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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Erich Dietrich Crafts Fine Chocolates With An Expert Hand | Print |  E-mail

by Susan Dugan

For Erich Dietrich, Dietrich’s Chocolate & Espresso owner for 35 years, chocolate is not just a business.

ERICH DIETRICH HAS BEEN MAKING FINE CHOCOLATES FOR MORE THAN 50 YEARS. A visit to Dietrich’s shop is like stepping back in time to a more refined time and place where life wasn’t so rushed, and quality was valued by craftsman and customer alike. Photo: Paul Kashmann

It’s the taste of a simpler, more refined way of life first encountered in his native Bavaria, Germany, where he was literally schooled in its magic.

His future career apparently chose him. “In those days you went to school until age 14 and then you decided which way to go,” he says. “Higher education, which was really for more privileged people, or some kind of trade. Apprenticeships were very hard to get, so when you got something you grabbed hold of it. I was really lucky to get an apprenticeship with a chef that included baking, candy making: the whole range.”

And so, at an age when most American teens are just enrolling in high school, Dietrich moved to nearby Bromberg to immerse himself for the next three-and-a-half years in the art of crafting sweet confections for the master pastry chef of a regional hospital run by monks. “We had several wings and quite a sizeable mental hospital aligned with it. We lived in the back with the other apprentices and employees, and got up at one o’clock in the morning. I think one of the things we learned was discipline and business knowledge because you had to learn everything. There were 40 employees, a big store, a café. It was a big deal.”

At age 19, he relocated to Chicago and then enrolled in the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, where he earned a degree in business in 1976. He then secured a position with an old, German restaurant in Green Bay, where he further refined his business and culinary skills. “It was owned by an old German guy,” Dietrich says, brandishing black-and-white photos. “It was a really historic place with a bakery, candy store, restaurant, and six dining rooms that seated three hundred people at once. It was quite elegant – all cherry wood – you couldn’t afford to build a place like that today.”

Dietrich ended up running the business and then buying it, only to lose it to redevelopment. “That gave me a little bit of an introduction to American business –  and it was not really the best outcome. It was kind of a cultural shock to me personally because when you have such a historical place, to dismiss it as lightly as people did was a sad, sad affair.”

In 1978 he decided to move on to Denver, having become acquainted with the city while passing through to play college soccer against the Air Force Academy and Colorado College in Colorado Springs. “I really liked the climate here, and I said, if I ever get the chance to live here, I will. People don’t know how cold it can get in Green Bay and how much snow. So we bought a little place on Locust (St.) at Colfax, ran it for about a year, and then opened Dietrich’s Chocolates & Espresso on Colfax, where we stayed until we moved to this location (1734 E. Evans Ave., near the University of Denver) in 1991.”

The decision to move stemmed from security concerns. “One time it was like something out of movie scene. We had a liquor store next door and something like 30 cop cars came screaming in. I had four or five ladies in the store and the policeman came in and said you need to lock the doors and don’t come out until we tell you. And you know all those ladies got scared and word spreads quickly. It really started to damage the business. Where we are now, we have no complaints. It’s a lively neighborhood, which is good for business, and DU provides a lot of security; they almost have to.”

Stepping through the front door of the current location feels like stepping into a small storefront in old Europe, windows adorned with needlepoint curtains, shelves brimming with traditional Christmas decorations, a variety of tempting chocolates (handmade on the premises with help from longtime employees) nestled behind glass display cases, and a small café serving coffee, breakfast, and lunch. Despite the seemingly endless chaos of contemporary life outside, a palpably tranquil pace prevails within. Even at 3p.m., a couple of customers still linger over espressos, chatting with Dietrich and his wife, Christine.

“Our customers are like family. We have people who’ve been coming for breakfast for years. Some of the people who come now are third-generation. Of my first generation of customers from the Colfax store, I would say most of them are gone because some were already in their fifties or sixties. So now we have their grandkids coming, and a lot of them are in their thirties.”

Besides the unique atmosphere bolstered by the couple’s personal charm, what brings people in year after year is the chocolate, based on Dietrich’s old-school, German recipes. “We never try to cut corners. We stick with old, continental chocolate making and quality ingredients, and we really try to satisfy customers’ tastes. If we try something new and it works, we keep it. If not, we try something else. That’s the really great thing about having a small business where we’re not tied down by orders from above.”

In recent years, Dietrich has introduced several new chocolate varieties that have already become hits. “Last year I found a German spice I’d been looking for for many, many years called lebkuchen, that’s actually the name of a cookie baked in Germany around Christmas time, and put it in a truffle. It has mace, ginger, nutmeg, all those things, and has a holiday taste that goes good with clear wine, hot wine, any kind of wine. Our eggnog, candy cane, and citrus spice truffles are also very popular. And we just finished a new label for chocolate sauce (popular year-round) and are coming out with two more flavors – chili and orange – in 2014.”

But Dietrich fears it’s a dying art. “I remember a time when we had 15 candy stores here in Denver but there’s not that many left now. One of the drawbacks for this kind of business is the cost of rents. We couldn’t go downtown or to Cherry Creek. And so often people lose their leases. I’ve seen many, many businesses come and go. And I’m not sure what the future holds for the chocolate business. The cost of chocolate has gotten so high. We used to have people in the Colfax store pick out a box of chocolates every week for themselves. Now we still sell a lot of clusters to individuals but most of the boxes are for gifts.”

He also finds increasing local regulation frustrating. “It’s popular for everyone to say we want to help small business. But in 45 years I have never gotten help from the city. All we’ve gotten is more and more fees and regulations. It’s all about revenue raising. This is the direction everything is going and it’s not a good direction.”

In his spare time, Dietrich, who grew up playing soccer, still plays for the Kickers, a German-American soccer club. “We play the national tournament every summer all over. The teams’ ages keep rising and I’m amazed there is now a huge 60-to-65 category and a 65-to-70 category. It’s a social thing where you get to know people over 35, 40 years. We’ve had a lot of fun and Christine comes along. The last national tournament was in Escondido, Calif., and this year it’s in Virginia Beach, so we always make a vacation out of it.”

And despite the challenges, the store and café continue to thrive. “As long as people keep eating chocolate I don’t think we’re in any danger,” Dietrich says. “We’re really just focusing now on keeping this place up and enjoying every day, not going crazy about anything. Christine worked for Craig Hospital for 36 years as an occupational therapist and just retired. A lot of her patients still come here. You develop all these relationships over many, many years. We’re trying to turn it more into a kind of social club now. We only have so much energy left and we just want to sit down and chat with our customers, have a cup of coffee, and enjoy.”

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