Hillsborough’s sweetest spot is, like so many other small businesses, faced with swallowing a bitter pill. Shutdowns and restrictions put in place voluntarily and by order of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper have slowed traffic to a crawl at Matthew’s Chocolates, as fears of the coronavirus grips residents.
All restaurants have been ordered to close their dining areas, leaving them to survive through take outs and drive-thrus.
Because of its designation, Matthew’s Chocolates, which has no dining or seating area, has remained opened. But for how long is uncertain.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Matthew Shepherd, the store’s owner. “This is unprecedented.”
Shepherd’s business is going into its 13th year of operation. In July 2019, he moved his store from across Churton Street into its current location. It was a tough decision, and one Shepherd made with some trepidation.
“When I was in the early stages of planning to move, there was some miscommunication between myself and the building owner over the square footage of the space, so I had less space downstairs than I thought I would have. People sometimes ask me why I have so much stuff, but I have a whole different set up for Easter, and a whole different set up for Valentine’s and for Christmas. All those boxes of holidays can’t just be tossed and then you re-order next year. So I have to store all of that stuff. Plus, after 12 years of being in one spot, you just start squirreling away things.”
But Shepherd moved forward with the relocation, mostly because it gave him kitchen access.
“At first I was worried because most of the businesses are on that side,” Shepherd said. “But once I got over here I realized that everybody that’s sitting outside can now look over and see my store the whole time they’re eating. And then people are, like, ‘Hey, do you wanna go over to Matthew’s?’ Once we get the upstairs finished, it will be nice. It will mostly be seating.”
The coronavirus pandemic has, for now, paused Shepherd’s plans for the upstairs area. Weeks before restaurants and other businesses started closing, he had already began mulling changes to his offerings of chocolates and other items.
“It was a lot of little things that just started speeding up,” Shepherd said. “When you start seeing all of the governments avoiding reality, that’s a thing. The thing that drove it home to me the most, that I sat up and said, ‘oh no,’ was when they closed Vegas. My sister lives there and I’ve visited many, many times. I’ve never been to New York, but I’ve been to Vegas. And when they shut it down, I was like ‘how?’ Hillsborough you can shut down, but Vegas? I knew this was now real. I didn’t panic panic. I knew food was still going to be around. Those things are not going away. So, I didn’t go crazy buying stuff. I have chocolate.”
The chocolates he sells are literally the work of an artist. Shepherd has, throughout his life, dabbled in various mediums.
“I did a lot of water color painting. I did wood carving as a kid,” Shepherd said. “Then I was a potter, so I learned how to make ceramic molds, cast pieces, paint with colors you don’t really see until they’re fired. I also had an incense manufacturing company for six years, so worked with different essential oils and fragrances and chemicals.
“I always knew I wanted to do some sort of food business. I never knew what. Years later, my sister was getting married and she knew I liked to make cocoa-rolled truffles. I’d developed a reputation for my truffles,” he said. “She asked if I could make some chocolates for her wedding in Vegas. But she wanted something other than rolled truffles. So I ordered a few molds and began making an assortment of chocolates.”
Shepherd had a tradition of giving his chocolate treats as Christmas gifts to friends. Soon his friends began requesting his chocolates so they themselves could give them as gifts.
“That’s when I knew I had found my thing,” Shepherd said. “I got into it a little more. I didn’t have flavorings at home, but I had all of these essential oils. I know that a steamed distilled oil can be ingested, but you have to be careful. But I knew how. The flavors from the essential oils was so good. The smell drives the flavor.
“I drew on my water color painting experience with my full-color chocolates. Many of the techniques used in water colors are used with coloring the chocolates. I drew on my work with pottery and ceramics to make the molds I use,” he said.
Shepherd, who is an outspoken advocate for businesses in downtown Hillsborough, has no plans to close. But he admits he’s not certain what is ahead. The hardest part of adjusting his business to the current climate was laying off most of his staff.
“You hired them and they’re kind of yours,” Shepherd said. “You feel kind of responsible for them. I don’t make enough to pay $20/hour. If I did, I would. But they understood. They knew what was happening. They know that I have to survive, too.”
The survival of Matthew’s Chocolates will be spurred by several changes, including an adjustment in the stores hours and offerings.
“Businesses in downtown are trying to get on the same page,” he said. “Trying to work with each other. I tell customers about restaurants that are open for take out and their telling customers that I’m open. I was opening noon to 5:00 p.m., and then a couple of people asked why I was closing before people were picking up their food from other places downtown. So this week, we’re going to try opening at 5:00 and closing at 8:00. We stayed open until 8:00 yesterday and had a really good day.
“I’m not going to make as many creams and truffles. I may only make two or three kinds. Just the top few favorites because they have a shelf life of two weeks. I don’t want to put ingredients into something that can go bad and I have to throw away. Barks and clusters can last for weeks. I’ve started making more cupcakes and scones. Things that people can come buy several of and have at home. I’m planning to start doing frozen cookie doughs and frozen muffin batter already in the cups. The response to that idea has been great. People can buy them and keep them at home and bake them. I’m just trying to think of ways to help people who don’t or can’t cook.”