Florida is a hidden gem and a sweet place

Posted by Vicki Dean is a freelance writer based in Venice. on 9th Sep 2019

Gabriella Chocolates & Confections in Venice, Florida is a hidden gem and a sweet place

NORTH VENICE — Gabriella Chocolates & Confections sits off the beaten path in an industrial park off Knights Trail Road.

The decadent desserts made here by the husband-and-wife team of Nancy and Mike Byrne are shipped all over the world. During a recent visit, the Byrnes were whipping up a fresh batch of their popular coconut macaroons with a twist.

“We’re testing a new one,” Nancy said of the recipe that she has converted into a gluten-free offering. “It’s a pina colada macaroon. It’s going to be coconut rum soaked pineapple and then that’s going to be folded into the regular coconut macaroon. So you’re going to get that nice flavor.”

The new take on an old favorite passed the test for Mike, who is a self-professed “coconut snob.”

“I’m spoiled,” he said.

The Chicago natives started Gabriella Chocolates in 2011 in a 1,500-square-foot unit in the industrial park. They have outgrown the space and are looking to expand into a 5,000-square-foot building nearby to add a new automated chocolate molding machine that will make their manufacturing process more efficient.

Nancy is an artisan chocolatier and classically trained pastry chef who does research and development, and insists on using only quality ingredients. The Byrnes keep the old European chocolate makers’ approach alive, using 60 percent dark chocolate imported from Germany and expensive vanilla bean.

In addition to their own specialty line of chocolates, about half of the Byrnes’ business comes from manufacturing products for other businesses. Some are cloaked in nondisclosure agreements, in which Gabriella manufactures a product line that is marketed and sold by other companies.

For example, Beet’ums, a sports nutrition company that specializes in organic plant-based, non-GMO products, approached Gabriella to improve the taste of their beet-infused performance chews.

“They paid us to make it taste good,” Mike said of the chocolate-flavored energy chews marketed to performance athletes. “We made it taste good and we make it for them. That’s just one of the many companies we work with.”

Mike works with chocolate, setting up and cleaning the tanks on the molding line. He prices jobs and meets with retail customers in the small shop at the front of the business. Gabriella routinely produces from 2,000 to 200,000 pieces on the manufacturing line at the shop.

Truffles and gators

The retail shop showcases their best-selling products, a mouth-watering line of truffles. Customers also gravitate to the 11-inch-long chocolate alligators, a specialty product offered in several flavors.

“I like everything, but the dessert truffles are my babies,” Nancy said. “It’s like all of the things that you love about your favorite piece of chocolate cake or something, and then we just put them all together into this little compact dessert.”

Don’t let the size of the golf-ball sized confections fool you. They pack an explosion of flavor, delivered in a small but elegant package. There are 16 varieties, including grand marnier, Italian buttercream, orange ganache and a dark chocolate covered French butter cream peanut butter ganache.

“It’s rich,” Mike said. “Dessert truffles are our best sellers.”

Over the years, Nancy has experimented to come up with different truffle combinations. The truffle product line evolved from the days when the Byrnes ran Gabby’s Patisserie in Osprey after they moved down to Southwest Florida in the mid-90s.

Customers often take Florida-made chocolate gators with them on their travels.

“We have a customer that buys them and takes them wherever she travels around the world and gives them as gifts,” Nancy said. “They’ve been all over the world.

Nancy is passionate about the products that Gabriella Chocolates produces. Her eyes sparkle when she talks about her art.

“We have customers who come in and try our stuff and it’s like all of a sudden their palate is opened up and they’re like, ‘Wow, this is not like anything that I have ever had. This is special,’ ” she said. “That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for all those people who appreciate it as much as we do that it is special. It’s a lost art, I think.”

Retail customers who stop in at Gabriella Chocolates often find themselves as taste testers, with Mike giving out samples and gathering feedback on new products. He is looking to expand Gabriella’s retail footprint, possibly by partnering with another business in downtown Venice with its walkable shops along Venice Avenue.

It’s a matter of finding the right partner who has a vested interest in Gabriella’s line of confections. For Nancy, sparking joy in others is the best part of the job.

“I try to share my idea of what I think is good with other people, because I can’t eat it all myself,” she said.

Vicki Dean is a freelance writer based in Venice.