By Elizabeth Sturgeon
Photos by Evelyn Adams
There is such a thing as healthy chocolate – and a bright new corner spot on 18th Street has the rich, cacao-based goods.
Tom Findlay opened Chocolate America’s storefront at the end of May with a growing interest in high quality chocolate and newfound knowledge of its benefits. “It can improve brain function, it helps blood flow and it is rich in flavanols,” Tom says. “Some are finding that good chocolate even helps rejuvenate stem cells.”
Along with health benefits comes a happiness Tom sees among all his customers and partnering chocolatiers. One that’s not too far from the joy he witnesses at his other Homewood storefront, Thomas Andrew Art Studio and Gallery. “Chocolate raises endorphins and puts you in a better mood, and everybody’s smiling and joyful,” he says. “That’s the same with art. I love the art business because it’s a happy product.”
Cacao-crazed joy has followed Chocolate America since its opening as Homewood’s first chocolate shop, stocked with bars, bon bons, truffles, fudge and more treats that are all sourced from chocolatiers across the United States.
Walking into the shop, one is welcomed by the smell of chocolate and Tom’s large wall map of the United States, with silver stars marking areas in which he has sourced chocolates. Each product is labeled with information about the people and places behind the chocolate-making process, proudly representing several chocolates from minority-owned, women-owned and LGBTQ-owned businesses.
Tom’s visits to chocolate shops across the country have opened him up to so many stories behind good chocolate from longtime mom-and-pops to new small businesses. “There are thousands of chocolatiers all over America, who are passionate about making good chocolate,” Tom says. “I decided that I am only going to buy from the best American chocolatiers.”
So far, Chocolate America represents nearly 20 states, and Tom hopes to find more local chocolatiers from the Southeast. Some of the largest chocolate industries that he’s discovered have been in the west and Northeast U.S. He first partnered with Texas-based chocolatiers to provide chocolates for Thomas Andrew Art, launching the gallery’s chocolate pop-up, The Chocolate Lounge, which snowballed into the initial idea for Chocolate America.
Meeting new artisans on the road is already a part of Tom’s job as a full-time artist who travels for art shows and other projects. He has now extended his idea of artisanry to the chocolate-making process. “Being an artist, I find it really interesting – fine chocolate and fine art,” Tom says. “They’re both pleasing businesses with beautiful products that make people happy. If I didn’t do painting, I might find myself making chocolate.”
You don’t need to walk far to see the artistry demonstrated in Chocolate America. Chocolates are decorative and delicate and works of art themselves, some even Pollock-esque in splattered and colorful designs. Others are more inventive in their creation through new flavors, CBD, spirit infusions and vegan or dairy-free recipes.
Chocolate classics are nonetheless masterful and still featured in Chocolate America. Tom says that fudge – which fills the back room of the store – is especially important for him to include. “My mother would always make these delicious desserts, and fudge was one,” he says. “I knew we had to have fudge in here, and it’s one of our best sellers.”
In the same way he works with customers at Thomas Andrew Art to find the right pieces, Tom and his employees work with each visitor to discover his or her own preferred taste. With so many different products and flavors, there’s undoubtedly something for everyone. “It’s hard to walk out of a chocolate store without at least a little chocolate,” Tom says.
After a soft opening, a Homewood ribbon-cutting ceremony and a couple months of business, Tom is finding his place in the chocolate world. Wine-and-chocolate tastings, collaborations with Birmingham-based chocolate makers and bigger community partnerships are just a few ideas on the table for the future. “My goal is to have the largest selection of fine chocolate from the best chocolatiers in America,” he says.
What comes naturally is being at the heart of downtown Homewood. While he dedicates Sundays to painting in the studio, Tom spends most everyday walking down 29th Avenue between his two storefronts – one fine art, the other fine chocolate. “I’ll always be an artist, but this to me is a new challenge,” he says.
After Tom’s initial idea for a chocolate shop, he and Betsy, his girlfriend, business partner and “compass,” would keep an eye out for available downtown Homewood storefronts. Chocolate America’s spot on the corner of 18th Street and Reese Street has been the perfect place for their products in the community they love.
Along with new neighbors and a prime location for walking traffic, Chocolate America has inherited a community garden outside the store that Tom and Betsy are taking care of as they grow the business.
There is so much to learn inside Chocolate America. Tom makes sure to tell the stories of all the chocolatiers represented in the shop, and he also hopes to tell a larger history of chocolate, how it’s made and its benefits. Here are a few health benefits for dark chocolate that hang on the walls as mantras for the products:
- Cacao is rich in minerals: magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper and
- It contains antioxidants called “flavonoids,” which are compounds found primarily in plants that help protect one’s skin from sun damage.
- The flavonoids have inflammation-fighting properties and can help reduce the risk of heart disease.