Indulge in the luscious, local creations of five Northern Michigan chocolatiers.

People tend to associate the flavors of Northern Michigan with late summer’s tart cherries and cool white wines. I’m, however, partial to the chocolate. For me, the taste of dark, dense truffles is inextricable from the North’s sand dunes and turquoise water.

There is perhaps no better time to visit the region’s chocolate shops than at the holidays. As the temperature starts to plummet, you can find me ducking inside (preferably by a crackling fire) to sip on decadent drinking chocolates—laced with cinnamon, smoked chili and sweet hints of local maple syrup. Not only will you find scrumptious sweets to share with family and friends throughout Northern Michigan, but also the communities these shops call home offer visitors the quintessential small-town holiday experience—decked out downtown streets, twinkling trees and glowing storefronts tucked into idyllic frosty vistas.

Happily, I’ve been able to indulge my passion for homemade chocolates at a handful of family-run establishments, peppered throughout the region. You’ll fall in love with these flavors, too—if you know the right places to look.

Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate // Empire

Driving along M-22 into Empire, one of my favorite sights is not a magnificent natural wonder so prevalent in this area, but a wonder nonetheless. It’s the green building that houses Grocer’s Daughter, an artisan chocolate shop that’s graced the Northern Michigan scene since 2004.

I’ve been planning strategic road trip stops at Grocer’s Daughter for years—first to the former location, founded by Mimi Wheeler, and in recent years to the new M-22 location, now owned by Wheeler’s good friends Jody and DC Hayden (with backgrounds in coffee and videography, respectively).

Grocer’s Daughter is set apart from most other chocolatiers in the country, thanks to their sourcing. “Our chocolate is sourced from Ecuador in a unique partnership with Jenny Samaniego from Conexion Chocolate,” says Jody. The direct trade relationship means Grocer’s Daughter can trace all of their chocolate, and pretty much every other ingredient, back to its source. It also means more of the profit remains in the county of origin. “[The chocolate] is harvested, fermented, dried and sorted near the farm at the co-op level,” Jody explains. “Then it’s transported to the factory in Quito, where it’s sorted, roasted, winnowed and ground into 100 percent cocoa liquor.”

From there, the chocolate is shipped to Michigan in 26.4-pound boxes of discs. Here, it’s unpackaged and the Grocer’s Daughter chocolatiers set to work—all the bonbons, honey caramels and confections are made by hand. Carefully, they take the cocoa-forward flavors of Ecuadorian chocolate and meld it with Michigan-sourced ingredients like honey, maple syrup, culinary lavender and sweet dried cherries. Visitors can even watch the magic happen in the open-plan store.

What to order:
The bestsellers are sea salt honey caramels (made with local honey instead of sugar or corn syrup). Jody also recommends a fudgesicle in the summer, or Dragon’s Breath drinking chocolate in colder weather.

Things to do nearby:
This sweet downtown is quiet in the winter, but there’s still plenty to see. Spend time at The Secret Garden and The Misers’ Hoard (open Friday-Monday in December), grab lunch at one of several restaurants then strap into your snowshoes and head to Empire Bluff Trail. The area’s panoramic views are beautiful in all seasons, but particularly stunning in winter. In nearby Glen Arbor, Crystal River Outfitters rents cross-country skis, snowshoes and fat bikes, and the team is happy to recommend more great trails in the area.

Crow & Moss Chocolate // Petoskey

Crow & Moss Chocolate is a little different from other Northern Michigan chocolatiers—it operates as a 2,000-square-foot factory rather than a storefront. “Factory” is a rather clinical word, though, for what started out in a basement as one man’s labor of love. Mike Davies started Crow & Moss Chocolate factory production in 2019, but before that, he was a self-taught chocolatier, using his wife’s bright pink hairdryer to winnow cocoa beans at home.

Now, Crow & Moss socializes in single-origin chocolate bars made with just two ingredients—cocoa and organic cane sugar—and inclusion bars that add a unique third ingredient such as Bolivian rose salt, Brazilian Santos coffee or organic Earl Grey tea. Mike utilizes heirloom varieties of cocoa, sourced through direct trade relationships with farms around the world. His current beans come from Colombia, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Ecuador and India. What ties these farms together is their use of small-scale growing practices.

Once the raw cocoa beans reach the factory in Petoskey, Mike’s hands-on job begins. “[The beans] are hand sorted and graded, roasted slowly, cracked and winnowed (the process of removing the outer shell from the cocoa beans), refined for four days, tempered into bars, cured and then packed off to shops across the country,” says Mike.

I personally get my Crow & Moss fix by scouring the aisles at Oryana Community Co-op in Traverse City for the colorful, geometric packaging. You can also find Crow & Moss’ chocolate bars at dozens of stockists around the country—notable Northern Michigan options include Toski Sands Market & Wine Shop in Petoskey, Huzza in Harbor Springs, Cellar 152 in Elk Rapids and, of course, Crow & Moss’ online store.

What to order:
Bean-to-bar novices will particularly enjoy trying chocolate bars from different origins and discovering how remarkably different cocoa can be.

Things to do nearby:
Petoskey is a perfect home base for a Northern Michigan ski getaway. Test out the slopes at Nub’s Nob or Boyne Mountain. For those who prefer to stay warm inside, pair your chocolate with a tour of the Petoskey Wine Region—ice wine, anyone?—and holiday shopping. Twinkling lights shine above downtown’s historic Gaslight District, welcoming you to local shops and restaurants.

Drost’s Chocolates // Indian River

Drost’s Chocolates, flanked by its new and adorable ice cream hut, exudes old-fashioned charm—and the scent of simmering caramel and melted chocolate. The shop is family-owned by Julie and Craig Waldron and is one of the state’s few candy shops to still handmake their chocolates. In fact, the Waldrons, who are proud to use the more than 100-year-old Drost family chocolate recipe, claim that hand-making their chocolate is what gives it the signature silky texture.

It’s this texture, plus the mouthwatering sight of rows upon rows of truffles, chocolate-covered caramels, fresh fudge, buttercreams and 20-plus flavors of ice cream, that keep visitors like me turning out in droves. Whether you show up on a hot summer night (for the ice cream) or a chilly winter evening (for the truffles and fudge—which you can watch being made on the large marble slabs), Drost’s Chocolates will serve you both homemade chocolate and small-town charm.

What to order:
Homemade truffles or the classic chocolate-covered cherries.

Things to do nearby:
You’ve floated and paddled rivers in the summer, but have you tried water rafting? Big Bear Adventures offers guided 1.5-hour trips down the crystal-clear Sturgeon River (no experience necessary!). Afterward, head to Vivio’s for a hearty Italian meal in a cozy, rustic log cabin.

45th Parallel’s Candy World // Suttons Bay

Forget the wineries and get ready to gorge on Belgian chocolate fudge, triple-dipped chocolate malt balls and ginormous chocolate-coated candy apples that easily feed 12-15 people and weigh a whopping 3-3.5 pounds. 45th Parallel’s Candy World is located along, you guessed it, Northern Michigan’s 45th parallel in Suttons Bay. I find it the perfect stop on a M-22 road trip, or a good way to refuel after visiting a couple of Leelanau’s wineries or cideries.

“My husband and I left the corporate world in 1997 to live a simpler life in Northern Michigan,” co-owner Bridgett Lambdin tells me. After pivoting from their careers in marketing and agronomy, Bridgett and Tim dove into the world of chocolate and have been producing handmade-from-scratch fudge for 20 years. So, you could say they know a bit about it. In fact, chocolate is a family affair. “I handmake all of our fudge and was taught by my mother and grandmother [who were chocolatiers],” Bridgett says. Her father was also in the chocolate business, working for Nestle for 43 years.

When it comes to the candy shop’s crown jewel—45 flavors of fudge—rest assured that it’s as homemade as it comes. Bridgett makes the fudge the way you would at home over the stove. The result is an incredibly smooth texture and depth of flavor that is (dare I say) unparalleled. In the busy summer season, Bridgett produces about 375 pounds of fudge twice a week, and sometimes more for wholesalers. And while fudge isn’t technically chocolate (it can be flavored with other ingredients), you’ll definitely want to come here for the varieties made from Belgian-imported chocolate.

What to order:
Any flavor of fudge, but the Belgian Dark Caramel Sea Salt is a bestseller. The three-pound Unparalleled Apple is also a bucket list item: apple dipped in caramel twice, then vanilla fudge, then Belgian chocolate … and repeat.

Things to do nearby:
Walk from 45th Parallel’s Candy World to merry boutiques and gift shops lining St. Joseph Street (M-22). When you pass a charming, bright red telephone box, stop to take the requisite photo inside. Warm-up at a downtown restaurant or coffee shop, then catch a show at The Bay Theatre. Or, if you’re up for an adventure, rent a fat bike from Suttons Bay Bikes and check out the Leelanau Trail, accessible at 4th Street.

Read Next: Saving Northern Michigan’s Small-Town Theaters

Kilwins // Traverse City // Petoskey

Kilwins is a recognizable name not just in Northern Michigan, where it was founded, but all around the country. For me, and many others, its name alone brings to mind quaint lakeside towns, childhood vacations and, most importantly, rows upon rows of beautiful chocolates in every shade. Kilwins’ history dates back to 1947 when Don and Katy Kilwin opened their first shop in Petoskey. Back then, it was a small confections and ice cream shop, but over the years, it’s expanded to more than 150 franchised businesses around the country.

One such business is the Kilwins in Traverse City, tucked away on Front Street just past the colorful Traverse City mural. This location opened 45 years ago, as one of the earlier franchises of the original Kilwins. Stepping into the Traverse Kilwins store, I’m reliably met with the familiar ding of a bell and the instant, heady aroma of bubbling caramel, stewing peanut brittle and ganache. There’s usually a friendly aproned employee by the door—often bearing samples—and an open viewing area toward the worktops where the shop’s fudge is freshly made. The shop has an old-war Americana charm to it. The Traverse Kilwins is currently owned by Brian and Mary Daily, a local couple who took over the store 26 years ago. “Mary worked at Kilwins in high school and loved it,” Brian says. “After leaving the Air Force, we came home and the store was for sale, so we jumped on it. The rest is history!” Brian describes their current operation as a “successful mom and pop shop” that keeps busy with their crew making caramel apples and fudge in the store.

As for the chocolate itself, which sits row-upon-row in the glass cases along the store’s left-hand side, it’s handmade—but not all at the Traverse City location. “Fifty percent of product is made at [the Traverse City location], just the fancy chocolates are not made in-store,” says Brian. That means in addition to the fudge and caramel apples, the Dailys and their staff whip up caramel corn, chocolate clusters, dipped Krispie treats, chocolate-covered strawberries, chocolate-coated pretzels and more.

Kilwins still makes all of its “Heritage” chocolate at the Kilwins Chocolate Kitchen (1050 Bay View Rd., Petoskey). The Heritage chocolate’s flavor profile is unique to Kilwins, with the milk chocolate carrying caramel tones, the dark chocolate with hints of licorice and the white chocolate deftly combining real chocolate with caramel and vanilla notes. This chocolate is used to create signature confections, like the Kilwins tuttles, truffles and chocolate-coated caramels, before being shipped to locations like the one in Traverse City.

What to order:
Try a tuttle—a handmade creation of nut (cashew, pecan or macadamia) and caramel-filled Heritage chocolate.

Things to do nearby:
Front Street in Traverse City becomes a winter wonderland with its creative shops and holiday-themed window displays. After filling up on chocolate, take a stroll, popping into boutiques and eateries along the way. A few minutes from downtown, The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is truly a scene from a snow globe. Dine at local restaurants, visit one-of-a-kind shops in the Mercato and glide along cross-country ski trails at The Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area behind Building 50.

Find this article and many others in the December 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe to get Traverse delivered to your door all year round.