After 77 years in the confectionery business, it had come down to this: Owner Bill Mitchell would either find a suitable buyer for Mitchell's Fine Chocolates in Cleveland Heights, or he would shutter the shop, liquidate its assets and find a new tenant for the building, which he owns.
Fortunately, it didn't come to that.
In less than a month, the beloved chocolate factory officially will change hands for the first time in three generations. After entertaining offers for nearly a year, Mitchell found what he was searching for. No, not a fat sack of cash, but rather a beneficiary of the business who was less like Veruca Salt and more like Charlie Bucket.
"My hope was to find someone I could pass on the traditions to, because I have no family," Mitchell explains. "Of all the people who walked through the doors over the past several months to look at us, it was Jason who stood out. Of all the people who came in here, he has shown the most passion."
"Jason" is Jason Hallaman who, along with his wife Emily Bean, will be the new owner of a very old business. Call it fate, call it fortune, but the truth of the matter is that it seemed destined to happen, even though it almost didn't.
"We popped into a store and noticed a display of Mitchell's Chocolates and we told the owner how much we loved it," Bean recalls. "The owner said, 'Oh, did you hear that they were selling?' We literally got in our car, drove straight to Lee Road and talked to Bill."
Hallaman, like most people his age who grew up in Cleveland Heights, has very pleasant memories of Mitchell's candies. He went to Coventry Elementary, which was a very short walk from the shop's original location on Euclid Heights Boulevard.
"[Bill's mother] Penelope was very fond of my father and we'd go in there after church and she would never let him give her any money, and you can imagine how three boys are in a chocolate shop," Hallaman relates. "Some of my greatest memories took place there."
After 50 years on Coventry, the shop relocated to its current location on Lee Road, where it has been chugging along for 25 years. Bill's father passed away years ago, while his mother only recently passed away at the age of 97.
"He wants to retire desperately, but when you hear that a business is being sold, people get so negative," says Hallaman. "It must be a dinosaur, they say, it must be a dying breed. Walk away. Bill did the right thing. He took care of his mother till her last breath. The shop is a legacy, and it's a lot of responsibility, and I feel there are just a handful of people around who can possibly understand that, and I'm one of them."
While Bean will keep her job as staff pharmacist at University Hospitals' Ahuja Medical Center, Hallaman will transition into the role of operator. Since he bought his first business at the age of 19, he's had a knack for finding the right opportunity at the perfect time. And given the increased appetite for artisanal, hand-crafted food products, both locally and nationally, that's precisely what this is.
"The thing about Cleveland is, if you're a local thing, and you offer a good product, people in this town will support you," says Hallaman. "They will dig deep, and they will make sure it's a success. Small, independent business people don't know how good they've got it here."
Hallaman not only is receiving financing, favorable lease terms, and a near bottomless well of goodwill, he is inheriting two longtime staffers and extensive hands-on training from Bill. If all goes as planned, Mitchell will be living in the middle of the Aegean Sea on Lemnos, the very same Greek island on which his mother was born, in a year's time.
Meanwhile, Bean and Hallaman are planning for as seamless a transition as possible. The name doesn't change, the storefront stays the same, the product line doesn't budge, the recipes stay true. Customers will always be able to walk in and purchase an assortment of dark chocolate-covered apricots and orange peels, soft-centered chocolate nougats, silken butter creams and various truffles. What will change — and needs changing — is the store's relationship with modern food lovers.
"We're a Ferrari stuck in first gear," Mitchell admits. "We need these young kinds of people who are makers. I'm passing the baton onto a new generation."
Customers will begin noticing keener marketing, an increased presence on social media, and improved in-store technology, all in an attempt to protect a treasured Cleveland institution.
"We're only at the halfway point right now," Hallaman says. "I want this store to stay open for another 75 years."
Mitchell’s Fine Chocolates2285 Lee Rd, Cleveland, OH 44118