by Constance Garcia-Barrio
The aroma from a sheik’s ransom in sweets can snare the unwary at Chocolate Hill Candy and Fudge Shop, 7833 Germantown Ave., which opened just before Christmas. The owner, Bob Bear, 49, of Wyndmoor, has combined savvy, energy and nostalgia in offering chocolate, a treat that has stirred passion and controversy for centuries.
Aztec royalty used to sip a chocolate beverage before Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes ground the indigenous civilization into submission in the 1520s. Cortes thought well of chocolate, if not the people who introduced him to it. “The divine drink builds up resistance and fights fatigue,” Cortes reportedly wrote. “A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food. Cortes brought cacao beans, among other plant and human specimens, to the Spanish court, which guarded the secret of making chocolate for some 100 years.
Meanwhile, chocolate became the rage among Spaniards and their descendants in Mexico. Well-to-do ladies in Chiapas used to imbibe chocolate during long church services, which outraged the bishop. When he threatened to excommunicate anyone caught sneaking a sip, the ladies boycotted the church.
While Bob Bear’s nostalgia doesn’t stretch back that far, the Chocolate Hill harks back to a more recent past. The striped wall suggests bygone years while the big arm chairs recall an era when one had time to sit and chat with friends. The stove and the model train add hominess and comfort.
Community, commerce and candy seem to have long had a place in Bear’s life. He grew up in Wyndmoor, the last of six siblings. One of his first jobs was at Robertson’s Flower Shop. Later, Bear followed his father’s example. “My father, Bill Bear, was a PECO lineman for 45 years,” he said.
His father also had his own electrical contracting business, just as Bear himself does now, R. J. Bear Electric. Bear may also have drawn inspiration from a penny-candy store near his childhood home. “The owner was friendly, and I loved the chocolate malted balls.” Memories of his grandmother, who lived in Mt. Airy, may have played a part in Bear’s new venture. “She always had mints for us,” he said.
Chocolate Hill may offer a chance to gather the flavors of his childhood under one roof, but the candy shop also allowed for a new expression of the family’s entrepreneurial gene. “One of my sisters owned a hair salon, and one of my brothers has a chemical company called Cani,” said Bear, who’s also a partner in Murphy’s, a bar in Roxborough.
Bear admits he likes the challenge. “I love retail,” he said. “It’s a gamble, but if you don’t take a chance you can’t win.” Tara, his wife of 18 years, had misgivings about Chocolate Hill at first. “She told me that there are only so many hours in a day,” said Bear, who has two sons, Dylan, 17, and Jesse, 12, and a daughter, Samantha, 8.
Despite all his time-consuming business ventures, Bear somehow manages to find the time to coach the Wissahickon Ice Hockey Club, to which Jesse belongs. Dylan and Bear also play on the club, on whose board Bear has sat for more than five years. “I have lots of energy,” he said. That also seems to runs in the family. His mother, Alba Bear, is 85 and still plays tennis every day.
The shop owes its seductive scent to chocolates from across the country. It features fudge from Chicago with a creamy texture but not overly sweet. The saltwater taffies are made in Nantucket while chocolate pretzels sprinkled with sea salt are shipped from Minnesota.
“So many people in the skating club travel and alert me to chocolate novelties,” Bear said. One such prominently placed treat is a dessert that looks like a chocolate pizza. “It has a cookie base and popcorn and white chocolate on top.”
Although candy has gained ill fame for wrecking diets, Chocolate Hill has a few choices for the health-conscious. The shop carries sugar-free fudge for those who want to limit calories or sugar. Gluten-free goodies will soon be available too.
In 1741 Swedish physician Carl Linnaeus trumpeted chocolate as an aphrodisiac, though recent studies put the racy results in doubt. In any case, the sweets may sweeten your chances. You’re forewarned.
Chocolate Hill Candy and Fudge Shop will have extended hours on Thursday, Feb. 13, and Friday, Feb. 14, for Valentine’s Day shoppers. There is no website yet, but for more information, call 267-900-2327, or they can be reached on Facebook at www.facebook.com/chocolatehillcandy.