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Jeffrey Mitchell, who ran The Frenchman's Cellar as a separate entity within
Above, the newly named Culpeper Cheese Company offers Virginia-made ciders. At right, Neuhaus chocolates are a staple of The Frenchman's Corner.
Marc Ast, owner of The Frenchman's Corner stores, stands beside the totem that displays boxes of chocolates.
Being the No. 1 independent retailer of Neuhaus chocolates has its perks.
Just ask Marc Ast, owner of The Frenchman's Corner stores in Culpeper, Charlottesville and Fredericksburg.
When he and his wife, Meg, went to New York City for the grand opening of the Belgian chocolate company's new flagship store at 500 Madison Ave., he learned that the display cases for its old shop on Broadway had been stored in a warehouse.
Ast asked if he could have them, and his request was granted. Now the cases, which display the handmade, gourmet chocolates like jewels, are among the first things you see at his new location at 129 E. Davis St.
"We're the first ever independent store to have that privilege," he said. "We're still, by far, the largest independent, and the only one in the world listed on their website. Everyone else is on their own."
Ast held a grand opening for his new shop on Wednesday. It's in what had been office space and a hallway in the same building as his former shop.
That location is now the home of The Culpeper Cheese Company, formerly The Frenchman's Cellar. Owner Jeffrey Mitchell had run it as a separate business in the back of The Frenchman's Corner.
He's begun expanding into the whole space with an extensive selection of cheeses, wine, beer and gourmet items. The renovation is expected to be finished next month, and will include a kitchen for cooking classes.
The two businesses decided on the change when their lease was up.
"It was time for us to have our own space and our own look rather than being roommates," said Jennifer Beach, who manages the Frenchman's Corner in Culpeper.
That look begins with those Neuhaus display cases, which occupy the front of the shop. The first piece customers see is a four-sided tower with adjustable drawers called a "totem." The drawers can be pulled out of any side to display boxes of chocolates tied with the company's signature chocolate brown ribbon.
Ast also got two Neuhaus display cases that are inset in the wall to showcase more boxes, and two refrigerated cases that keep the company's chocolate confections at the perfect temperature and level of humidity.
Among those on display is the Madison, a praline that Neuhaus spent 18 months creating for its Madison Avenue store. (Praline is what the French call the filled chocolates that Neuhaus invented a century ago.) Ast asked for the thin round chocolate with a lighter chocolate "M" piped on top, and now carries it at the Culpeper and Fredericksburg stores.
"It's a nice ganache," Ast said, referring to its creamy center. "It's delicious, isn't it?"
The chocolate melts on the tongue, but each part--from the dark chocolate exterior to the milk chocolate ganache sitting on a crisp, thin cookie--remains distinct.
"Neuhaus only produces one or two new chocolates every so often, so when they do it's an event," Beach said.
The rest of the Culpeper shop carries such items as Ast's new private label teas, coffees, honey and peanuts, as well as cupcakes and other treats baked at his Charlottesville store and sold only at the one in Culpeper. By Christmas, he plans to add fudge made at the Charlottesville store at all three stores.
The Frenchman's Corner also carries cookware and a number of local, regional and international specialty items. Among those are wines from Old House Winery, a roasted cocoa drink from Cocoa Bella and, soon, teas from Loose Leaf Tea Co. All three businesses are located in Culpeper County.
Missy Heneghan, who owns Loose Leaf Tea, hopes to do tastings and bring a blending bar to the store on occasion. She also sells at the farmers markets in Charlottesville and on State Route 3 in Spotsylvania County.
Next month Ast will add chocolates by SweetBliss, a small New York company started by Ilene Shane, Ralph Lauren's former personal chef. She uses Belgian chocolate to make artisanal chocolates with ingredients such as pretzel rods, potato stix and marshmallows.
"It's the kind of product people ask for, but I can't get from Neuhaus," he said.
Next up for Ast is his first licensed store. A former Culpeper couple plans to open one in Fairhope, Ala., then in Mobile and Birmingham, and in Biloxi, Miss. Another man plans to open one in Charlottesville. The Frenchman's Corner Ast opened there is a kitchen store and doesn't sell chocolates. The licensed store will.
"I didn't go to them, they came to me," Ast said of the licensees. "We'll be there to provide support from beginning to end."
Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407