditions, Thanksgiving traditions, Easter traditions, and that’s an amazing thing for us,” he says. “People send us pictures all the time of their families opening our stuff on Christmas, and it makes everything worthwhile.”