A few years ago, Stan Kitson had a mission: He was going to teach himself to recreate his favorite candy bar.
The idea came about after he and his wife Robyn had held a holiday celebration, where they gathered handmade chocolates from around the Madison region and had a taste-testing with family members.
Known for liking a worthy challenge in the kitchen, Stan wondered if he could make his own chocolates, he recalled to the Press as he sat in the grassy area near his new chocolatier business, Driftless Chocolates, in Paoli.
So every weekend, he tried to recreate a Mounds bar – sweetened shredded coconut encased in dark chocolate – and dirtied the kitchen every time in the process, Stan said.
“I love Mounds bars, and so I thought, ‘Once I have that done, I’ll just be a happy camper,’” he said. “Finally Robyn said, ‘you know, maybe you want to go to school for this.’”
So Stan enrolled in the Vancouver-based Ecole Chocolat program and became a certified chocolatier. He still hasn’t perfected the Mounds bar, but you wouldn’t know it stepping through the doors of Driftless Chocolates, 6890 Paoli Road, Belleville, nestled in the Paoli Mill building.
Stan and Robyn started Driftless Chocolates in December 2018 while they were both working full-time at Kitson Marketing, which Robyn founded in 1987, and at WisconsinMade, she said. In August 2019, they made the venture their full-time gig and worked out of Madison-based FEED Kitchen. They officially opened the Paoli Mill storefront and production kitchen in February 2020, just prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Driftless Chocolates became their full-time jobs after Stan kept bringing chocolates to coworkers and friends, who encouraged him to make it into something larger, Stan said. The couple also had a yearning to get back to working alongside one another after taking employment outside of their marketing company, Robyn said.
“We had a milestone wedding anniversary … a lot of people would go on trips, but instead we started a chocolate company,” she said with a laugh.
The yin to each other’s yang, both Stan and Robyn said they balance one another out. Robyn, as president of Driftless Chocolates, has an entrepreneurial spirit and enjoys managing and keeping track of the bookkeeping and orders, while Stan, the chocolatier, is the artistic mastermind behind more than two dozen recipes sold at the store.
The truffles, bonbons, caramels and bark that Stan makes are all from single-origin chocolate, meaning that the cacao beans used to make the chocolate originate from a specific geographical area near the Equator. The location of cacao trees – be it Venezuela, Mexico or Tanzania – prompts the beans to have distinct flavors, which Stan then matches with fillings.
Chocolate from the Dominician Republic is a little stronger and darker, so Stan pairs it with fillings such as Door County cherry liqueur; Colombian chocolate is lighter and almost citrus-y in taste, so it goes well with earthy flavorings such as orange, lavender and rosemary.
For other confections, like the Smokehouse caramels, Stan pairs dark Colombian chocolate with caramel that’s almost on the edge of burning, and adds cream steeped in Lapsang souchong tea to create a hickory flavor that makes you think it just came out of the smoker.
The Kitsons don’t operate Driftless Chocolates with a goal of turning a large profit. Instead, what both Stan and Robyn said was most important to them was the happiness they could provide people with selling chocolate.
“The minute you bring up chocolate, the conversation just shifts – smiles happen, and people have stories and they share them with you,” Robyn said.
“We’ve got so many things to get us down, and here’s something that can pick you up,” Stan added. “Everybody who walks in has a smile on their face, and they love chocolate, and they want to try it. How can it get any better than that?”