An edible zoo
Not your average animal crackers

CONYERS - Something that began as a "fun summer project" for Covington resident Sherri Hutchison has blossomed into a sweet chocolate business that will soon be featured on food icon Rachael Ray's popular daytime talk show.

Hutchison, who moved her Graffiti Zoo chocolate operation from her home near Jackson Lake to Conyers three years ago, heads a company that includes her husband, Clyde; daughter, Stacie; and son, Brent, as well as about a dozen other employees.

"We actually started in my basement with one product," said Hutchison, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "After about two years, I had 11 employees, so I decided it was a good time to look for a building."

Hutchison's search landed her in Rockdale County on Business Center Drive near the old Maxell plant on Parker Road.

"This community has been so kind and welcoming," she said. "Even though we live in Covington, we feel very at home here. We live on 34 acres near Jackson Lake, and it's just wonderful. I never thought I'd be a country person, but here I am with four black Labs and a garden. We bought this property nine years ago when we were living in Stone Mountain and it's been a big lifestyle change, but I love it."

Graffiti Zoo's first product was the Zebra, a confection of roasted pecan clusters dipped in white and milk chocolate. The company's list of offerings has grown to include 18 decadently delicious creations - all with an animal theme - including Espresso Geckos (milk chocolate blended with fresh roasted coffee beans), Chilean Fire Ants (cinnamon white chocolate with a hot chili bite) and the Margarita Manatee (white chocolate and tart key lime).

Hutchison is also particularly proud of her Barking Dogs, which combine her mother's butter-crunch toffee recipe and roasted almonds, covered in milk chocolate.

"That was the second product we developed after the Zebra," she said.

Although they've only been in business for five years, the Hutchison family has already enjoyed a good bit of notoriety. In 2002, the company's Zebras received the "Best Chocolate" award at the annual Atlanta Gourmet Show, and earlier this year, their Zanzibar Racing Snails (dark chocolate, cranberries and roasted almonds covered with salt and sugar crystals) again earned "Best Chocolate" honors at the Atlanta Gourmet Show.

Most of Graffiti Zoo's sales are of the wholesale variety, but the Hutchisons have a retail area in their chocolate shop and also sell quite a few "corporate baskets." In keeping with the animal motif, the company donates a portion of its profits to the Conservation Endowment Fund of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

And it's a little hard to believe that all this began one summer when Hutchison was experimenting in her kitchen.

"I don't have any kind of background for this," she quipped. "I was just making pecan clusters and I asked my husband how I might go about marketing and selling them. My mother and my daughter said they could sell them and started going door to door in the neighborhood. Then they started knocking on doors at local shops, and the orders just started coming in. We never planned to be in the chocolate business."

Hutchison said her husband, who worked as a video conferencing consultant, gave up his day job to join her in the business. Her son and daughter soon followed.

"I couldn't do any of this without my family," she said. "In fact, I wouldn't want to do it without them. It's so much fun. We all have different skills so we really don't overlap and everybody contributes equally.

"I'm the creative force, but I'm not a business person. That's where my husband kicks in - he runs the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts of the company. Brent is a graphics person, handles our shipping and is great with systems. Stacie handles the corporate business, as well as our retail shop and our marketing. It's never boring around here."

Hutchison's chocolate creations found their way into Rachael Ray's heart in an interesting way.

"I was at a food show and I was talking with another vendor who said I should try to get Rachael to use my chocolates as her 'Snack of the Day'" she said. "When I asked how you'd go about doing that, I was told to send (Ray) a note and a sample of our products. It's a really big deal because they announce who made the product and where it comes from."

Hutchison said Ray taped the show that features her products Nov. 15 and said the producers would let her know when it would air. She admitted that before she sent her goodies to Ray, she had not seen the talk show, although she was more than familiar with the Food Network star of "30 Minute Meals" and "$40 A Day."

"Once I found out we were going to be on there, I recorded a couple of shows and sat down to watch them," said Hutchison, who added that "The Rachael Ray Show" airs in Atlanta at 3 p.m. weekdays on Channel 11. "I was curious as to what it was all about. (Ray) does a good bit of cooking on there."

The Hutchison family is no stranger to being on television as NBC News came to Graffiti Zoo last year to do a story on the health benefits of chocolate.

"They were looking for somebody who did something handmade and in small batches," Hutchison said. "That was very exciting. And being on Rachael Ray's show is even more exciting."

For more information on Graffiti Zoo, visit www.graffitizoo.com.

Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens.