Tucked away in Downtown Fenton’s historic Dibbleville is a hidden gem: an old-fashioned candy store that takes you back to another time – a time when shop shelves were lined with glass apothecary jars filled with confections of every imaginable kind – a time when chocolatiers could be seen tending to churning wheels of chocolate and hand-shaping chocolate bunnies. At Sweet Variations, visitors walk through the door and are met by the mouthwatering aroma of Butter Crunch Toffee wafting through the air. For 32 years, the store has occupied a quaint building constructed in 1837 on the corner of Leroy St. and Shiawassee Ave. Shop-owner and longtime Fenton resident Carol Schuler claims that when she bought the store, she knew nothing about chocolate, so she hired a woman to make chocolate bunnies at Easter time. Afterward, Carol decided that she wanted learn to make chocolate candy herself. Today, loyal patrons have told Carol that her chocolates are “better than Godiva.”
And boy, did she ever learn to make delicious chocolate treats of every shape, size and color, using the finest ingredients in a process she describes as “part art and part science.” The science involves getting the chocolate to the perfect temperature and consistency. There are two chocolate wheels that churn rich, silky “waterfalls” of milk and dark chocolate. “Shaping, molding and creating the centers is the art,” she laughed. Carol has two assistants who work with her in the kitchen at the back of the store. Penny Sabatine oversees one of the chocolate wheels, paints the molds with chocolate and makes candies. Another worker, known as “The Bunny Dresser,” decorates the bunnies and Easter eggs, then individually bags and prices each piece. Upon entering the store, customers can watch the chocolatiers at work through a window into the kitchen.
Easter season is, of course, the busiest time of year at Sweet Variations. The talented chocolatiers will hand-make 3,000 Easter bunnies, ducks, chicks and cream-filled eggs. The multi-step process is tedious, and includes tempering the chocolate, painting the molds with the chocolate, adding the filling (coconut crème, peanut butter, caramel and cherry almond), clipping the molds together, and then cooling them in the ice box. Once cool, the candies are removed from the mold, hand-trimmed and decorated. Voila! The solid chocolate bunnies, crème-filled eggs and assorted fine candies are ready to be put out on the shelves. No task is too big or too small at Sweet Variations. A few years ago, they filled a custom order for a 27-pound chocolate bunny. “We don’t fool around,” Carol chuckled, adding that the bunny, decked out as a race car driver, was an Easter gift for a 16-year-old, who hopefully didn’t finish that treat until he was 17. Another customer once asked Carol to create a candy made of white chocolate, coconut and almonds for her boyfriend; Carol liked it so much that she named it the Iceberg and it has since become a popular item.
A glass case displays a tempting variety of the handmade chocolates. “Cherry Cordials are one of our best sellers,” says Carol. Another local favorite is the Tiger Paw, named for Fenton High School’s sports mascot. The Lorenzo, which is named after a former Sweet Variations employee, is decadent butternut nougat surrounded by a rich layer of raspberry sauce and covered in chocolate. The shop’s shelves hold chocolate golf balls and toads, as well as some more unusual offerings such as chocolate-covered orange peels and chocolate “Buddha Hands,” which are made using an oriental fruit.
But chocolate isn’t the only candy to be found at Sweet Variations. Every corner, nook and cranny of the shop is packed with jar after jar of gummy bears, Jelly Bellies, malt eggs, licorice, hard candies in every color, M&Ms and candied fruit slices, to name just a few. In addition, Sweet Variations’ patrons find a variety of unusual, eclectic and humorous gift items.
As a self-taught chocolatier, Carol attends conferences and cooking classes to continue honing her skill at producing the best quality chocolates. Not a day goes by that a customer doesn’t walk in and exclaim, “I used to come here when I was a kid and it’s still here!” Carol says it’s the nostalgia that brings people back and adds that now, she’s happy to see a new generation of kids coming in to experience the same joys of older generations. People often come to Sweet Variations seeking a sweet ending after a fine meal at one of the nearby restaurants. “A bride and groom even came in one day to have their picture taken in front of the candy counter,” Carol laughed. Most come looking for one piece of candy – just one bite of rich and decadent chocolate! And for Carol, that is what makes all the hard work worthwhile – her happy customers. “Chocolate makes people smile,” she said. “They are always happy here.”
PHOTOS BY JENN HAWK