ANN ARBOR - If you've strolled along the downtown intersection of Liberty and Main, you've likely been lured by the tantalizing scent of fresh waffle cones being made in the front window of Kilwin's Chocolate Shoppe.
The shop has been making fresh, handmade candies at its 107 E. Liberty St. store since 1983.
Around that time, the shop's original owner, Karen Piehutkoski, saw a business opportunity.
Her daughter, Chera Tramontin, currently owns the business, and she remembers the early days.
Chera Tramontin, owner of Kilwin's Chocolate Shoppe (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
"She knew she wanted to do something in Ann Arbor, and what did Ann Arbor not have at that time? They didn’t have a sweet shop," said Tramontin.
Tramontin, who was then a young girl, remembers traveling across the country sampling chocolates from different shops, but one in particular beat them all: Kilwin's Chocolates, in Petoskey, Michigan.
The owner never thought about a franchise, but Tramontin's mother convinced him and opened the first franchise in Ann Arbor.
Kilwin's now has about 108 stores across the country.
Kilwin's trademark: Candy is made fresh daily in the shop's front windows (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
But it didn't come without its challenges.
"Not only did she have the issue of starting a business, but starting a business in the 1980s as a woman that was divorcing," said Tramontin. "Nobody wanted to rent to her; they wanted her to have a husband that would sign for it. She went up and down Main Street and everyone asked her, 'Do you have a man who can sign for this?' Some business owner in town said, 'Go talk to the Curtises' – they’ll rent to anyone.'"
Piehutkoski did exactly that, and the Curtises agreed to rent to her.
"We've been here ever since," said Tramontin.
"(At that time) downtown was hurting," she said. "Briarwood just opened and everyone was going to the mall. Was Ann Arbor going to be able to make itself big again? Nobody knew it at that time, and this was a shot in the dark at all levels."
Customers visit the old fashioned ice cream parlor for a midday scoop (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
Over the years, the business expanded to an ice cream parlor in the storefront adjacent to it.
As for Tramontin, she never intended to keep the business in the family, but as fate would have it, she did.
"I was working at the University of Michigan after college doing clinical trials for drugs that weren’t FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved on cancer patients," she said. "It was an awesome opportunity, however, the medical field isn’t for me. I made far too many relationships, as I do with my customers here, and the field that I was in -- people were sick, and I emotionally couldn’t handle that so well.
"My mother ended up, coincidentally, getting breast cancer on Mother’s Day of 2000. Her first thought was: 'I can’t go through chemo and deal with the business, so I’m going to sell it.' And I’m going, ‘Wait a minute.’ I didn’t want to see the business sold. She still comes in. She does a lot of the paperwork," she said.
Before we sat down to interview Chera, we tried our hand in making bunny tails -- a favorite this time of year.
The treat is made of a filling of peanut butter, melted white chocolate, rice cereal and powdered sugar, which is then coated with dark or milk chocolate and finished off with some colorful sprinkles.
We were given the demonstration space at the front window of the ice cream parlor. It is one of Kilwin's best marketing strategies, since, let's face it, who can avoid the sights and smells of melted chocolate and caramel?
"There’s always something happening in the window," said Tramontin. "I think it’s important because people want to see their food being made when they can."
(Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
When asked what her top sellers are, she responded:
"I joke that you always sell what you love. My top sellers are always what my favorites are for that week. (But) constant top sellers are our double dark truffles, our turtles, which are called Tuttles because Turtles are trademarked, and our caramel apples. Summer, spring, winter and fall, people want their apples.
"We make the caramel here," she continued. "I hate to toot my own horn, but our caramel is really good. I feel that we are really good at what we do here. We try to be the best at what we do for the community and Ann Arbor for how long we’ve been here."
Learn more about Kilwin's here.
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