All about the…Love

The Finest Chocolates … and So Much More

Norman Love Oozes Artistry and Generosity

by Yvette Schultz Bone

Artistry in Chocolate is associated with Norman Love, but the artistry that flows from him is so much more than the word can convey. His sheer genius, creative vision, and standard of excellence is not born from a hard-driven desire to dominate the confection world. Instead, Norman’s constant pursuit of creative collaboration and expression is the essence of who he is. You experience it when one of his ultra-premium, handmade chocolates melts in your mouth; you also experience it in conversation with him.

When you listen to Norman talk about his career, you understand why he is so successful. His words are eloquent, purposeful, and flow smoothly like a chocolate fountain. Better yet, his thoughts are offered with the same kind calibration needed to construct a four-foot-tall chocolate sculpture. After a few minutes of conversation, I was no longer looking at the man Norman Love; I was mesmerized by his creative mind, which relentlessly seeks expression. You know you’re in the presence of a true artisan when you watch them at work and witness the wonder it evokes in them. That’s art. That’s awe. And that’s Norman Love.

From an early age, Norman knew his destiny. He had an incredible love for art, and when he got his hands on a Betty Crocker Cookbook in the second grade he learned that he could express his creativity through culinary arts. Norman’s first job was working at an ice cream shop in Fort Lauderdale, which he said is the perfect job for any teenager. From there he went to work as an apprentice pastry cook at a restaurant in Pompano Beach, making bread rolls at 4 a.m. In 1983, Norman traveled to the south of France to work for a couple of years for a friend who owned a pastry shop in Lussan. After returning to the U.S., he worked at hotels in the Miami Beach area, then moved to California where he was the executive pastry chef for the Beverly Hills Hotel.

In 1990, Norman joined the Ritz Carlton company and moved his family to Missouri. Shortly after the move, an opportunity came up for him to come to Southwest Florida as the pastry chef of the Ritz Carlton Naples, one of the company’s flagship hotels.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to come to Southwest Florida at that time, but being that I was really embedded and enjoying the philosophical values, the quality and the reputation of the Ritz Carlton brand, it gave me an opportunity to come to one of their more prestigious hotels. So I took advantage of that,” Norman said.

When Norman and his wife Mary moved to Southwest Florida, their two children, Ryan and Carly, were two years old and one month old. The Ritz Carlton was in a very aggressive growth spurt and Norman was approached by corporate to help the company open hotels. He agreed. That led to him traveling some 40+ weeks a year, and eventually opening 38 hotels around the world.

“I was a stranger somewhat in my own home. I could be gone for two months in the Middle East, come home for a week and leave for Barcelona for a month. I was not home for long periods of time, so with small children – the church recitals, school plays, sporting events – they were all missed by dad,” Norman reflects. “It was just a fact that dad was never home and my wife was a single parent for all practical purposes.”

In 1999, Norman had the opportunity to captain the United States World Cup Pastry Team in Léon France, competing against 22 countries. The team prepared for 18 months to work in a makeshift kitchen for a nine-hour period in front of some of the world’s best pastry chefs, who were serving as the judges.

“It was very much like a European soccer stadium: flags, air horns, chants, thousands of people, cameras in your face…” he said of the competition.

Norman’s team went on to win the bronze medal. When they returned to the U.S., Norman and a good friend shared a vision on the heels of that contest: create an international pastry competition in America. They grew that vision into reality and the first competition took place in Beaver Creek, CO. By year two, the cable TV Food Network was invited to come…and they did.

“It was the warmest day in the history of the Farmers’ Almanac,” Norman recalled. “It had snowed previous years, but it was a disaster. And what TV Food Network learned that day through the crashing of these beautiful sculptures is that American consumers love to watch pastry chefs in makeshift kitchens doing art and doing their thing.”

The competition moved to Las Vegas and became the biggest and most talked about competition in the world. The show gained tremendous traction and TV Food Network’s ratings were off the chart. The company commissioned Norman and his partner to do a show called “The Challenge,” which was on the air for a long time, and the reason Norman left his career with the Ritz Carlton.

With a new life in the production world, Love admits he was very nervous about leaving his corporate job, “probably the best corporate pastry chef job in the world,” and setting up shop in a 600-square-foot rented office space in a little home health care building off Daniels Parkway. Worried about supplementing his income, Norman purchased a table and got to work creating.

“I was always known as the chocolate chef, and confections were something I had learned during the course of my long career as a pastry chef, so I began to make chocolates and with a clear – very clear – vision of handmade ultra premium.”

Utilizing his contacts from his years in the business, Norman began driving his confections up and down I-75, delivering and selling them to friends in hotels. By the next year, two weeks before Valentine’s Day, USA Today named Norman’s confections (then sold by the name Ganaché Chocolates) one of the ten best premium chocolates.

Soon after, Norman was approached by Godiva to develop their “G” line of chocolates. Creating 350,000 pieces for Godiva the first year, Love continued to dabble under the radar, making his own chocolates and even opening his first chocolate salon on Daniels. Eventually, he built Godiva up to 2.5 million pieces distributed worldwide. Not able to grow his own company with that kind of production, Love peeled back manufacturing Godiva and eventually stopped in 2008.

In 2010, Norman opened the chocolate salon in Naples, followed by Artisan Gelato in 2012. Artisan Gelato is a separate brand under the Norman Love umbrella, located a few doors down from the Daniels chocolate salon.

“I am an ice cream lover – it’s my weakness of sweets,” he explains. “I wanted to produce a really high quality gelato where all the ingredients (except the dairy) were imported from Italy.”

Since opening, Artisan Gelato has evolved into offering a lunch menu of fresh paninis, salads, soups and savory crepes.

The next store to open was in Miromar Outlets in 2014. But it is his most recently opened location on McGregor Boulevard that currently has him beaming. “It’s our largest, and for me, our most beautiful store. It’s crazy beautiful.”

The McGregor salon, with its Euro-sheik all-Italian design and equipment and furnishings, has outdoor seating and is the first Love location to offer wine and beer. Love’s intent with this location is to offer some really fun and additional offerings visitors don’t ordinarily find at his other stores.

“What I’m trying to create is a little bit challenging because no one expects us to have wine and beer. The manufacturing, the growing, the agricultural aspects of cocoa are very similar as it relates to wine and grapes; mother nature influences the flavor profiles of wine as it does in cocoa,” Love says. “The two work well together and I like having this new environment where people can sit down and relax not just for coffee and a croissant, but now for some really wonderful single origin dark chocolates paired with a merlot or wonderful cabernet.”

After the holidays, which are notably the stores’ busiest time of the year, he hopes to bring in a pastry chef to create some “swinging, cool, innovative architecturally plated desserts.” He wants locals to grow to know the McGregor location as an evening destination suited to finishing out a night on the town, or perhaps a place to hang with friends or colleagues to enjoy conversation or a brainstorming session. One thing you can expect for certain is the location’s menu of offerings will grow. A high English tea and Sunday brunch are planned. Chocolate and wine pairing classes will make the calendar, and possibly classes on some of the artisanal beers they carry.

With the continued expansion and success of Norman’s business, the company now employees 85 people. Two of those employees are the Love’s children: The oldest, Ryan, first went to college at UCF for engineering, but got the food and beverage bug when he worked a part-time job at the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando. He changed his focus, graduated from the UCF Rosen College with a degree in hospitality management, came home to work with his dad for three years, and then went to pastry school in Chicago. He has been back working at Norman Love ever since.

The Love’s daughter, Carly, works in the office and is a marketing wiz, according to her dad. Carly is pursuing a degree in nursing, wants to continue on to become a nurse practitioner, and is expecting her first child – a little girl – this month.

“Her name is going to be Lincoln and she’s obviously a game changer. My wife is over the moon and back, and then over the moon and back again,” sings Love. “And I am way too young to be a grandfather…I can’t figure out how this happened,” he laughs. “It’s the next step of life, and I’m sure she (Lincoln) will have me wrapped around her finger in no time.”

Norman doesn’t take for granted the blessing it is to have his children working alongside him. He admits going through a lot of struggle to build back, give back and pay back all the time sacrificed in his personal life for years of accelerated growth in his business.

“I’m a big believer that sacrifice is important in order to gain what you want. I’ve learned through experience that tireless effort and sacrifice is a big part of life…and fortunately that’s a life lesson my kids gained from watching me. So for my children, they know nothing in life comes easy and it requires hard work, commitment, tireless effort and sacrifice.”

While Norman knows the cost of his years of sacrifice, he is quick to acknowledge the real reason his family has stayed close over the years: his wife.

“The true credit is deserving to Mary, because Norman was never here,” he speaks in third-person. “He was a rock star, out gallivanting…first-class, limousines, the big suites, people catering everywhere. It was a rock star life. But it was my wife who was here being a mother, raising children and doing everything I wasn’t doing.”

Mary was a dental assistant prior to running the admin of the company, and Love marvels at how incredibly smart she is and the many hats she is able to wear.

“She has an eye for the things I don’t. I have an attention to detail as it relates to art, but she has an attention to detail as it relates to all the things I can’t concentrate on because my mind is always whirling.”

That is what keeps Norman continually focused on vision casting, collaborating with his accomplished culinary team, and creating newness that pushes the company forward. It’s a push that serves his soul’s need for expression as well as a push to constantly improve for his customers and his community.

“There are days Mary and I will put in too many hours, like 18 to 20, and we will go home and plop on the couch and not want to talk to any one. And yet, we will still be shocked and say to each other, ‘Can you believe how many people came to the store today? How can there be that many people in Fort Myers?’ We have these conversations where we are kind of pinching each other asking, ‘What did we do, what did we create?’ It’s so overwhelming and humbling and surreal. These are true feelings we really have, and we are so proud of our community.”

The Loves believe giving back is the responsibility of a small business owner. Their contributions of time and resources to charities like the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the Ronald McDonald House, Golisano Children’s Hospital and the Fort Myers Food and Wine Fest, are frequent. Love’s favorite memories of service are being a Wish Grantor with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and serving meals at the Salvation Army.

“We have been blessed with the ability to give generously. We are who we are because of this community that has supported us so strongly since the very beginning. To have the means today, giving back isn’t an obligation anymore; we are just so happy we have the ability to do it.”

 

LOVE FUN FACTS:

What is your favorite thing to do with chocolate?

“Make people happy. At the end of the day, people eat chocolate because they just love to eat chocolate. I still love to eat chocolate. If there’s a piece in my way, I am going to put it in my mouth.

White, Milk or Dark?

“Probably milk, especially if it’s paired with caramel.”

What do you love the most about interacting with your local customers?

“Ah, that’s the best part. It’s instant pacification, instant gratification as a chef to interact with the customers and hear their comments, both good and bad.”

What do you think readers would be surprised to know about you?

“I’m a really private person. And I’m a crazy avid Pittsburgh Penguin’s fan. That’s why my dog’s name is Sid.”

With the last name Love, clearly you were made for chocolate. Tell us more:

“People tell me that. Love is part German and Polish.”

What is the most proud moment of your career?

“There are a number, but the number one would be spending three days in Julia Child’s home filming for a PBS television series called Baking with Julia.”

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