Ralph Hill, a regular customer at Sweet Cascades in historic Ellicott City, likes to buy ice cream, chocolate-covered pretzels and other treats at the little chocolate shop. But on a particularly cold day last week, he just wanted a cup of coffee.
No such luck.
Sweet Cascades doesn't sell anything as mundane as coffee, so owner Sue Whary talked him into a cup of decadent sipping chocolate instead. It's made with chocolate, heavy cream and whole milk, she said.
Hill asked if it could be made with skim milk. The answer, delivered with a smile, was no.
"There's nothing fat-free here," Whary said.
She presented him with a cup of the thick dark liquid, topped with a swirl of whipped cream and adorned with a pizzelle waffle cookie.
Hill took a sip and proclaimed it delicious, "like a liquid chocolate mousse." Hill, who describes himself as a "chocoholic," said he's been coming to the shop since he discovered it over the summer.
Whary, who makes her confections in-house, opened Sweet Cascades in September 2005. At first, it was hard to see because it was behind the Teapots and Paper Dolls Shop. When that store moved to a different Main Street location, Whary took over the space in April.
Whary, who lives in Ellicott City, never planned to be a chocolate retailer, she said. Before she got involved with candy, she worked at a water company in Prince George's County, arguing right-of-way cases, she said.
"I had a desk job," she said. "I was bored. Bored, bored, bored. I wanted to do something fun," she said.
About three years ago, she saw an article about chocolate fountains and decided to buy one and start a business setting it up at weddings and other events. She kept her day job, but went to the events on weekends, arriving with the fountain and a platter of things to dip into the molten chocolate, such as strawberries, pretzels and marshmallows.
"It was great because every job's a party," she said.
In May 2005, she happened to notice a store for rent in Ellicott City and decided to quit her job and focus on the candy business. Giving up her steady job was frightening, she said, but she's never regretted it. "It's been a lot of work. A lot of hard work. But it's just great," she said.
Whary seems to know many of her customers by name, and she likes that she no longer has to argue with people, as she did in her old job. She still sets up the fountains at events, and that side of the business has grown, she said, now that more people know about it because of the store.
Whary taught herself to make chocolate treats like truffles and almond bark and peanut butter balls. Her husband, Rick, and her friend Joanne Willey make items also. They create the confections on site, using little more than a tempering machine and a microwave.
Since the chocolates are made without preservatives, Whary is always tinkering with the mix of items arranged in the display cases, making more of what sells well and cutting back on what doesn't work. "We like to change things," she said. "If something's not moving, we take it out."
Whary said some of her experiments are more successful than others. The chocolate-dipped frozen bananas are popular, she said, but frozen pineapple slices dipped in chocolate somehow didn't work because the pineapple lost its flavor when it was frozen, she said.
Truffles, which sell for 95 cents, are among the most popular items. Sweet Cascades sells many varieties, including Grand Marnier, chili, and raspberry chocolate. Chocolate-covered strawberries, apple slices dipped in dark chocolate, caramel and peanuts, and chocolate-covered Oreos, also are big sellers.
Later that same cold afternoon, another customer, Judy Rothstein, walked in. Rothstein works nearby, and comes in often, she said, "more than I should." She asked for a hot chocolate, and Whary told her about the sipping chocolate.
Like Hill, Rothstein wanted to know if it could be made with skim milk. Again, Whary said that wasn't an option. Rothstein bought it anyway. "It's a perfect day for it," Whary said, handing over the warm drink.
Rothstein took a sip. "Oh my God," she said.
"You like it?" asked Whary.
"It's heaven," Rothstein replied.
Sweet Cascades is located at 8167 Main St, Ellicott City. 410-750-8422.