This story appeared in the October 2015 issue of Naples Illustrated.
When Norman Love, one of the world’s great pastry chefs and chocolatiers, is asked to recall how he came into his vocation, he thinks back nearly 50 years to the school book fair where, as a second grader, he found himself drawn to Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook. Its cover depicted a boy in a white apron and chef’s toque holding up a chocolate cake to the wonder of his siblings. That settled it. “I knew my destiny at a really early age,” Love says.
His youthful enthusiasm survived early disasters, such as the time when he made peanut butter cookies and used, instead of a quarter-teaspoon, an entire quarter-cup of salt. The Betty Crocker cookbook survived, too, and remains one of his prized possessions. “I think the pages are still smeared with batter and eggs,” he says. Some three decades later, he led the United States to a third-place finish at the prestigious World Pastry Cup in Lyon, France.
His namesake artisanal sweets business, Norman Love Confections, headquartered in Fort Myers, now has 72 employees and four retail shops, including locations in Naples and Estero. In his 6,000-square-foot chocolate factory, a dozen chefs labor to produce nearly seven million pieces of gourmet chocolate a year, each one made by hand. Edible art in vivid colors, they are designed to be eaten first with the eyes.
Over the decades, Love has been variously a charming beggar—talking his way into positions despite a lack of experience—and a relentless perfectionist, demanding extraordinary efforts from himself and his colleagues. Despite never attending culinary school, he has managed to rack up awards and revolutionize an unforgiving industry.
After growing up in Pennsylvania, he moved with his family to Florida, just south of Fort Lauderdale, when he was 15 years old. His love of sweets turned into a high-school job at a local Swenson’s ice-cream parlor, where he quickly moved up to store manager. He found himself increasingly drawn to the culinary arts and even applied to the Culinary Institute of America, but landed on a wait list. To fill the 13 months before the program would begin, he secured a job as an apprentice pastry cook at a restaurant in Pompano Beach, which meant making bread rolls at four in the morning.
“I still smell that smell, and it still excites me, and I’m still really intrigued by how wonderful the smell of fresh-baked products is,” he says. “It’s almost hypnotizing. And I’ve never forgotten it.”
At that point, he realized he wanted to make nothing but pastries and sweets. (In the old Betty Crocker children’s cookbooks, desserts come first in the table of contents.) Instead of enrolling in the CIA, he talked his way into the all-French-speaking kitchen at the Turnberry Isle Yacht and Racket Club in Miami Beach, striking a bargain with the executive chef. He would work on the “hot line” at night if they would also let him work as an unpaid apprentice to the pastry chef during the day. So Love, who recalls himself being “this 18-year-old kid who didn’t know sugar from flour and cut himself more than he actually cut the vegetables,” sweated it out there for three years. That was followed by two years in France, where he continued to learn about European pastry.
Compelled to return to Southwest Florida when his mother was stricken with cancer, he returned to Turnberry Isle as a pastry chef. He left again nearly three years later when his mother’s condition temporarily improved, landing at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was 1987, and Wolfgang Puck and other star chefs in California were creating the next wave in American cuisine. It was an exciting place to be. By now Love was married, however, and his wife, Mary, hailed from the Midwest. Neither of them wanted to raise a family in La-La Land. (Their son was born in 1989.) Shortly thereafter, Love seized the chance to become the pastry chef at a new Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis, kicking off a period of all-consuming work. “The personal sacrifice was huge,” he says.
Travel kept him away from his family 42 weeks a year for more than 12 years, as he participated in the openings of more than 30 Ritz-Carlton hotels around the world. He had become, he says, “a stranger in my own home. I missed all of it: school recitals and church recitals and sporting events and school plays. When they were young, my kids thought I worked in the airport.” The prolonged absence from home remains the biggest regret of his life.
Yet this period also felt like “winning the lottery”—jet-setting like a rock star, meeting chefs from around the world, and picking up new cooking methods along the way. It was a time of accelerated growth. Keegan Gerhard, a fellow chef who met Love in the mid-1990s when Chocolatier magazine named Love one of the country’s top 10 pastry chefs, is astonished by his friend’s unsleeping ambition. “He’s just a supreme example of focus and professionalism,” Gerhard says. “He is relentless.”
In a foreword to Love’s self-published book Artistry in Chocolate, released in December 2014, Gerhard shares Love’s motto, known to all his employees: “Be better today than yesterday, not as good as tomorrow.” It was this intensity of purpose that inspired Gerhard to leave the Waldorf-Astoria, where he was executive pastry chef, to be Love’s assistant at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, where he had settled after St. Louis.
Soon the two men found themselves at the 1999 World Pastry Cup—Love as team captain and Gerhard, known for his plated desserts, as a member of the support staff. After winning the bronze medal, they got to talking—Love, Gerhard, and the team coach—and hit on the idea of organizing a world-class dessert competition of their own in the United States. Gerhard still marvels at Love’s audacity: “What kind of balls does it take to go to the world’s biggest and best competition, and go, ‘I think we can do this better’?”
Partnering with Michael Schneider, the editor of the now-defunct Chocolatier, Love set up a competition in Beaver Creek, Colorado. By its second year, in 2001, Food Network was on hand to televise the event. The day of the competition was warm, and confectionery masterpieces were melting, falling. All this crashing of sugar made for great TV. Such great TV, in fact, that Food Network turned the event into a major new series called Food Network Challenge, of which Gerhard became the host.
With Love and Schneider’s TV production company taking off, Love decided it was finally time to leave the Ritz-Carlton. Worried about losing the steady paycheck, however, he equipped his 700-square-foot office with a stainless-steel table and a small refrigerator so that he could make a few chocolates to supplement his income. Then, in January 2002, USA Today featured his sweets on a short list of the best chocolates for Valentine’s Day. After that, Love says, “my phone never stopped ringing.” He was in an industrial park in the middle of nowhere with no sign and no credit-card machine, but customers found him.
So did Godiva, which convinced him to design a new limited-edition line of chocolates. Love initially protested that his facilities weren’t up to the task, but he wound up agreeing to make 350,000 pieces, hiring part-time pastry chefs to help out. The new “G” line sold so well that Godiva asked for 1.3 million more pieces. That was when Love built his chocolate factory. His wife, Mary, a dental assistant, joined the business. “I wear one hat and she wears 100,” Love says. “It’s her business, too, and she cares as much as I do.”
Together, they have built a business that brings in approximately $10 million a year, according to Love. In addition to selling its products to restaurants, hotels, and, in one case, a cruise line, Norman Love Confections has four retail locations in Southwest Florida, including a gelato shop that opened next to his Fort Myers store in 2012. “I started in ice cream, and it is my personal weakness,” Love says. Two years later, he opened a chocolate salon in Estero. Around peak holidays—Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day—“police officers have to come to our stores to keep control of the crowd,” according to Love, who says he is humbled by the experience.
During the busy season from October through Mother’s Day, Norman Love Confections can churn out 60,000 pieces of gourmet chocolate in a single day. Love has made a conscious choice to focus on molded rather than dipped or enrobed chocolates, feeling that he could “accomplish artistic expression at a very high level” with the former. Years ago he pioneered the use of colored cocoa butter to add vibrancy to bonbons and other treats. Today his decadent, hand-painted creations exist in rainbow profusion, their speckles and swirls and bright bands of color enticing the eye.
“My friends in Europe, back when, used to give me so much crap: ‘How can you put blue and green on chocolates?’ And today the world does it,” Love says. “Consumers love to be wowed. They love to see beautiful things.”
Maura Metheny, one of his chef chocolatiers who has been with the company for 14 years, now serves as head of design and innovation: “All she does is create newness.” The constant development of new techniques and designs is necessary, Love adds, “if you want to separate yourself from the rest of the oh-so-many chocolatiers who are dabbling in color today.”
His willingness to delegate only goes so far, though. Six days a week you can find him on the premises, working 12 hours a day, often wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins ball cap. Love is a die-hard fan, and at one point during his teen years, his life revolved around ice hockey. He aspired to play at the collegiate level, maybe even turn pro. Only after his family moved to South Florida in the early 1970s—a hockey-culture desert—did he rediscover his love of sweets. However, the sport remains one of his great passions. He attends games, plays the sport recreationally, and continually adds to his collection of ice-hockey memorabilia. No matter what Love focuses on, he’s all in.
“Norman as an owner isn’t the type of guy who sits behind a desk and barks orders,” says Amy Sedlacek, the company’s former sales manager. “He’s on the floor, he’s calling vendors and suppliers, he’s back there making chocolate or in the kitchen making gelato, he’s stocking the shelves. At holiday time, he loves to be behind the register, talking to customers and ringing them up. Norman’s right in the fray. And Mary’s right beside him.”
Love’s success has given him a certain standing in Southwest Florida, and he has put it to good use, raising money for the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, scheduled to open in 2016 in South Fort Myers, and volunteering as a wish granter with Make-a-Wish Southern Florida. Sedlacek, who is a co-chair of the advisory board of Make-A-Wish Southern Florida and a wish granter herself, says, “His passion to help people in any demographic, in any circumstance is really overwhelming.” In all, Love’s company gives to more than 200 charitable causes.
Meanwhile, he wants to expand his business into Miami and other parts of Florida. He is planning to open two or three new retail shops soon in Naples and Sarasota in the next 24 months. He’s even toying with the idea of a food truck.
Through it all, Love has adhered to a simple business philosophy. He shared it with Gerhard when his former assistant was preparing to strike out on his own. “Keegan,” he said, “there is always room for the best.”