Though local chocolate-maker Sherri Hutchison has given up the reins to her company, Graffiti Zoo, she's confident of its future. Hutchison, who along with her family, founded and ran Graffiti Zoo for seven years, recently sold it to Conyers residents Joyce Ross and her daughter Patti Abbott, whose husband Randy now also works for the company.
The Abbotts' 5-year-old daughter Blakely visits the chocolate company (where she has her own office, desk and computer) and traces of her presence, such as toys, can sometimes be seen in the hallways. That sight is encouraging to Hutchison, whose grandchildren often stopped by Graffiti Zoo when she ran the company.
"We had so much fun doing it," said Hutchison, who will advise Ross and Abbott on the business for the next few months. "I think it's going to be in great hands and I love the fact that it will be with a family."
Graffiti Zoo sells 18 varieties of white, dark and milk chocolate, all with unique recipes. With names like Zanzibar Racing Snails, Chilean Fire Ants and Polar Peppermint Penguins, the chocolates contain all natural ingredients and combine some unexpected flavors. Backstage Calicos blends white and milk chocolate with an orange zest, Margarita Manatee mixes white chocolate with a lime zing and Moroccan Elephants is milk chocolate with orange zest and spicy ginger.
There's also more traditional blendings such as Barking Dogs, which is milk chocolate, crunch toffee and roasted almonds, and Pink Flamingos, which combines milk chocolate, cherries and coconut.
For some variation from just chocolate, there's the Trinidad Sea Turtle, a gingersnap cookie covered with white chocolate infused with lemon and topped with sea salt.
"If we liked it, we made it," Hutchison said of the flavors that she and her family concocted.
Graffiti Zoo sells the all-natural chocolate - about 32,000 pounds of it annually - to gift shops, candy stores and food stores throughout the U.S., including Whole Foods in the Southeast. Recently, the business obtained an account in the United Kingdom, which distributes to high-end stores in England, and employees are working feverishly to fill the 8,500-box order.
Graffiti Zoo maintains a retail store (where the chocolate is produced) at 1422 Business Center Drive in Conyers, where customers may stop by between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday to get their chocolate fix. Packets of chocolate sell for $1.99, $3.95 and $6.95. In addition to the boxes of chocolates, the store also sells gift baskets and loose candy, a product that Ross and Abbott also sell at their other candy store, Peppermint Patti's, in Olde Town Conyers.
Ross and Abbott, who have been in business together since 1988 running a clothing boutique and a tanning salon, opened Peppermint Patti's less than a year ago. In purchasing candy from Graffiti Zoo to sell in their shop, they learned Hutchison wanted to sell the business. They also learned that the business had a prospective purchaser from Lawrenceville who would have moved the company to Gwinnett County.
"Seeing as we love the product, we thought it would be a good business investment. We have had businesses in the past and we wanted to continue to have this one in Conyers," Ross said.
"I just think chocolate is a comfort food and in down times people can always afford the minimum price - $1.99. Anyone can spend that and treat themselves."
Hutchison said she decided to sell the business because she needed more family time - her husband is getting ready to retire and her daughter just had her second child. She said she still feels quite attached to the small business she began in her basement and while letting go is bittersweet, she's glad Graffiti Zoo will remain local.
"I'm happy it stayed in Conyers," Hutchison said.
For more information on Graffiti Zoo, call 678-413-0070 or visit www.graffitizoo.com.