Photos by Kristin Teig
In a temperature-controlled cold prep room at CommonWealth Kitchen in Dorchester, Russ Apotheker ladles chocolate from a tempering machine into miniature plastic cup molds. He knows by sight when the chocolate has reached just the right temperature, a perfect viscosity.
Nearby, his wife, Shari Apotheker, gushes about one of the confection’s core ingredients: organic- and kosher-certified cacao, sourced directly from a family cooperative in the Dominican Republic.
Three production assistants see to it that the chocolate is evenly distributed in each cup, place the molds on baking sheets, and slide them onto tiers of baking racks to set. Later, they pipe in Russ’s homemade honey marshmallow cream and Teddie natural organic peanut butter (sourced locally from Everett). Russ tops it all off with another layer of chocolate. The result: bite-sized dark chocolate peanut butter and “honeyfluff” cups.
This kind of careful, loving attention to detail—from the production process to the stories behind each of the ingredients—is the foundation of Apotheker’s, the namesake business of this husband-and-wife team.
The next evening, sitting in the couple’s living room, I had the pleasure of experiencing what this kind of deliberate passion does for chocolate. Tucked inside a delicately wrapped foil package, one of these peanut butter and honeyfluff cups was waiting in all its glory. Each flavor lingered on its own for a second, until they all converged to create a chocolate-honey-marshmallow-peanut-butter sensation. This confection is just the latest in Apotheker’s line of “bee-sweetened” (a trademarked term referencing honey as the sweetener), all-natural, no gluten added, handcrafted products.
For the Apothekers, consumer pleasure is exactly the point. “You saw me at one of my happiest moments yesterday,” Russ says. “Every time I get to pour chocolate into one of those cups, I know it’s going to someone and they’re going to enjoy it. It really makes me happy to be able to share this with people.”
I was grateful to be one of those people, and happily continued to taste a smattering of treats—dark chocolate-topped, vanilla bee-sweetened mallows, iced chocolate, and bee-sweetened vanilla mallows (Russ torched them to show how the unique maple sugar-and-honey blend makes for a s’more-ready treat)—as the Apothekers told the story of their business.
Its genesis was a response to Shari’s dietary needs; a few years ago, she began seeing an herbalist for some digestive issues, a process that led to eliminating gluten, dairy, sugar, and soy from her diet. While she felt better overall, she was missing that sweet indulgence. Her herbalist validated that everyone needs “a little bit of fancy.” The question, however, was: how? Shari had tried other “natural” chocolate but was turned off by its “healthy” texture, and that it didn’t taste like real chocolate. Determined to find a way to give Shari that sweet treat without sacrificing her health, Russ, who had never made chocolate before, headed into the kitchen on a mission.
“He literally took cacao powder, raw honey, and a little coconut oil, melted it down, put it on a spoon, and shoved it in my mouth,” she says.
Of course it wasn’t perfect, but Shari’s happiness motivated Russ to keep experimenting. “If I do something okay the first time, I think: how can I improve on that?” says Russ. “We still do that all the time. We’re always tinkering and improving.”
Before long, the seeds for a food business—something Russ had always dreamed of—had sprouted. He had learned to cook from his mother, who didn’t follow recipes but knew what tasted good. “I got it instilled in me at a young age to experiment,” he says. “I was lucky enough to learn by watching her, what flavors worked well. When you get comfortable with flavors and with food, you can kind of tinker around. You know what tastes good and you can build on that.”
This parallels both Shari’s and Russ’s approach to their art; she as a sculptor and he as a graphic designer. “We didn’t really learn until the business started how much we create similarly. That’s exactly how I sculpt and how he creates art,” says Shari. “We want to know the basic technique and then we want to mess it up, we want to figure out the rest, figure out a different way.”
Mess it up and figure it out they did, with Russ as the cook and Shari as his taste-tester. This went on for about a year-and-a-half in their kitchen. The Eureka! moment came shortly after Russ bought a small tempering machine to use at home. “The stars aligned and the chocolate came out perfect,” he recalls. “I was like, this is the recipe. It was probably the 20th batch I made that week.”
Once they had a chocolate product they felt excited about, the duo put plans in motion to launch their business. They got a wholesale permit, began approaching stores with their idea, and in the summer of 2013, rented space in CommonWealth Kitchen’s Jamaica Plain space (formerly called CropCircle Kitchen.) By then, Russ had already quit his job as a graphic designer and began freelancing and teaching to free up more time to pursue chocolate making. (He’s since given up all gigs unrelated to chocolate making.) Shari ultimately also left her job running the studio for artists with physical disabilities at Gateway Arts in Brookline. In June 2014, Apotheker’s moved to CommonWealth Kitchen’s larger, Dorchester location. Prior to the fall of 2014, it was just Russ and Shari in the kitchen, but they’ve since staffed up to free up more time for Shari to focus on the business end of things.
While the couple prefers to run loose with traditional recipes, they are fastidious about researching their ingredients. “Every time we add an ingredient, we take a painfully long time to research it and make sure we’re getting the best possible quality ingredient that meet the highest standards,” says Russ.
There’s the cacao, sourced from the Dominican farm. “The product is not only consistent, but it’s such a high quality cacao,” says Shari. Its mild flavor and fruity notes pair well with honey.
Then there’s the honey; the perfect texture and a flavor that balanced nicely with chocolate was essential. Because they wanted to keep the honey raw to maintain its beneficial health properties, a honey that’s slow to crystalize was also important. That led them to tupelo honey. They found an apiary that followed a high standard of beekeeping, free of antibiotics and chemicals, but an abysmal harvest this year has forced the Apothekers to make a change; they’re transitioning to an untreated, organic honey from Brazil.
In addition to honey and cacao, Apotheker’s chocolate features organic, fair-trade vanilla, organic cocoa butter (coconut oil was just used in Russ’s beginning experimentations), and sunflower lecithin (which helps bind the chocolate).
After the chocolate bars, which come in five flavors, including one featuring cashews directly sourced from Indonesia and red Alia sea salt, came the chocolate-topped mallows, made from organic marshmallow root.
For each new product, Russ goes back to the same muse that sparked the business in the first place: Shari. “A lot of our ideas come from me really wanting something indulgent: what am I craving?” she says. Anyone who samples Apotheker’s products will undoubtedly hope that Shari continues to crave interesting combinations that Russ will turn into something sweet and delicious.
Two years into the business, Shari and Russ Apotheker are still enjoying every minute. Russ still sees himself primarily as an artist. “Making food is really my artwork now,” he says. His graphic design background also comes in handy; it’s no accident that Apotheker’s packaging is highly designed—featuring bee images and gold foil that evokes a vintage feel—and the custom chocolate bar molds produce a honeycomb pattern.
“If we do our own thing and beat to our own drum, it’s just art for us,” says Shari.
This sentiment fits with the couple’s overall philosophy and is a throwback to the family name itself, an apt descriptor for a long line of herbalists and pharmacists. By choosing this name for their company, they pay homage to the tradition of small businesses and a time of living simply, a lifestyle Russ and Shari practice, as evidenced by their extensive garden and chickens, and the homemade salves and herbal remedies that fill their shelves. “We’re not taking over the world with our business. It’s about doing something we’re passionate about,” says Shari.
More than anything, the Apothekers pride themselves on the consistency of their products. They know that first impressions can mean everything.
“Because we’re a small business, and we work mostly with other small businesses, we know everyone in local shops. They can tell our story,” says Russ.
Apotheker’s distributes its small-batch products to close to 100 stores in about 20 states, with about 50 concentrated in Massachusetts. They also accommodate event orders, source to hotels, and fulfill online orders. You can find them at Somerville’s Assembly Farmers Market in the summer and the Somerville Winter Farmers Market at the Armory, along with guest spots at other markets. They also attend the Boston Local Food Festival, where they’re happy to educate people about their products and sustainable practices and share their enthusiasm for healthy indulgences. They’ll often meet people who have given up refined sugars and didn’t think there was any option for that “little bit of fancy.”
“We think of ourselves as half confection company, and the other half as educators,” says Russ.
And for Russ and Shari—whose passion for simple, healthy living and wholesome food is evident the minute you meet them—making products that embrace this passion and having a platform to talk about it is simply the best job in the world.
This story appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.