Bradley Hamlett didn’t set out to be a chocolate mogul. Originally from Knoxville, he landed in Florida as a teenager. Hanging out on the beach and riding his bike about, he noticed a chocolate shop with a “Help Wanted” sign. Having no experience and not particularly looking the part, he figured he didn’t have anything to lose and he needed the money, so he walked inside. It would be a half-dozen years later that he would leave the place for good. But it didn’t really leave him.
After securing a history degree from Florida State University, he returned to Knoxville and decided to do the logical thing for a person with such a degree: get a job in another field. Only he didn’t apply for a job, he created one and it was his background in chocolate from the store in Jacksonville that prepared him to start Bradley’s Chocolate and Gifts which is now located at 141 N. Peters Road in west Knoxville. Through the subsequent nineteen years he and his wife have steadily sold chocolate and expanded into gifts.
Last year an opportunity presented itself for him to expand his operation by purchasing the Chocolate Factory, which is in the Candy Factory which makes sense if you think about it. He took possession in September and renamed it Bradley’s Chocolate Factory. Established just after the World’s Fair, in 1983, it sits beside the Knoxville Museum of Art, which is normally a good thing. The KMA, however, has been closed in recent months, reducing foot traffic in the area. It’s also oddly situated; neither precisely in downtown or in Fort Sanders, it resides somewhere in the World’s Fair vortex. Bradley wants to connect it more to downtown and he’s already started and has more ideas incubating – or baking, perhaps.
Inside the front door, a customer is likely to be greeted by Hilary. She’s been welcoming patrons in that spot for about a dozen years. She’s generally behind the counter which is full of virtually any chocolate your heart could desire. The showroom includes even more. One display holds their Tennessee Walking Stick, their biggest seller, which is a large caramel pretzel stick with pecans and chocolate. They are also sold at The Market on Gay Street, which is an example of the way that Bradley is beginning to make that connection with the city.
Colorful displays fill the room. I caught them in the transition from Christmas into the new year, so it would likely look different if you walked in today. The gifts sold at his original store were in evidence and they will likely be changed and expanded as the Valentine season approaches. The gifts cover quite a range and aren’t all chocolate-connected, though you’ll find those, too.
The most interesting portion of my time there centered around a trip into the production room behind the storefront. It’s there that the confections are made for both stores. Bradley said it is a small production run compared to some national providers, but it didn’t seem small to me when I imagined the 6,000 pounds of sugar used annually and the 32,000 pounds of chocolate produced.
Gillie Hunt, the chief chocolatier, had her hands immersed in chocolate cherries when I arrived. She and Ian painstakingly dripped each cherry in the white chocolate – by hand. The order was for Biltmore, which utilizes several chocolate providers, though Bradley told me he is one of, if not the, primary provider. This, however, is planned to be the last run of chocolate-covered cherries as it is too labor intensive to be profitable.
Production sometimes includes temporary workers. Valentines Day, for example, means hundreds or thousands of chocolate-covered strawberries will be demanded. This involves tricky timing as the strawberries have to be fresh and so must be dipped at the last possible time. A group comes in and works long hours to get the run ready. It’s quite an operation.
I also enjoyed seeing the equipment, some of which is a hundred years old or close. Bradley says it might be a bit slower than modern equipment, but it costs a fraction as much and it is very simply made. This means it can be fixed if it breaks, whereas modern equipment would involve professionals and large outlays to repair. The machine that puts the chocolate on the bottom of the confections, for example, is operating with a string as a replacement part.
Other moves into the downtown market include the Tennessee bar, which is an outline of the state, and the Power Tau bar, both pictured above and available at Nothing Too Fancy. To continue that line, Bradley has plans for a Knox Vegas bar as well as chocolate bars named after downtown streets. And then there’s the delivery possibility for downtown – which made visions of a late-night chocolate fix dance through my head, but I think he means to events, not to stressed bloggers at 1:00 AM.
If it’s been a while since you visited the store, bundle up and take the walk. You’ll find friendly faces and quality products. You also may find some unique gifts which, with Valentine’s Day (Or “Intense Pressure Day” as men experience it) just a month away, it’s a good time to start looking for those little expressions of love. I’m not sure if chocolate really says, “love,” but chocolate never hurts whether you are in love or out of it. Oh, and I’m declaring the store to be in the official Inside of Knoxville downtown zone.