Before Bayla Sussman began making chocolates and became the owner of Baylee’s Best Chocolates in West Village she was an actress, a marketing research analyst, and even did events marketing for the lottery for eight years.
But while she was playing the witch in a Hansel and Gretel play she was injured. During the play, when the witch is put into the oven, Sussman was trapped in the oven and asphyxiated with carbon dioxide.
“It took rehab,” Sussman said. “During that time one of the things that happened was that I had burns and I had double vision. My voice was weird, I had problems reading, but I could still cook and bake. And cook and bake I did. That’s when I started making my brownies, which have been dubbed better than sex brownies.”
Then Sussman became even more interested in chocolate and her husband Mike always asked her to make goody bags for his co-workers. At one point she was making up to 25 goody bags.
She then began playing with confections and before she knew it was serving her chocolates for Gwenda Kellett’s receptions and open houses at Plantagenet Rose.
“Gwenda said, ‘Now you are going to have to make these so I can sell them.’ She nagged and cajoled for about five months. Then in September she had another reception so I got my business license and got my kitchen inspected and started. And she stopped bugging me,” Sussman said.
Sussman is from Chicago and moved to the Roanoke area about 14 years ago. Although she has been making chocolate for a long time in her home, she decided to open a store for several reasons.
“One is, in your home you are not legally permitted to have anyone help you. That’s an awful lot of hours to work by yourself. Two, working from your home you lack a certain amount of credibility. In this area, I’m sometimes fighting a perception that if it comes from here, then it’s not as good as if it had come from New York or Los Angeles. That has been kind of a strange and kind of hurtful experience.”
“The most fun of it now is coming up with the recipes,” she said. “I do try to keep up with the trends and flavors. However, that is tempered by what I perceive to be the taste of the area. Because taste will vary.”
Sussman and her four of her part-time employees now make truffles, caramels, toffees, pops, Gimme S’mores, fruits and coffee complements. She calls her employees her “informal marketing panel” because she bounces ideas off of them. Many of her recipes have developed over time from various experiences in her life. She came up with the The Mayan.
“I have family in Guatemala, so hence The Mayan. I had to work on that. That one is my own recipe,” she said. “And my brother married a woman from Thailand, where I got Thai Lime. I read all the trades, I read in the papers, I go to the candy show, and so far people have been really nice about sharing information.”
Sussman says her work is never done- always a work in progess.
“While I know I’ll never reach perfection, I’m going to try,” she said. “I go for a particular mouth feel. I want people to be able to bite in, get a little bit of the crack, and feel the ooze. That is part of mouth feel.”
But making chocolate is never easy. Many of her employees have been very suprised at the amount of work that goes into making chocolate, each who have been trained by Sussman herself.
“Anyone who works for me, I want them to taste. I want them to know what they are dealing with. I want them to be able to look a customer in the eye and say this i really good and I know it.”
Long before Sussman decided to open up a shop, she was making chocolates in her home. And it hasn’t been a quick process.
“I think my business has grown more slowly and will continue to grow slowly because I rely on word of mouth. I want people in this area, if they go visit somewhere else to want to take it and say we’ve got something good in our valley. And part of it is civic pride, part of it is marketing, because some of those people go to the website and order.”
And that they do. Sussman has received orders from out of the area, like New York. One man called on Skype from Israel and wanted to send chocolates to his friend who was training with GE for his birthday. But the neatest, she said, was when a serviceman called from Iraq and wanted chocolates sent to his wife. And Sussman delivered them in person.
Sussman gets a lot of pleasure when she makes up a reciple and when people taste it they say, ‘oh, that’s good’ or just by the look on their face. And she doesn’t have a favorite chocolate she makes, either.
“I wouldn’t sell it if I didn’t like it,” she said. “For me, this is a creative outlet. It’s also become – of all things- a social outlet. You learn all the time, if you let yourself. I’m not ready to ossify, I don’t retire well. I could be collecting my pension now and I am at an age where a lot of my friends are retired. But I’m not ready, I guess.”
You may visit Baylee’s Best Chocolates in West Village located off Route 419 or online at www.bayleesbest.com.
“I certainly want people to come in and try them. But don’t save them. I don’t use preservatives. I do want people to know they they have an artisan chocolatier now.”