Drost’s Chocolates blends nostalgia, old cash registers and treats
ECKERT — No one stirs across the street at Big E Antiques, which at this time of year doubles as a wild game processor.
It’ll be at least another hour before a handyman in an old pickup rolls up next door in front of the old Oddfellows Lodge to continue remodeling the 1927 brick structure.
But on this nearly silent fall morning, in this turn-your-head-and-you’ll-miss-it community on the southern lip of Grand Mesa, Eric and Maria Drost have been toiling for hours.
The fruit of their labor: sweets. Mounds of nut clusters and peanut brittle. Platters of chocolate-covered truffles, creams and nougats. Neatly sliced blocks of creamy fudge.
For the past seven years, the Drosts have swung their feet out of bed long before most of us — Eric at 4 a.m., Maria between 5 and 6 — climbed the stairs and flipped on the lights at Drost’s Chocolates.
“They’re really neat people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any harder working people than them,” said Todd Ripa, the handyman who admits it’s difficult to darken the doorway without having one of everything.
In a region dominated by candy giants Russell Stover and Enstrom Candies, Drost’s has melted, rolled and dipped its own niche: A softly lit, cozy, Mom-and-Pop shop where Mom offers you a morsel finished with a drizzle or dusting earlier that morning, Pop diverts your attention with his impressive collection of antique cash registers and customers leave with bliss cradled in a crinkled wrapper.
Soon, though, Eric and Maria will pass the spatula onto someone else.
The Drosts will retire in the coming months, a plan that’s been a year or two in the making and propelled by creaky knees, bodies that move a little slower when the alarm clock sounds and a desire to spend more time on myriad other interests.
“It’s time,” Eric said. “If this was five, 10 years earlier, I wouldn’t (retire).”
Their business and the real estate that goes with it are under contract to another Colorado couple. Once the deal closes — it could happen as early as February — the Drosts will spend whatever time is necessary with their successors to ensure that the product and reputation they’ve built over the years remain top-notch.
The road that brought 66-year-old Eric and 64-year-old Maria here is as winding as the switchback highway that carries right by their shop sweets-lovers who are surprised to find a chocolatier among farms and orchards.
The Drosts’ journey began in Harbor Springs, Mich., where they met at the Club Ponytail, a teen nightclub and reputed hangout for Al Capone. Eric got his start in chocolate-making before that, learning at the age of 12 to make caramel corn and fudge in his mother’s and father’s shop in Petoskey.
After dating for years, then splitting apart, Eric and Maria got back together and married in 1974. Two years later, they opened Drost’s Chocolates in Indian River. By then, Eric had inherited his parents’ equipment and recipes.
Life carried the Drosts and their chocolate shop from Michigan to Silverton in the mid-1980s, on to North Carolina, then back to Michigan, where they repurchased the shop they had sold years earlier.
When they grew weary of digging out of the northern Michigan winters, they decided to return to Colorado and settled on Eckert, lured by the close proximity to their daughter, Sherrie, a Montrose school- teacher, and Eric’s affinity for hunting.
They spent a year converting an old woodworking shop at 12991 Colorado Highway 65 into a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
Personal touches abound here. The hand-built counters and plate glass windows-turned display cases. The smallest hand railing and door in town. The decades-old oven that was still baking pies right before the Drosts bought it and turned it into a backdrop for locally made jams, salsas and honey. The jukebox that plays music ranging from the 1940s to the 1970s.
“There’s no rap on it,” Eric said.
And then there is, as the sign on the window touts, the “free museum.”
Swing open the aforementioned tiny door or glide your hand down the railing — watch your step — and behold Eric’s other obsession.
One hundred twenty cash registers, give or take a few, line the museum shelves. The oldest dates to 1890. Another 200 are squirreled away for parts.
He bought one for his first chocolate shop, and he uses one to ring up sales. They work for decades and, Eric claims, are of much higher quality than newer registers, which he estimates last only three to seven years.
He’s plucked them out of others’ attics and basements and purchased them from 40 states for anywhere from $300 to $1,200 apiece.
If he gets really lucky, he’ll come upon one “in the back of a pickup that pulls up out front.” When he retires, he’ll leave a few with the shop and sell the others, one by one.
But back to the candy. Even after honing their craft for nearly a century between the two of them, the Drosts still experiment with new recipes and tinker with cocoa ratios. Sea salt caramels and truffles are two recent additions to the menu. Thirty years after he began making toffee, Eric continues perfecting the recipe.
There are constants, though: Ensuring the chocolate is not too hot or too moist. Shunning preservatives in favor of natural dairy cream and butter. Showcasing treats made either earlier that morning or the night before. There are no pre-packaged, weeks- or months-old boxes of chocolate lying around.
For the Drosts, this has been as much about selling memories and nostalgia as it is pecan turtles and peanut brittle.
They may not have gotten to know the name of every customer, but they remember the man who likes pralines, the woman who craves chocolate-covered espresso beans. They’ve stepped out from behind the counter to assist the customer whose car heater malfunctioned, to mail the purse left behind.
“Every day is memorable,” Maria said.
There is no website, Facebook page or Twitter account. They make 90 percent of their sales in person, at the counter, often with a story or a joke.
“We could probably make more sales through mail sales or sales to distributors,” Eric said. “But it really is fun to see a kid come up to the counter like a sparrow, with his mouth open, and give him a fresh, warm sample.”