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Ingrid Collins and her iconic Guilford business, The Village Chocolatier, is prepared for Valentine’s Day, which is also the shop’s third-best sales day of the year (Christmas tops the list, followed by Easter). (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Valentine’s Day may still be a couple of weeks off, but for Ingrid Collins and her iconic Guilford business, The Village Chocolatier, it’s crunch time.
As soon as late January rolls around, “I’m waiting for those hearts to come,” says Ingrid, who will be dedicating countless hours to packing heart-shaped boxes with hundreds of hand-made chocolates and specialty treats in the run-up to the big day.
Make no mistake: As the owner of the shoreline’s cherished candy shop at 79 Whitfield Street, Ingrid has prepared far in advance for Valentine’s Day, which is her third-top sales day of the year, behind Christmas and Easter. From its Victorian-themed window displays to shelves loaded with hand-made chocolates, truffles, and treats tucked into Valentine’s gift baskets, bags, boxes, and beyond, every creation has been crafted by Ingrid to turn her shop into a one-stop wonder for those looking to impress the object of their affection come Feb. 14.
Still, as Ingrid and her staff are well aware, the shop’s typical Valentine’s Day customers—let’s call them guys—tend to procrastinate.
“Valentine’s is probably the most scary of the holidays, because it seems like nothing is moving until those last two or three days, and then the line is out the door. It’s crazy. That last day, I’m trying my best to get more staff on,” says Ingrid.
With her college-aged staffers away at school (she has a payroll of 14), Ingrid relies on many of her teenaged employees—most of whom can count the candy shop as their first job—to come in and help staff the counters during the candy rush.
“I think I have been very lucky with this staff,” Ingrid says of all her employees. “I’m proud that we have given a first-time job to so many teenagers.”
Since taking over as the shop’s sole proprietor in 2004 and, prior to that, as 50-50 owner since 1996, Ingrid says the number of teenagers she’s hired over the years is now approaching 200.
A Sweet Beginning
A Norwegian native who met and married her husband, David Collins, in Europe, then moved to the states to raise their family in his hometown of Madison, Ingrid has a Norwegian friend to thank for connecting her with the Guilford business she would one day call her own.
Ingrid first came to The Village Chocolatier as a part-time employee in the late ’80s, encouraged by her friend, who was also a friend of the shop’s proprietor at the time, Fay Ashton.
“Her husband and Mrs. Ashton’s husband flew for TWA, and so she invited me in,” says Ingrid, who took up Fay’s offer to work part-time so that she could be home after school for her youngest child, who was 10 at the time.
The part-time work was the start of another wonderful friendship that grew between Ingrid and Fay. Fay even stayed on to work after Ingrid became full owner of the business, assisting her at the counters until just a couple of years ago.
Working at the shop was also where Ingrid found her calling, especially in the creative, gift-packaging side of the business, she says.
“I just loved it,” says Ingrid. “Every time I made something, people would come and buy it the same day. I was into making up little baskets and the gifty things. I would just use anything I could get my hands on in the back room. I didn’t know I had that creative side!”
To this day, all of the gift wrapped items in the shop are designed, developed, and crafted by Ingrid. The business also features all hand-tied bows atop every hand-packed gift bag and basket. Ingrid estimates they make between 3,000 to 4,000 of one of the shop’s staples, a small gold bow, every year. She also came up with some innovations, including the shop’s top selling item: a small box, meant for six pieces of chocolate, which is instead packed with a full dozen truffles. Ingrid is also proud of her idea to use a wide, flat gold ribbon and golden embossed label as the topper for the shop’s signature gold and white candy boxes, which makes for easy storage/stacking in the small space, while still delivering the beauty of a bow.
Much of the box building and packaging work is done by Ingrid at her home, with the help of her husband, especially during the holidays when there are extra gifts to be made. Ingrid is also the shop’s window designer, changing the two showy spaces about a dozen times a year to reflect the season. She often uses family heirlooms or items inspired by them, including many Victorian-era pieces, to create displays. Right now, flowered topiaries top windows done in a Victorian Valentine theme, complete with tiny Valentine’s Day cards displaying lithographed die-cut Cupids, hearts, and flowers that were collected by her family generations ago.
“People every day come in and say, ‘I love your window,’” says Ingrid. “That has been consistent over the years. That kind of is a little humbling, but also a little nerve wracking! I’m always thinking, ‘What am I going to put in next?’”
A Destination Location
In more ways than one, The Village Chocolatier has become a favorite destination for candy lovers far and wide. It’s one of the few bricks and mortar specialty candy stores left on the shoreline—Ingrid says it’s the only one between Clinton and Branford—and its inventory of hand-made candies and fudge draws customers from across Connecticut and beyond.
“We have customers that come all the way from Avon and Farmington, New London, Greenwich, and Fairfield county [as well as] Northford, North Haven, and the neighboring towns, and of course we always appreciate the people from Guilford who come. We have some customers who come in every day for one or two pieces of chocolate,” says Ingrid.
The shop makes its own fudge and Ingrid curates its wide collection of chocolates, truffles, and treats. She sells hand-made candies selected from New England-area vendors with whom she’s worked for years. She also carries some of rather rarefied, specific sweets.
“We pride ourselves in having stuff that’s hard to get, like wintergreen patties—there are people who don’t like them, but the people who like them, really like them!” says Ingrid. “We also have molasses chips, which are extremely popular, and chocolate-covered marzipan.”
Customers also come in for individual chocolates laid out behind a windowed counter and ready to be selected and boxed up. In the industry, these types of chocolates are known as “nonpareils” because there is nothing else that can match each different delight, says Ingrid. They are among the shop’s top-sellers.
“We sell six to eight times as many nonpareils in dark chocolate as we do anything else,” says Ingrid. “We also sell milk and white [chocolate], but the dark chocolate has really taken off.”
Especially popular picks are the dark chocolate caramels with sea salt and dark chocolate buttercrunch nonpareils, she notes. Another big seller is the truffle line, which has been sourced from the same family company for more than 30 years, says Ingrid.
As if this shop’s delights aren’t enough to make it a destination stop for many, beginning a few years back, another interested group of visitors began finding their way to the story-book perfect, awning-topped shop on the Guilford Green.
Unbeknownst to Ingrid and her staff, a 2016 travel post at the website Hello Giggles encouraged fans of TV and film’s Gilmore Girls to follow a road-trip itinerary to shops embodying the show’s fictional Connecticut town, Stars Hollow. The Village Chocolatier is listed as the first stop on the tour and has become a popular location for die-hard fans to visit, says employee Emma Gallo.
“People come in all the time who go on this Gilmore Girls tour, and they hit places all over New England that were supposedly on the show,” says Emma. “We get people all the time who stop in and say that. They come and take pictures and ask us questions.”
According to itinerary guide, which can also be found through a link posted at The Village Chocolatier on Facebook, the shop is notable for its resemblance to the show’s candy store, Taylor’s Old Fashioned Soda Shoppe. The guide also recommends visiting Breakwater Books a few doors away on Whitfield Street, as it resembles an oft-browsed bookstore beloved by one of the show’s characters, Rory Gilmore.
“In the beginning, we didn’t know what it was,” says Ingrid of the cyberspace boost that was bringing in excited guests from far-flung locations. “Mothers will take their daughters out of school to visit. We have people come from Texas, California, and from all over the place to stop in to take a peek.”
From the moment anyone enters this charming Guilford candy store, Ingrid has one edict for her young employees—and it’s an easy one to follow.
“We tell the kids, ‘You always have to remember: We sell happiness,’” says Ingrid.
Get ready to celebrate the holidays with our helpful guide