Powell opened Shanhil Sweets just a couple of weeks ago in the developing Central Avenue business corridor to produce her unique brand of bonbons and confections. Part neighborhood candy store, part high-end confectionery, the pocket-sized shop holds an array of sweets, condiments, cakes, and bath and body products.
Bins of retro candies, such as Necco wafers, Zagnuts and BB Bats line the walls alongside selections of more recent concoctions, including Harry Potter Bertie Bot’s Every Flavor Beans and Cockroach Clusters. “Boy”-centric candies like green army men and Candy Blox (like Sweetarts, but shaped like Legos) were inspired by Powell’s inability to find party favors for her own son. A running candy “wish list” proclaims that customers want her to add Squirrel Nut Zippers and bubble gum cigars to the eclectic exhibit.
“The rule is that if two people come in and request it, it goes on the wish list. When the third person requests it, it gets ordered,” Powell said.
Cotton candy homemade by Powell’s husband, Hilton, hangs up high in colorful bags. Savannah Bee Company’s 100-percent organic lip balm, raw honey and honeycombs grace the corner next to JK Soul Salts’ fragrant, natural homemade body and bath salts.
Subway spokesman Jared Fogle’s worst nightmare is Powell, cheerfully offering samples of her artistic array to first-time shopgoers who, of course, leave with bags stuffed full. She also serves an array of hot chocolate and coffee products, including the increasingly hard-to-find “plain ol’ cup o’ joe.”
But her focus is on that deep, dark mystery that captivates us all, a mystery that Powell has long since solved. She has a master accreditation from Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver, B.C., a school for blossoming chocolatiers that only accepts six students annually. In other words, this is a woman not to be truffled with.
Her customers don’t plan to. Already a fan, Bill Rose is a diabetic who still cannot withstand the call of Powell’s Icoa white chocolate truffles.
“They’re almost better than sex,” he said.
Of course, we now know that modern women at a certain point in the lunar cycle might agree, but it’s the kind of sentiment that has been around for centuries. Residue found in an ancient pot suggests that Mayans were drinking “Xocoatl” 2,600 years ago. Once reserved for only the highest noblemen and clerics of the Mesoamerican world, chocolate is still acquired the way the historic people did: beans removed from the pod of the tropical cacao tree are fermented, roasted, ground and mixed with other ingredients.
This is the kind of chocolate in which Powell specializes. While other patisseries might serve European varieties, she keeps her stash close to their earthy beginnings with El Rey Venezuelan chocolates, the country in which many people think the best cocoa beans grow.
But that’s not necessarily the case. Like grapes used in winemaking, cocoa beans do exhibit regional flavor profiles. South American chocolate has a fruity tendency. West African chocolate — Ghana is a big producer — often has a smoky undertone. Indonesian chocolate falls in between.
Still, Powell follows the “single bean” method because, as with wine, balance is the key. And selecting a great crop of beans translates into a better brand of chocolate. But it’s not all about the ingredients. Due to its ubiquity, it might surprise some to learn that chocolate is surprisingly temperamental, relying on strict temperature and humidity levels. Ideally, the sweet basks in cool 59 to 63 degree temps with just 50 percent humidity. In the display cases at Shanhil Sweets, digital gauges keep careful track of the environment in which the desserts and patisseries are stored.
“These things can be intimidating when you don’t know what you’re eating,” Powell said, surveying the domed chocolates with piped-in filling, hand-rolled truffles stuffed with ganache and pastries that rival the displays in the most professional food magazines. “I have eaten lots of chocolates that look beautiful but taste yech.”
She already has fans in the neighboring business owners, including Cookie from the Central Avenue Beauty Salon, who sipped a cup of coffee in the cushioned rattan chairs that flank the front window.
“I’m getting a lot of people who are starting to come and just sit down and have coffee. That’s my vision, is to become a neighborhood establishment where kids can come and get candy and Cookie can come and get coffee,” Powell laughed.
“Oh, I tell everybody about you,” Cookie said.
And Powell hopes to inspire more such coordination between the business owners on Central Avenue by starting a cooperative arrangement between business owners from Monte Sano to Druid Park Avenue. Powell envisions an area similar to the Virginia-Highlands neighborhood in Atlanta, a mixed area of established residences dotted with retailers and eateries.
Local businesses line Central Avenue with everything from Sheehan’s Irish Pub to Kings Way Interiors Market to the day spa Rainforest Retreat, and Powell thinks that with the right collaboration, Augustans can be reminded to “shop it Central.” It’s an important step for the small-business owners who make up the majority of the establishments on the strip for one small reason that is a commonality among all small businesses in the U.S.
“Because none of us have marketing budgets,” Powell laughed.
That’s ok. Chocolates like these sell themselves.
2124 Central Ave., Augusta
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday