Bob and Kristie Thomas don’t do retirement very well – and that’s a lucky thing for chocolate lovers.
Bob is a retired commercial pilot, where he spent 43 years flying for airlines including Eastern, Southwest, Saudi Arabian Airlines and most recently Copa. Kristie retired from owning her own travel agency for 13 years and before that she had managed travel agencies. A decade ago, they decided they would open a chocolate-making business and shop in the Florida Keys. This road to sweet success was paved with hard work and continuous learning.
Key Largo Chocolates opened in 2010, during the depths of the “Great Recession.”
“We are kind of proud that we could start a business in a down economy. We were able to employ a few people and gently and slightly build when things were difficult,” said Bob, about their Florida Keys small business.
Kristie, the creative part of this duo, took courses in cake making and chocolate making, and they opened Key Largo Chocolates in an abandoned restaurant, after much cleanup. “But we quickly found out all we really needed was electrical outlets and water — we didn’t need a kitchen,” said Bob. “It was quite a learning process that first year, and by the way, we are still learning,”
In 2012 they moved to their current location at 100470 Overseas Highway, better known as Mile Marker 100½ bayside.
“And here we are,” said Bob. “We have had a great deal of support from the community and from friends. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Today Key Largo Chocolates & Ice Cream sells 40 varieties of truffles in dark, milk and white chocolates. It sells ganache, bark and other hand-made candies in fun Florida names like Flamingo Drops and Gator Paws. “Kristi is the artist in all of this,” said Bob.
Walk into their shop and it’s a celebration of the tropics. You’ll likely find key lime chocolate covered pretzels, key lime pistachio bark, key lime ice cream and frozen key lime pie dipped in key lime chocolate. Perhaps you fancy coconut rum dark truffles or sea salt dark and milk caramels? “We do a truffle in mango, a ganache in orange, a mango ice cream and a mango sorbet. We sell a Florida Keys candy bar – we do what we can to promote the area,” Kristie said.
Yet, starting a labor-intensive business in your “retirement years” isn’t easy, even though plenty do it. The Thomases poured their hard-earned retirement savings into it, bought expensive machinery and invested everything back into the business for the first couple of years. By the third year, they began to find their footing and a couple years after that they began making a decent living off the business.
Still, the long hours and 7-day weeks take their toll. Fortunately, one of Kristi’s daughters has moved down to the Keys with her family and is planning to learn the business and take on some of the management responsibilities.
“It’s fun, I enjoy it, we have a great staff and we love the customers,” said Kristie. “Of course we are losing money on the grandkids eating ice cream. It’s an ice cream eating contest every time they are here — we love it,” added Bob.
They bought a $31,000 ice cream machine and make their own blends, using ingredients from Italy, and ice cream is their biggest part of their business. But the chocolates are still a hit with locals and tourists, alike, Bob said. “We’ve had Swiss, Belgians, Italians, French raving about our chocolates here. We’ve been really pleased with the feedback.”
Key Largo Chocolates does the turn-down services for local hotels – Ocean Reef, Playa Largo, Courtyard, Island Bay and Bakers Cay among them. The business ramps up to 19 or 20 employees during the busiest times. “We hire a lot of local high school students. When we get busy, they get more hours and it’s all good,” said Kris.
In 2017, along came Hurricane Irma, walloping the Florida Keys and their business pretty hard. Key Largo Chocolates & Ice Cream sustained some flooding and roof and structural damage, and with the loss of electricity the Thomases lost thousands of dollars in ice cream ingredients and chocolates.
In talking to the SBA about disaster assistance, the Thomases learned about the Florida SBDC Network, small business development centers that offer free consulting to small businesses in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties. The couple began working with SBDC at FIU consultant Margie Smith, who is based in the Keys, about help with a disaster loan and other assistance. “She has been a godsend, she is so knowledgeable and gives us good guidance,” Bob said.
The Thomases applied for and received a $50,000 bridge loan to pay back in 6 months. “It was a huge help to us, it got us through. We were very pleased how efficient the process was and everyone we worked with,” said Kristie.
Since then, the Thomases have continued to consult Smith and the SBDC at FIU team on various management issues and have attended some presentations.
“Margie is always coming up with things like cybersecurity that small businesses need,” Kristie said. “The SBDC has a good program out now on cybersecurity, we are going to learn about that next.”
The Thomases are very involved with the community. They are members of three Chambers of Commerce and two Rotary Clubs, and they do a lot to give back, supporting multiple schools and donating to many events. Every Thursday, they pick up food from Winn-Dixie in their refrigerated truck and take it to the local food bank.
John and Kristie are always looking for ways to freshen the business, as regular customers like to see new things. The shop recently added specialty coffees.
“Keeping customers coming back and finding new customers, new ways [to market], new products, those are the hurdles we face all the time,” said Kristie. “We are always trying to look at how we can improve that sale.”