Video produced by Knoxville Weekend
Written by Susan Alexander / Photos by Maranda Vandergriff
Chocolate makers travel two different, delicious paths
Their situations could hardly be more different but their outcomes are the same: delicious chocolate for the Knoxville community.
Chocolate makers Brad and Joy Hamlett operate out of a bright storefront kitchen beside Bradley’s Chocolate and Gifts in West Knoxville. There they are currently preparing for the Valentine’s Day onslaught at that store and their Knoxville Chocolate Co. location on Market Square.
Nathan Hilbert runs Unrefined Chocolate from a 200-square-foot workspace inside a repurposed warehouse in North Knoxville. He sells his wares at local markets and wholesale to Three Rivers Market and other stores. Nathan’s chocolate comes in bars, and he creates it beginning with roasting the cacao beans which he sources from Colombia and Guatemala.
Brad got his start as a teenager at a chocolate company in Florida. After he moved to Knoxville and decided against law school, he and his dad opened a chocolate store in 1995. Eventually Bradley’s moved to North Peters Road. They acquired The South’s Finest Chocolate Factory in the Candy Factory and rebranded it Knoxville Chocolate Co. It moved to Market Square in 2017.
Nathan and his wife moved to Knoxville from Austin two and a half years ago. “She got a great job, and I got to explore. I started making chocolate when my father-in-law came from Honduras with some cacao. It took about a year to make goodchocolate.”
The Hamletts and their staff concentrate on chocolate treats, like truffles and Tennessee Walking Sticks (pretzel rods dipped in caramel and chocolate) and the 35,000 chocolate-dipped strawberries that will fly out of their stores for Valentine’s Day.
Nathan concentrates solely on bars, except for the sugar-encrusted cacao beans he also offers. His most popular bar, he says, is 65 percent cacao with goat milk, cane sugar and cinnamon. (It’s delicious. Trust me.)
Brad and Joy offer gifts other than chocolate at their stores and sell many items by other Knoxville makers, including candles, jewelry and stationery.
Nathan offers education along with his chocolate, sharing with his customers how he sources his chocolate, their various flavor profiles and the steps that transform beans into bars.
Advice to other makers
“I’m a big believer in chasing the dream,” says Brad. “If you feel a passion for something and you can actually make a living from it, go for it. Most of my decisions boil down to ‘Will I regret not doing it 30 years from now?’ We wouldn’t be where we are if we didn’t take the risk.
“A risk isn’t a gamble,” he adds. “A risk is a good decision based on a lot of information. Do your research.”
Nathan encourages makers starting up to try to “find your scale and match your capital to that scale. I could’ve looked a little further and put more money out front to reach a production level that’s more efficient. Instead I started super small and had to invest in new equipment three times as the business grew. It would’ve been better to compress that down to once. Of course, that’s all hindsight. It’s hard to see out front.”
Last word from Brad: “Don’t think you have to do it by yourself. There is a great community of makers and resources to support you and offer advice and encouragement. There’s never been as good a time to be a local maker.”