Most artisans labor for years before earning recognition, but Dean's Sweets is like that garage band whose first single got it signed. After merely 18 months of work, two nationally acclaimed prizes have catapulted Dean's into confectionery stardom.
The 2010 Boston Chocolate Salon last month awarded Portland's rookie chocolatier first place in both "Best Truffle" and "Best Traditional Chocolate" categories at its first annual event. Dean's Sweets also garnered four silver and bronze medals in separate categories, fortifying the kitchen's credentials.
So what makes Dean's unique? How does an artisan sweet shop stand out in a highly competitive field?
Owner Dean Bingham attributes success to his persistent use of local products. His seasonal special, for instance, consists of fresh Maine blueberries covered in rich chocolate. His popular "Chocolate Stout" features Maine-made beer Allagash Black, a Belgian-style stout brewed by Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland. Bingham also uses vodka distilled from Maine potatoes made by Freeport-based Cold River Vodka to make the "Needham Coconut."
Unlike some artisan shops, Dean's Sweets is not a "bean-to-bar" operation. Bingham skips the cumbersome -- and costly -- step of buying, roasting and grinding cocoa beans. Instead, he starts with liquefied chocolate bars (or chips, since they are easier to melt).
Once the perfect consistency has been achieved, Bingham begins to dip. And because the dipping requires him to work without interruption, he's acquired nocturnal habits. If you walk past 82 Middle St. around midnight, you may catch a glimpse of him toiling in the kitchen.
Aside from his obsession with cycling (he is a commuter and racer) and his "day job" as an architect, Bingham has always been fond of cooking, but it wasn't until recently that he entertained the idea of starting a business. "I've always enjoyed chocolate, and started making truffles to give them away," he says. "As it usually goes, if you make them and give them away long enough, people start telling you that you ought to sell them - and I was foolish enough to believe them."
When he and his wife first started, Dean's Sweets peddled its truffles at Rosemont Markets, but only during cooler seasons when the risk of chocolate meltdowns was low. Startup costs were between $10,000 and $15,000, all out-of-pocket. His big-ticket purchases included a tempering machine, two refrigerators, a three-bay sink and a grease trap, though purchasing through online classifieds site Craig's List and auction site eBay helped him keep costs down. He put a few thousand dollars into ceiling renovations and new hardwood floors.
Sales for the first full year netted him $50,000. He hopes to double that figure this year. The Binghams are also currently negotiating with a larger Portland-area vendor, but the contract is still in doubt.
Because the majority of customers at Dean's are individuals buying gifts or sweets for home parties, sales spike around most holidays, notably Christmas, Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. In the past, Bingham and his wife, Kristin, have worked alone, but this year, they may have to recruit extra help to accommodate the influx of chocolate aficionados in December.
Bingham says he has noticed that the recession seems to have crimped corporate spending at his shop. Many of the lawyers, bankers and financiers who bought corporate gifts are more infrequent.
His revenue from special events, on the other hand, has been growing. Dean's Sweets has been promoting products at big-name events like the Chocolate Lover's Fling, held in Portland in April, Portland Ovations' Epicurean Auction Benefit in September, and numerous wedding and Christmas shows. The events are important because they trigger the phenomenon to which all small-scale businesses are beholden: word of mouth. The shop has a Facebook page and a dormant Twitter account, but Bingham says word-of-mouth advertising is what drives business.
Additionally, he and Kristin occasionally travel to Boston to host events at women's fitness clubs. And why not? "Women and chocolate are a good combination," he says.