Before Phyllis Robinson could open Tandem Chocolates, before she could summon the dark (chocolate), she had to consider the sun.
She couldn’t have a store flush with natural light. The angle of the sun during the hottest part of the day mattered. And a portion of the place had to lack windows and be easy to keep cool.
“Chocolate melts,” Robinson deadpanned with a smile, then explained: “Working with chocolate, if things are too warm, you’re not getting the crystal formation in the chocolate. You need to keep things cool. I needed a back workspace with no sun. But I didn’t want to feel like I was in a cave.”
Robinson settled on a South Reno storefront away from direct sunlight, debuting Tandem in late July. There are picture windows with translucent blinds, a pristine retail chocolate case, images of colorful cacao pods, and a rear production area with a tower of professional chocolate cookbooks and gleaming equipment imported from Italy.
The confectionary chef specializes in molded caramels and in ganache bonbon baubles painted by hand with colored cocoa butter, both in creative flavor combinations that change frequently. She sources from ethical and sustainable chocolate suppliers and supports other businesses owned by women. The craft of chocolate, she said, is part and parcel of her approach to living.
“Eat well and do good.”
More than a chocolate shop
Given the seasonality of the chocolate business, with peak purchasing November through February, Robinson isn’t simply relying on retail hours (which are four days a week). The chocolatier also does a brisk trade online, and even before Tandem opened, she had begun presenting off-site chocolate events and instruction.
“I love doing the chocolate and whiskey pairings,” Robinson said. “I love the teaching part. I love people getting their hands dirty. People are looking for experiences. Can I get this locally? Can I interact with the person who made this?”
Working with cacao farmers
Interacting with people at the source, Robinson said, is essential to her chocolate making. Much of her chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is supplied by Conexión, a company from Ecuador founded by Jenny Samaniego, one of a handful of women to found a bean-to-bar outfit.
“She knows the farmers. She works directly with the farmers so more money stays in the country,” Robinson said. “When you’re eating a piece of chocolate, you can trace to the farmers who grew the beans. Conexión works with young growers to keep them in the industry.
“It’s hard hard hard work to grow cacao, to harvest cacao. I want to support that.”
Robinson also sources from Guittard Chocolate Company of the Bay Area, which has been selling to consumers and the trade for more than 150 years. In its products, Guittard eschews soy lecithin, an additive that makes chocolate easier to temper and mold (at a fraction of the cost of cocoa butter), but also one that must be extracted from soybeans using harsh chemicals.
The sunflower-derived additives used by Guittard are “environmentally a better choice,” Robinson said. “I like to look at the ethics of the companies I choose.”
Tasting bonbons and caramels
The other afternoon, Robinson led a visitor through a tasting of bonbons and caramels.
Guajillo and ancho chiles spiked a bonbon inspired by mole, the family of Mexican chocolate sauces. A Thai version mingled cardamom, vanilla and a condensed milk caramel (a nod to condensed milk in Thai coffee). A passion fruit-orange-guava confection delivered intense guava flavor. A dark chocolate caramel with Madagascar vanilla unfurled on the palate, supple and lush.
The standout? A bonbon stuffed with hazelnut almond paste and candied coconut. “There is crunch for miles,” Robinson said. “A chef in Belgium told me why texture matters: It wakes up your brain. A little salt or a little crunch is not what you’re expecting. It says, ‘Let me pay attention to what I’m eating.’ “
Robinson’s hand painted bonbons, in the shape of rounded thimbles, are particularly striking. Some are speckled like robins’ eggs, others swirled like marble. Some resemble minerals or dense star clusters or stray splashes of Jackson Pollock.
Honoring Mom through chocolate
Robinson opened the original Tandem Chocolates in Park City, Utah, in 2016 after resigning as the public affairs manager for the city and enrolling in a professional chocolate program, including study in Europe.
“My Mom had a chocolate shop in our house as a kid. I always played around with it but had no thoughts of becoming a chocolatier,” Robinson said. But after her Mom died in 2013, “I was missing a lot of creativity in my life,” and training professionally in chocolate “was a way of connecting with her one last time.”
Robinson and her husband, who is from the Bay Area, left Park City to be closer to family and to property they own in Meeks Bay at Lake Tahoe. “We drove in a one-hour radius from Meeks Bay” when deciding where to live, she said. Reno, where they moved in 2019, “was always on a list of places we’d end up.”
Before launching Tandem Chocolates, Robinson had to install a grease trap. They’re not cheap. But the outlay was, in a sense, an improvement on Park City. There, Tandem Chocolate occupied a walk-up building, and equipment had to be hauled up the stairs. In Reno, Robinson came come in on the ground floor.
Johnathan L. Wright is the food and drink editor for Reno News & Review. Follow him on Twitter at @ItsJLW or on Facebook personally or at @FoodNevada. Sign up here for the Reno News & Review free weekly newsletter highlighting our most recent stories.