By Mike Nelson | Photos by Viktor Budnik
Need chocolate? Of course you do. But what kind?
You can wander through any supermarket or drugstore candy aisle and find plenty of mass-produced chocolate items — boxed, bagged and barred, some better than others. You can peruse a specialty candy store and find something maybe a little different, and maybe higher quality.
But at Ventura Harbor Village, you can stroll into Top This Chocolate, the world’s only customizable, make-it-on-the-spot chocolate store. There you can order whatever chocolate item you want: boxed, bagged or barred…and filled, coated or topped with anything sweet, salty and/or spicy, from fruits and nuts to pretzels and potato chips.
And have it created, wrapped, even personalized, and presented to you within eight minutes. Which is probably shorter than the time it will take for you to decide how you want your decadent delicacy created. And probably longer than the time it will take you to consume it.
Such is the appeal of chocolate, especially the highest-quality, 100 percent cocoa butter, non-GMO, fair trade-certified chocolate that Top This Chocolate founder-owner Shana Elson has offered since she opened her shop in the heart of Ventura Harbor Village four years ago.
“We offer something for everyone,” says Elson, a lawyer-turned-chocolatier with a deep desire to make people happy. And how better to do that than through chocolate?
“A new and different experience”
Admittedly, first-time customers entering the brightly lit store are generally surprised to find it dominated not by displays of pre-packaged goods (though there are some), but by neatly organized containers of gooey chocolate and tempting add-ins.
“We’re here to create something special for each person who walks in the door,” Elson says. “And it’s a new and different experience for many people, which means we sometimes need to walk them through our process. But that’s okay because, after all, they’re at the harbor, which means they’re in a leisurely frame of mind and not in a rush.”
The process involves selecting the desired chocolate (milk, dark, white), ingredients (there are dozens to choose from), shape (e.g., bars, squares, hearts) and name or specialized message to include.
“Just selecting the ingredients can take longer than eight minutes,” laughs Elson. “We have everything from sugary to sugar-free, from Oreos to Gummy Bears, and all kinds of fruits and nuts.”
Once the selection process is complete, the creation process begins. Then the desired item is wrapped and delivered to its eager recipient.
“The best part of my day,” Elson says, “is seeing how happy people are when they get their customized chocolate and start enjoying it.”
From THE bar to bars
Neither Elson nor anyone in her family had any sort of entrepreneurial experience, restaurant or otherwise. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she attended Washington University in St. Louis and law school in Los Angeles. After passing the bar (law, not chocolate), she worked as a business and real estate lawyer for a few years.
“But I was feeling very unfulfilled in my law career,” she says, “and I was really jealous of people I knew who were running a business. I knew I wanted to reboot my career somehow, so I went to USC Marshall School of Business and got my MBA.”
By this time Elson was an avid pastry baker, had taken classes in chocolate making and was hoping to open a bakery or dessert shop. “Forget it,” she was told. “There’s already a lot of good ones out there. You have to offer something really unique and innovative.”
Determined to create “something beautiful and delicious,” Elson began producing her custom chocolate bars — adorned with coconut, banana chips, spicy mango and more — from her Los Angeles apartment, while working part-time in law to help pay bills.
“I knew I wanted a bricks-and-mortar store,” she says, “but when I figured out how many chocolate bars I’d need to sell per day, per week, per month to afford rent in L.A., the numbers didn’t make sense.”
But she’d been to Ventura, “and I loved it. And I’d never heard of Ventura Harbor Village, but that’s where I found the right space.”
Aided by a $25,000 first-prize award in the Women’s New Venture Pitch Competition, Elson opened Top This Chocolate at the Ventura Harbor in late 2019. She soon drew a steady stream of patrons enticed by the novelty of ordering (and devouring) one-of-a-kind chocolate treats. In addition to her customizable bars, Elson sells dipped Oreos, chocolate pops, her own version of peanut butter cups, hot chocolate bombs and chocolates in a variety of fun shapes — mermaid tails are popular year round, and Top This Chocolate makes sure every season and holiday has its own adorable, edible mascots. Right now, for example, chocolate Stars of David, ornaments, candy canes, wreaths and trees are available.
Five months after the shop opened, the 2020 pandemic struck. Businesses everywhere suffered. But not Elson’s.
“It was only rough for a few months,” she says. “By the first summer, Harbor Village was booming, because people were anxious to get outside. And here I was in an outdoor mall, with outdoor restaurants and boat rentals and family activities all around, and half of L.A. trying to get out of L.A., wanting something to do on a road trip. And our store offered them something fun and different. So it turned out well for us — our best year, in fact.”
Although the pandemic has subsided, Top This Chocolate hasn’t done nearly as well in recent years. “Foot traffic in the Harbor Village has slowed down,” notes Elson. “But we’re doing okay. I’ve proved that customized chocolate bars is a winning formula, and if there is foot traffic, I’ll do well.”
An avowed Ventura lover who enjoys jogging, hiking and the local music scene, Elson plans to offer franchises to help grow the business, and hopes to establish another location locally.
“It doesn’t mean I’m leaving the harbor, though,” she adds. “The potential is still there.”
So is her focus on offering something different. “What See’s and other candy stores offer is great,” she says, “but there is room for all of us. And I don’t need or want to duplicate what others do. I’m trying to add innovation to the chocolate market.”
Which is what keeps customers coming back and new customers coming in.
“I want more people to know about this,” Elson says enthusiastically, “because once people find out that we offer something unique and delicious, they’re excited. And that makes me excited. To see people of all ages enjoying the chocolate we produce is the best feeling in the world.”
Top This Chocolate
11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday-Friday
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday
Ventura Harbor Village
1559 Spinnaker Drive, Suite 109, Ventura