On Wednesday afternoon Jim Fetzer was temporarily back in business, making sure chocolate fans got their fix this Easter holiday.
Affectionately dubbed the “Chocolate Nazi,” earlier this year the owner of Northern Chocolate slipped into what he now calls “semi-retirement,” a fact he doesn’t hesitate to remind shoppers as he arranges rows of chocolate bunnies and sheep on wired shelves, with hand-written signs indicating the price of each. Most are made from vintage molds. A glass jar labeled “Jim’s Pension Fund” rests next to the order counter, where customers pay for their chocolates.
He’ll be open Thursday, April 13 from 10:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. and Saturday, April 15 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
When Fetzer shuttered his North Martin Luther King Drive storefront (2036 N. Martin Luther King Dr.)—tucked into a gorgeous 1885 Cream City brick building— locals feared it was the end of an era that featured one of the city’s most cantankerous and witty vendors. Armed with 18 years of industry experience at Ambrosia Chocolate, he struck out on his own in 1991, with a wholesale arm and the storefront.
To many people, Fetzer was the stuff of legends, as revered as the “Soup Nazi” on the television comedy Seinfeld. In one episode, during the sixth season, the show’s characters grapple with the need to follow a strict ordering process if they want soup from a local restaurant. If they don’t, the owner retracts their order, crying out “No soup for you!”
This is what Anne Maedke—a frequent customer of Fetzer’s—learned each time she stepped into the storefront. One visit happened to coincide with a tour bus of people from the North Shore suburbs of Chicago. “Jim asked if I could stay (in the shop) to keep him from ‘getting himself in trouble.’ I suggested that he check people out without talking much and I would handle the questions as best I could,” says Maedke. But the next year he was back to playing the stodgy shop owner. “I got reprimanded for wiping my feet too long,” she says.
Fortunately, Maedke saw his soft spot, too. “I love his gentle handling of his chocolates. They are always wrapped carefully and he gives a warning about handling them gently. I was harshly educated when I mentioned putting chocolate in the refrigerator,” she says. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Another soft side of Fetzer are his cats, who he is always eager to talk about. “Today’s my cats’ 15th birthday. They’re going to get a lot of love tonight,” he said.
“I heard about his chocolate long before I managed a visit,” says Paul Akert, a retired nurse-turned-storyteller. “The stories were shared by other nurses when I was a public-health nurse for the city of Milwaukee in the early 1990s. What was clear to me was [that] less than fine behavior would have you leaving without chocolate.”
Fetzer’s propensity to demand nothing short of fine behavior from his customers never caused his business to suffer. Instead, it soared. Indeed, this week he barked at a man to “sit down right over there” while his wife shopped, causing the rest of the shoppers to erupt in nervous giggles. One woman stockpiled chocolates for her son who now lives in New Jersey.
Asked if he plans to be open again, he leaned across the counter and whispered, “You know something? I love Christmas.”