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Chocolate continues to top the list of gifts for Valentine’s Day

Dwight Barnes makes Valentine’s Day treats Friday in the kitchen of Mr. B Chocolates in Willmar. Barnes, 82, and semi-retired, founded Mr. B Chocolates a quarter-century ago. He often offers a helping hand during the store’s most active season. This week Mr. B will have a large collection of treats available for those seeking a Valentine’s Day gift for their loved ones. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — Romance is in the air at Mr. B Chocolates, and it smells like fine European chocolate.

Workers at the family-owned shop have been busy for days, making hundreds of hand-crafted Belgian-style chocolates to meet the demand this week for Valentine’s Day.

“It’s that special thing you give,” manager Mary Reishus said.

The National Retail Federation predicts Americans will spend a collective $18.6 billion this year on flowers, candy, jewelry and other tokens of love for their sweethearts.

Candy is by far the most popular way to say “I love you” on Valentine’s Day. According to the Retail Federation’s annual Valentine spending survey, about half of gift-givers plan to buy candy this year, spending a total of $1.6 billion.

About one-third will say it with flowers. One in five will buy jewelry, about 15 percent are buying clothing and 15 percent plan to give a gift card.

This week promises to be extra-busy at Mr. B, which moved last fall into a new location on the north end of the Westside Liquors building, at East Highway 12 and Lakeland Drive.

Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas for customer demand, Reishus said.

Even Dwight Barnes, 82, who founded Mr. B Chocolatier a quarter-century ago, comes out of semi-retirement to help with the store’s most active season and to help train new employees. The business is now owned by his daughter and son-in-law, Kathy and Steve Hanson. Reishus, who manages the retail store, is also a daughter.

Barnes was hard at work one afternoon last week, hand-dipping dozens of truffles and placing them on trays, one at a time, for the chocolate coating to set.

The truffles are one of the shop’s best-selling chocolates and are made via a three-step process that takes about three days from start to finish, he said. “There’s quite a few steps in all the candy.”

Shelves in the retail store were lined with an assortment of Valentine’s Day sweets — lifelike chocolate roses on stems, chocolate hearts drizzled with streaks of white chocolate, and cupcakes topped with ganache and handmade edible decorations.

The heart-shaped boxes made of chocolate and filled with individual candies are fashioned from special molds shipped from Europe, Reishus said. “That’s something you’re not going to find everywhere. We’re the only place that has those.”

The shop in fact is one of a kind, not only in Minnesota but in the U.S., she said.

More than 65 different chocolate confections are made at the Mr. B kitchen in Willmar. When people ask Reishus how many pounds of imported high-quality Swiss and Belgian chocolate go into the creation of the store’s chocolates, she tells them, “It’s a lot.”

The hand-shaped chocolates enclose delectable fillings such as raspberry cream, coffee cream or brandy cherries. Some of the chocolates are so fragile that they can’t tolerate shipping and can only be purchased at the retail store.

Reishus said the family has been branching out with cupcakes, cakes and their latest product, wafer-thin chocolate cookies that sandwich a filling of chocolate mousse or pineapple cream and are dipped in a final coating of chocolate.

“That’s something brand new,” she said.

Mr. B’s relocation four months ago to the Westside Liquors building has proved to be a good move, Reishus said. There’s ample parking for customers, and the new site has allowed the store to stay open more hours, she said. “We’re loving the area. It’s a lot busier for us.”

It also has opened the door to another romantic pairing: wine and chocolate.

“A great marriage” is how Steve Wright, owner of Westside Liquors, puts it.

With the right match, wine and chocolate are made for each other, he and Reishus said. With both stores next door to each other, customers can be referred back and forth to find the combination they’re looking for, they said.

“They know exactly what to pair it with,” Reishus said of the Westside Liquors staff.

The liquor store carries about 20 different types of wine that pair well with chocolate, Wright said. He’s making plans to add some interior windows so customers can see into the chocolate store and watch the chocolatiers ply their craft in the kitchen. Plans also are in the works to develop a small restaurant with a menu highlighting the wine and chocolate that are the specialty of each store.

The week “should be fantastic,” Wright said of the anticipated Valentine’s Day volume. “This has been a home run for us.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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