‘Can until can’t’: How local businesses survive Valentine’s Day

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Elise Pollard hand paints hearts onto truffles at Black Mountain Chocolate. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Elise Pollard gingerly pulls the wax paper off the metal tray when eight perfectly sculpted peanut butter truffles fall to the floor.

“Oh no!” she exclaims.

Nearby, the general manager and head chocolatier at Black Mountain Chocolate, Tirra Cowan, says, “That’s part of this too; you never really know what’s going to happen.”

The weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day at Black Mountain Chocolate can hold chaos for Pollard and Cowan, the sole pastry chefs. On the Saturday before the big day, the two move swiftly around the kitchen, switching from decorating pastries and truffles to knocking chocolates out of molds.

“That’s hard,” Cowan says as she picks up the pieces off the kitchen floor. “That’s $16 worth of chocolates. It happens.”

Cowan, who has worked at the Winston-Salem-based chocolate company for four years, says February is easily their busiest month. In any other month, she says they make about a thousand pounds of chocolate; in February, they make 2,500.

“We’re getting tired,” Cowan admits as she rolls a small baton-like bar over a plastic mold, repeatedly tapping it, just hard enough to knock out the honeycomb truffles.

“This is what Valentine’s Day sounds like,” she jokes. “That and intermittent crying.”

The company, which has been based in Winston-Salem since 2014, makes all kinds of chocolate goodies, from truffles to bars to pastries. This time of year, Cowan says assorted truffle boxes are the biggest sellers. Throughout the year, they make a dozen different flavors including salted caramel, peanut-butter fudge and the romantic chocolate strawberry.

A few feet away, Pollard decorates rows of Chad’s chai truffles. Using food-safe coloring and a thin brush, she paints perfectly shaped red hearts onto the surfaces of more than 100 truffles.

“It’s exciting,” Pollard says. “During slow times you don’t get to spend as much time in the kitchen. Even when it’s stressful, I’m satisfied.”

To keep up with the increased number of orders, Cowan says she easily works 12- and sometimes 16-hour days.

“I know I am not really gonna see much of my apartment for the next few weeks,” Cowan says.

But for all of its stress and long hours, Cowan says she’s come to love the holiday though she doesn’t get to spend time with her loved ones because she’s working.

“It’s like the Oscars for us,” she says. “It’s the pinnacle of our craft. We wait all year long for this.”

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A few minutes down the road, vases of flowers ready to be placed in rooms often fill the sales office at Brookstown Inn during the month of February.

“[The flowers] take up a lot of space,” says Rebecca Woodcock, the director of marketing at the historic inn. 

“It kind of takes over.”

She and Allison Watts, director of sales, explain the bump in business the hotel gets during the weeks leading up to and after the most romantic holiday of the year.

“We’re almost sold out for the weekend,” says Watts, who has worked here for eight years.

The most popular options are the Romance and Cupid packages, which include either an assortment of flowers or a dozen long-stemmed roses, a bottle of champagne with two flutes, chocolate truffles from Black Mountain Chocolate and in-room breakfast with the latter option. The packages come with a late checkout.

“It’s all set up in the room so when they come in, there’s that nice wow factor and kind of starts the romance for them,” Woodcock says.

As the marketing point person, the responsibility of readying the rooms and making sure all of the couples have their perfect getaways, falls to Woodcock. Just this past week, she says she readied 20 package rooms for incoming guests. 

“It’s exciting,” she says. “When people think of Brookstown, they think of romance.”

After years of working together on the holiday, both Woodcock and Watts say they’ve gotten the preparations down to a science. They have an online system that keeps track of their reservations and they put in orders for flowers and chocolates on a daily and weekly basis to keep up with demand. They order champagne monthly.

One year, Woodcock remembers running out of the bubbly and having to rush down the street to Washington Perk to buy bottles off the shelf.

Nicole Holland, the executive housekeeper at Brookstown, says that February is like any other month for her and her staff — for the most part.

“We don’t even notice when it’s been a romance package other than if they do the rose petals or something,” says Holland, who has worked at the inn for 17 years. “That tends to be messy because you can’t just go up and vacuum up rose petals. They’re all over the floor and all over the bed.”

Despite not being a part of any of their packages, she says she’s had to clean up rose petals hundreds of times.

“I think it’s nice,” Holland says. “But it sucks to have to clean it up.”

***

Ellen Francis — or “Mama Ellen,” as some call her — bought herself and her employees matching scarves to get them through the holiday. The owner of the 28-year-old flower shop A Daisy a Day calls them a good luck charm.

“I told them… they had to wear ’em,” Francis says. “That they were their magic scarves, and it was gonna help them get through Valentine’s.”

The light-filled store looks a bit like a jungle with dozens of buckets filled with carnations and chrysanthemums flanking the entrance, all the way to the counter. Baskets of leafy greens and vines of ivy fill out the space while pink and red stuffed bears and llamas carrying heart-shaped pillows that read “Be mine” sit on shelves along the wall. In a refrigerated side room, bunches of long-stem roses wait in buckets to be sold. They go for $80 per dozen and are the popular item for the holiday.

Behind the store, in a 40-foot climate-controlled trailer, sales associate Hannah Davis points to fold-out tables where flower arrangements that don’t fit in the store will be kept.

“They get it at the beginning of the month and keep it till Mother’s Day,” says Davis about the trailer. “We’ll start putting stuff in here maybe Tuesday.”

Back inside, Francis puts together an arrangement of red roses, carnations and white lilies.

Ellen Francis gets arrangements ready at A Daisy a Day. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

She says on Valentine’s Day, they’ll deliver more than 200 orders to customers. They hire six extra delivery drivers just for the day to ensure everything goes out on time.

“I appreciate their help and how hard they work,” Francis says about her staff.

She brings them lunch around the holiday to keep them going.

“We don’t have time to go out and get anything to eat,” says Francis as she clips flowers. “I’ve got a roast started.”

At home, Francis also prepares little things like bows to go on flowers while she’s watching TV.

Still, with the extra preparations, some days during the month, she says she doesn’t leave the shop until 10 or midnight.

“It’s can until can’t,” Francis says. 

As for her favorite part of the holiday?

“I really like February the 15th,” she laughs.

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