By Martha Bergland, photos by Peter DiAntoni.
Because he’s called the Chocolate Nazi and because I’d heard he won’t let anyone wearing fur into his store, I took the fake fur collar off my parka, just in case. Parking on Martin Luther King Drive south of North Avenue, I climbed over gray snow piles in the gutter. I’d never been to Northern Chocolate Co., but I’d climb higher snow piles than these to have those chocolates again.
The 1885 Cream City brick building is beautifully restored, its front windows replaced with blue panels bearing the Northern Chocolate logo – an otter eating a piece of chocolate. The iron gates were open but the door was locked. Next to the door was the sign barring fur-wearers. I took a deep breath and rang the buzzer.
I’d heard stories. I’d heard that he’d thrown people out of his store for things other than wearing fur. I’d heard that he was opinionated and intense – mean, even. I’d heard him called the Chocolate Nazi after the Soup Nazi on “Seinfeld” – the guy who had strict rules for the behavior of his customers.
The door opened. “Take your boots off and put them on the mat,” Jim Fetzer ordered. “I’m busy in back.” Brusque! Before I got a good look at him, he was back at work in the bigger and brighter workroom behind the store. I stood inside on the mat and peered through the glass in the heavy old doors dividing the store from the workroom. Fetzer was a tall, lean man in his late 40s or early 50s, wearing a plaid shirt and blue jeans. His voice was loud and intimidating, yet there was something else, too – a man playing his lines for humor.
I took my boots off and crouched down to place them carefully on the mat. When I stood, I inhaled the warm, rich, comforting smell of chocolate. How mean could a man be in this atmosphere?
In my stocking feet in the near-dark, I read the labels on the boxes and cellophane bags. Dark chocolate with apricots. Oh, jeez. Chocolate mint. I’ll have a box of those. Chocolate with walnuts and cherries. There was a beautifully sculpted Santa riding a Harley. I’d get that for my brother. For my sister, an angel. A chocolate angel.
I got a shopping basket. Dark chocolate-covered almonds. Those were for me. Another box of the mints. Those were for me too. And figs! Way down on the bottom shelf were chocolate-covered figs. The basket was getting heavy.
The front door buzzer rang. “Get that, will you!” Fetzer called from the back. I let in a man and a woman wearing cloth coats. “Take your shoes off,” I said, “and put them on the mat next to mine.” Again the buzzer rang. I let in three women, looked them over for fur, and told them to take their shoes off. The little store was filling up and the mat overflowed with boots and shoes.
Fetzer came in from the back, and the place was even more crowded with his voice and his presence. “Shop till you drop. No credit cards. No checks. Cash.”
Who is this guy? Storekeeper? Artist? Old-world chocolatier? Hippie burnout? Madman? Sitcom character? He’s well over 6-feet tall, lean and strong-looking, with angular features and sharp, light eyes. His movements are sure and quick. The customers lined up docilely. This was his world, no question about that.
The buzzer rang again. I let a guy in. A rich guy (you can just tell), even though he wasn’t wearing the leather jacket. The rich guy pushed his way through the crowd – I didn’t even get a chance to tell him to take his shoes off – before he started piling the 2-pound boxes of chocolate-covered mints into his arms. He had about 15 boxes and he took them to the counter. “Any discount for quantity?” the rich guy asked.
“Discount? Discount?” the Chocolate Nazi roared. “If you wanted this many, you should have ordered ahead. I’m going to charge you more for the boxes over a dozen!”
He charged the rich guy a dollar more each for the boxes over a dozen – all the while haranguing the suddenly chastened rich guy about how his inventory is off now and how the guy should get his act together. All of us shoeless ones were, of course, listening, and I saw one of the women sneak a couple of her boxes back onto the shelf.
The theater was almost as good as the chocolate.
This was before Christmas a few years ago. I knew the chocolate was good and worth all this trouble because of a dinner party for a visiting writer that I’d gone to a week before. There was good talk. Good food and drink. Then came dessert. Two platters – two platters! – of Northern Chocolate. One bite and I was in hog heaven. So was everyone else. The platters went around again and conversation just stopped. Among the women, there began this sort of moaning. The platters went round and round. The men tried to keep up an appearance of civility, but we women became more and more inarticulate and … carnal – though still vocal – in our appreciation. “Should we leave the room?” one of the men asked. “Leave you to … whatever this is?” I don’t think any of the women objected. “Pass the chocolate, please.”
I am only slightly embarrassed that I don’t remember who the Famous Writer was. I just remember the chocolate.
I had to find out more about this guy who makes this great product on his own with no employees, who makes more than 20,000 pounds of chocolates a year, and without advertising, without a Web site, sells them all over the world – Russia, China, Serbia.
I arrive exactly on time for my interview. I ring the buzzer and Jim Fetzer lets me in, but he continues to talk on the phone. I’m surprised to see he’s wearing a telephone headset. But of course, a person who works alone in a kitchen all day with his hands in chocolate still has to answer the phone. He motions me to come to the workroom and goes back to dipping the centers of his famous mint meltaways into a big saucepan of melted dark chocolate.
It’s a chocolate lover’s hot dream. Three big trays of mint chocolates changing from their glossy, melted state to satiny and perfect chocolates. And that vat of chocolate!
“I just don’t trust California,” he booms, still on the phone. I look around the workroom. Lovely antique cocoa tins next to an old statue of the Infant of Prague. A nearly life-sized archangel – Michael or Gabriel – with an electric light in his hand guarding an industrial-looking chocolate melter. Shelf after shelf of pewter-colored antique chocolate molds.
Fetzer works on a stainless steel table. Another table with a bicycle propped against it is piled with supplies. Behind me is his CD player and next to it his Buddy Holly, his Beatles, his Creedence.
Finally, when he’s off the phone, I ask if, when he was a kid, he thought he would be in business for himself. “No!” he says, emphatically. He says everything emphatically. “I thought I was going to change the world. I thought I was going to be Jesus Christ. I thought I was going to be St. Michael slaying dragons.”
He was prepared to slay dragons with a degree in social welfare and political science from UW-Whitewater. Or he was going to go to law school. “But I was sick of being poor.” He had put himself through Whitewater working in a biology lab and a foundry, but he had debts. His mom, afraid he’d move home and live with her and her new husband, gave him a graduation present: the key to an apartment for which she’d paid the security deposit and a month’s rent. And she got him a job interview at Ambrosia Chocolate Company. This was 1974. Fetzer had a choice between working at Wisconsin Bell for $2.85 an hour and Ambrosia Chocolates for $2.95 an hour. He took the big money, and then worked at Ambrosia for more than 18 years.
“Even then, they didn’t want to hire me because I looked so weird. OK, are you ready for this? I show up for a job interview with a long braid down to my ass. I’m wearing blue jeans and a World War II surplus army jacket I got at Goodwill – to a job interview!”
I asked if he learned his craft or art from anyone at Ambrosia. I had this idea of an old German chocolate craftsman passing on ancient secrets. “God, no! I had a boss that told me how to work with chocolate, but once I started, I just fell in love with it. And I didn’t just do it on the job. I actually came home and I started fartin’ around on my kitchen table. Every night I’d come home and my friends would say, ‘Can you make me this, can you make me that?’ And then I would try to figure out how to make something. How to make this, how to make that. Blah blah blah.” So much for The Romance of Chocolate.
“So you didn’t know until Ambrosia that you had a chocolate calling?”
“Yes, I did. I actually did. But it’s a long story that you wouldn’t want to believe. It gets to be a little bit spiritual, and in today’s world of political correctness, the audience out there that reads your magazine might find it a little bit too hard to swallow, so I’m not going to go there.” He’s coy all of a sudden, and I can’t tell if he’s kidding or distrusts me.
He hesitates, but the story will come out. “See, actually, this whole thing, this whole Northern Chocolate thing is, I’ve been directed here by God. It was written in the stars and the hand of God led me here.”
In silence, three more mints are dipped in their bath of chocolate. “I don’t go to church but I have faith.” I don’t know what to say, so I let the hand of God take over.
Fetzer leans back on his stool. I look around, but there’s no place to sit in the workshop, so I stand there, listening, but also mesmerized as he deftly dips, one at a time, the mint centers into that gorgeous, distracting pot of melted dark chocolate.
“Let me tell you a story,” he says. His eyes and voice warm as he launches the story, his hands dipping, dipping, dipping. “I went to a Catholic grade school and we used to sell as fundraisers the World’s Finest Chocolate bars. We’d have a contest to see who could sell the most. The first year we sold them, I came in second place.”
The next year Fetzer was 12. It was November 1963, the weekend after Kennedy’s assassination. “Here I am, this little Catholic kid, and all these Catholic people are sitting home glued to their TVs, watching the assassination things on Kennedy.” So Fetzer figured he would go to the Catholic neighborhoods. “And I represented myself as little Jimmy Fetzer from St. Therese selling candy bars to support our little Catholic grade school.” Every door he knocked on was answered by a crying person. He sold a zillion and that year he came in first place. “I took the money I won, 10 or 15 dollars, and I went to a festival at St. Joseph’s Convent and I bought a St. Joseph Missal, a daily missal.” He looks up. I’m supposed to pay special attention to the St. Joseph’s part.
Fetzer picks up the story and the dipping fork. He jumps ahead to 1991, the year he started Northern Chocolate. He tells about his grandmother who was living in St. Anne’s Home for the Elderly at 92nd and Lisbon. Before Northern, while he was still making chocolates for his friends on his kitchen table, he would drop off leftover bunnies for the nuns at St. Anne’s. “So anyways, Sister Sarah Marie would always say, ‘We want to do something for you nice.’ But I would always say ‘No, no, no, just take care of my grandma. That’s all I give a shit about.’ ”
He tells me about the nuns at St. Anne’s and gestures with the fancy dipping fork. “These were nuns when nuns were really nuns! Their mission was, if you were elderly and you didn’t have a pot to piss in, they took care of you.” The chocolate’s so thick, nothing drips off the fork as he waves it in the air.
“To make a long story short…” Fetzer says, and breezes through the details. He told Sister Sarah Marie that he would be quitting Ambrosia soon and opening his own business. She told him that she and the other nuns would pray for his success. “I’m like, that’s cool. You pray for me.”
There are about five mint centers left to dip, including two little broken pieces that I had my eye on. I’d probably watched a thousand mint meltaways get born and baptized.
I lean forward and take a closer look at the fancy tool he’s using. It’s a regular fork with the two center tines bent up toward the handle.
“That’s just a fork!” I interrupt him.
There’s a little paranoid flash when he thinks I’ve discovered a trade secret, but then he laughs. He decides he likes it that I noticed. “You could go out and buy a $16 dipping fork. Or you could make your own. This dipping fork is courtesy of Purple Heart. A nickel. Stainless steel. Perfectly meets the codes.” Here is a true son of Milwaukee: cheap, ingenious, adheres to the codes.
The pan of melted chocolate is nearly empty. Fetzer goes to his stash of boxes of chocolate and opens one, then carries it to the chocolate melter next to the archangel. He’s still talking. “It was a Wednesday and my grand opening was that Friday. Sister Sarah Marie said, ‘We have a present for you,’ so I send my mom to pick up this present.”
He gets a hammer – not a special chocolate hammer, but a regular stainless-steel claw hammer – and he starts busting up the big blocks of chocolate and putting the pieces into the heavy melter, which has a stirrer that goes round and round.
When the chocolate is all in the melter, he continues on about his present from Sister Sarah Marie. “Now you have to understand, when I sold chocolate bars in ’63 at St. Joseph’s convent, I bought the St. Joseph Daily Missal. So what does this nun give me? A statue of frickin’ St. Joseph.”
“Frickin’ St. Joseph,” I repeat, using his toned–down derivative of the F-word. I think, this guy is indelibly Catholic and indelibly profane.
“When I opened this business, it ate up every penny I had – to get the license, to get the building, and to get everything going. I was in the red $1,170. My grand opening was that Friday. OK, now. That Friday, for my grand opening, how much money do you think I made?”
I take a guess: “Eleven hundred and seventy dollars?”
He nods. “Eleven hundred and seventy dollars!” we say in unison.
“So I got this thing going on with St. Joseph, this Catholic voodoo thing,” Fetzer continues in a quieter tone. “And a couple of years later, I find this huge statue of St. Joseph. I figure if that little plastic one does all this for me, what’s that honkin’ huge statue gonna do!? Well, there he is.”
And he points up to the top of a glass-fronted cupboard. Big St. Joseph, holding Baby Jesus, stands next to an old carved clock, under old framed chocolate advertisements. Little St. Joseph stands at the end of a line of chocolate molds in the shapes of Santas, clowns and gnomes. “And I tell you,” Fetzer says, “if anyone dares go near my little statue, I’ll break their arms.”
He puts an empty chocolate pan under the spigot of the chocolate melter and turns it on. I think I see the archangel look over his shoulder into the pot. I’m in some parallel chocolate-Catholic universe.
He sees me looking at the statue. “That’s Gabriel,” he says. “The Archangel Gabriel. He’s from Omaha. St. Michael in the other room came from Indianapolis. Friends find these for me. Remember that guy that was going around a few years ago stealing statues from churches? Well, you don’t have to steal statues. They’re not that pricey.”
Suddenly he turns. “I gotta go out and get a cigarette,” he says. I had no idea he smoked. There’s no smell of cigarettes in the shop. “Watch that pan and turn the spigot off when it gets full.” The fox is in charge of the chicken house, but me and Gabriel from Omaha keep our hands to ourselves.
“About these mint meltaways…” I say when he comes back, and I’m ready to ask for a sample. But he wants to tell me how he started making them. All his stories start way back. This is a man with a strong and detailed love of history.
When Jim Fetzer was a kid in Milwaukee, he thought rich people went to Gimbels, middle-class people went to Boston Store, and JC Penney was for working-class people, which is what he says his family was. “So for me to walk
into Gimbels was like crossing the socio-economic bridge of life.”
Every week, young Jimmy would get on the No. 10 bus and go Downtown to Gimbels’ candy counter and ask for a dime’s worth of the Charle-Monte mint meltaways. “Which was basically one or two. But I was there every Saturday and the woman behind the counter would always give me a little bag with four or five.” Then he would go outside and sit on the steps of Gimbels – “the rich people’s steps”– and eat his gourmet chocolates. So the Chocolate Nazi’s taste for fine chocolate and his hostility toward the rich were both formed on the steps of long-lost Gimbels.
But then Charle-Monte went out of business and, “Jim’s favorite mint meltaways were history.”
We flash ahead to Thanksgiving Day 1977. Fetzer had been working at product development at Ambrosia Chocolates for four years, so he knew how to formulate chocolates. He was living on North Franklin Place in a building he owned. He got up, shoveled the snow, then went over to 1812 Overture on Brady Street to buy himself a new record – The Pretender by Jackson Browne. He has this kind of memory for detail and facts. Or else he’s making it all up, which I somehow doubt. Fetzer goes home and listens to the record and, “I’m smoking a doobie,” he says. “I’m not going to lie, I used to smoke my share of drugs.”
Then, rather than spend Thanksgiving alone, he goes over to the Oriental Theatre, where he sees The Wizard of Oz is playing.
But before he goes to the movie, he stops at Oriental Drugs to buy himself some candy because he’s too tight to pay the theater prices. “And I look in the candy display case and they have these mint meltaways made by a company whose name I’m not going to mention here.” He buys a mint meltaway bar and a Kit Kat and a package of M&M’s Peanut.
He saved the mint meltaway for last, but after a couple of bites, he spit it out on the floor. “I couldn’t believe somebody would try to sell crap like this! It was so gross, like eating wax.” But he saved the wrapper.
“So I’m walking home, I’m looking back at my life, and I’m thinking, with my knowledge, there’s no reason I can’t re-create the mint meltaways of my past.” He gets home, he’s reading the wrapper, and he’s trying to figure out how the thing is made. He’s got all the ingredients in his kitchen, so he starts in, telling himself he wasn’t going to bed until he figured it out.
“So I’m playing my new Jackson Browne album, and I come up with the inside … and before midnight that night I completely replicated the Charle-Monte Mint Meltaways on my very first try!” I wonder if St. Joseph has a hand in this, but I don’t ask.
That Thanksgiving night, Fetzer made 5 pounds of mint meltaways. And he ate a couple himself because he was amazed at how good they were. “So the next day my buddy Stevie comes by. … Stevie is in my kitchen and I have these things sitting in my kitchen in a Tupperware. And Steve calls out, ‘Do you mind if I have one your candies here?’ So I says to him, ‘Sure! Try as many as you want.’
“When I come out of the bathroom a half-hour later, the whole frickin’ 5-pound container is empty. Five pounds gone!”
“So he’s sittin’ there and he says to me, ‘You know, Jim, those were really fine. You gotta sell those things. You can make a million bucks.’ ”
“I said, ‘Stevie, do you really think they’re that good?’ ”
“He said, ‘I’ll be your first customer. Make me a batch.’ ”
So Fetzer made some more mint meltaways for Stevie. (He thinks he charged him $5 a pound, which was a lot in those days.) And then Stevie called in a few days and wanted some more. Then lots of people started calling him. “I’ve been making these damn things ever since.”
And what about his famous rules for his customers? They change, he says, and sometimes he doesn’t enforce them all, but there’s one that stays: “The fur thing. I’m really, really big on animal rights. That’s one of my political foundations I will never deviate from. I mean, I hate people who wear fur. I’m not a vegetarian. I’m not that fanatic. I’m not opposed to hunting if you use the entire animal, but if you raise an animal solely for its hide, I find that to be immoral.”
The pot of chocolate is empty and all the centers of the meltaways are dipped and drying on a rack. Jim’s getting tired. He must be. He’s been on his feet since early this morning. But he starts in on a rant about the presidential candidates. “I don’t believe in any of these people. You know what I believe in? I believe in my two little kitties. Ralphie and Baby Doll. You want to meet them?”
Sure I do. It turns out Fetzer lives over the store. He warns me about the cigarette smoke and takes me up some back stairs to a fairly neat single-guy pad furnished with antiques. Fetzer has a voice you could hear in West Allis if he raised it on King Drive. But to his long-haired cat Ralphie, he coos in baby talk, “Ralphie thinks I’m his cat. He doesn’t understand that he’s the pet.” And he points out the shyer Baby Doll, who has an incriminating black spot on her nose. “She’s too pretty for her own good. She’s the John Edwards of cats – you know, the $400 haircut thing?” He scratches their bellies and hands me one to hold, and pretty soon I’m talking baby talk to Ralphie too. “This is my politics,” Fetzer says, “Him and her. Ralphie and Baby Doll.”
We clatter back down the narrow cluttered stairs, and I ask about the future he sees for himself and Northern Chocolate. “Right now, there’s really nothing I can’t make, if I put my mind to it. The only thing that’s keeping me from making a lot of things is the fact that I just don’t want to do it.” Fetzer says that he might make new chocolates for his own use, but not for the store. “I’ll be 57 this year. People tell me I don’t look that old, but I am.” He doesn’t look that old. He looks strong and vigorous and seems energetic, even at the end of a long day.
He’s wiping off the stainless steel table, stacking up the empty trays. “I hope to hold out until Social Security. Right now my teeth are for crap, my neck is for crap, my left ankle’s been busted twice. My back is so out of whack it’s unbelievable. My willingness to deal with people gets very tried and tired at times.”
Fetzer is a very smart businessman who’s the opposite of ingratiating, a principled man who does not hide his principles. He’s an articulate and knowledgeable man with two cats for his politics and a large community of friends. He seems to live every moment as intensely as anyone I’ve ever met. He’s a man with a history and a future in this town – his town, Milwaukee. I can’t imagine he could have come from anywhere else.
“It’s about chasing after something that makes you happy. And what’s cool is that what makes me happy makes a lot of other people happy. At Christmas when I get done, I think about how many smiles I might have put on people’s faces when they open up a box and there’s my chocolates. How many people do my hands touch? How many kids on Easter Sunday get one of my Easter bunnies? When I die, people are going to miss me.”
He folds his arms. “I’m a complicated person,” he says. “I’m not a cartoon.”
I came in for the chocolates, and, frankly, for the cartoon character, the man Milwaukee calls the Chocolate Nazi. But that cartoon idea was created by us, his customers, television watchers, baby boomers who like to be scared now and then, and to get a little shiver of bravery when we walk out with our chocolate loot. That has more to do with us than with him.
You can’t know him after a day or a week, but you can know there’s a very complex person there. Even more so than his own description of himself: a German-American-Virgo-chocolate-craftsman.
“Do you mind being called the Chocolate Nazi?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “I don’t mind.” And he smiles. “I’ve made a lot of money off of that myth.”
Novelist Martha Bergland is the author of A Farm Under a Lake and Idle Curiosity. She lives in Glendale, Wis. Write to her at email@example.com.